Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing for applications accessed through mobile phones and touch-screen-enabled devices

As mobile phones and other handheld devices start offering exciting technologies and tools to users, the way information is accessed too varies. Mobiles are no more used for only calling - they are used for accessing email, playing games, sending text and multimedia messages, transacting on bank websites, shopping online, and social networking. Tablets such as the iPad from Apple, Galaxy from Samsung, Streak from Dell, Slate from HP, are trying to combine the best of the laptop and smartphone worlds while reading devices like the Kindle from Amazon offer a new reading experience.
Meanwhile, touch screens have become common on mobile phones and other devices.

 Technical writers are in for an interesting phase as writing for such users offers newer challenges. Some observations:
  • The devices are all small meant to be used anywhere. So any content has to be primarily for online purposes (no one will want to lug a printer on the bus :)) 
  • User attention spans are shorter
  • Smaller devices although convenient in terms of access are not great for doing "work"
  • Users find it difficult to read when the pages scroll too much or when there are too many pages to jump through 
  • Users will probably do other things - like attending a call in between tasks 
  • Users might want to share information and would look to post content to websites and friends
Therefore, if users need help or information, they will think of the user guide as a last option. The information in user help has to be crisp and to the point. This requires a lot of planning. The TOC should be for example very high level as smartphones are not great for navigation back and forth across screens. Procedures have to be real short. If the user requires more information, provide a link to that. But watch out - too many links make it tough to navigate. Avoid images as a rule.
  
Navigation gets complex as you need to deal with both touch and standard screens. Screens are smaller or larger and any content has to look fine both vertically and horizontally. The next advance would be double sided mobiles! The terminology you use to describe anything has to be spot on. Tap or Touch? Touch or Select? Tap or Type? Enter or Type? Slide or Drag? Standard key pad or inbuilt? Expand or Enlarge? Popup or Window? Window or Screen? Hold or press? And I have not listed click at all. These are key questions.

The scenario is even more complicated as each device has its own operating system, user interface, icons, navigations methods, and standards.

Currently, Madcap Flare supports Mobile Help output (similar to Webhelp) while RoboHelp provides Mobile output through an eReader.
Flare's output is supposed to work across browsers and multiplatforms - in Blackberry, iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile (not yet Tablets?). But developers in my project cringed when I said the output would have some JavaScript as Android does not support it. Blackberry too has some image display issues.

So before you plan a user guide or online help for Mobile devices, get your information plan crystal clear.

 Another critical aspect is that users will "search" for information by typing in keywords. Other navigation aids such as TOCs and index won't be so useful.
Therefore, plan your content in such a way that search will yield the desired results.
Flash and heavy graphics may not work well - so user experience designers had better look at HTML and other technologies.
By design these mobile devices will test anyone's patience. These devices are positioned for those on the go - students, working professionals, and fun lovers. Thus, such users will be impatient when they are seeking information.
More on this coming up...

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