Mobile technology and plain language – a match made in heaven
The rapid spread of mobile devices and the expansion of the plain language movement are two current trends that may intersect to improve human communication.
In fact, sometimes it seems as if mobile devices were invented to demonstrate the main principles of plain language.
We all know what mobile devices are (iPhone, iPad, Android, XOOM). But for those of you unfamiliar with plain language, a respected authority in the field, Professor Joseph Kimble, has defined plain language as “language that is clear and readily understandable to the intended reader.” (Note that there are other definitions described in an article by Dr. Annetta Cheek in the current issue of Clarity, an international plain language journal.)
Why should you care about plain language? First, there’s the baseline reason that plain language significantly improves human communication. And second, plain language is becoming a legal requirement for government, legal, and commercial documents in many countries throughout the world. For example, in the United States, Congress recently passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to write documents in plain language “that the public can understand and use.”
But what does plain language have to do with mobile devices? The answer is – everything. Basically, plain language facilitates easy comprehension of information, and this is particularly important for information displayed on small mobile devices.
Let’s consider some plain language principles to see how they directly affect mobile device content and design.
Keep text short and to the point
This is particularly important in the mobile format. Mobile users typically are on the go and looking for specific information. They have no patience to wade through unnecessary text. So it’s especially important to get to the point, eliminate unnecessary information, and avoid long sentences and paragraphs. Additionally, it’s difficult to read lengthy text on a mobile device. As a matter of fact, several companies (www.readitlater.com and www.instapaper.com) have developed apps that allow users to bookmark articles on mobile devices so they can be read later (online or offline) on larger devices.
Make sure users can find information quickly
Mobile users want to find information quickly, so it’s critical to anticipate what they want and put that information in a prominent position. Searching through many links for important information is difficult and annoying, partly because it takes time for pages to download. And when users need to search for specific information, if possible, avoid making them type in text; instead, provide drop-down menus, buttons, prepopulated lists, or checklists.
Simplify the design to support usability and content
Make sure your design is uncluttered so that users can scroll without difficulty. It’s best to avoid multiple panes with individual scrollable content. Further, you should eliminate rollovers, fly-out menus, etc., which don’t work on most mobile device browsers. Finally keep in mind that graphical links use valuable resources, so replace them with text links.
Make sure text is readable
When formatting for mobile, there’s a natural tendency to want to reduce font size – but this is a mistake because smaller text is even harder to read on small devices. Counterintuitively, it’s better (in most cases) to increase the font size so that text can be read without eyestrain. This advice applies to running text as well as graphical annotations. Even though a larger font size may make the text somewhat longer, mobile users typically expect some degree of scrolling.
To ensure legibility, it’s imperative to test your content on a variety of devices. And while you’re at it, be sure to check out spacing, line breaks, graphics positioning, etc. Unfortunately, various devices and/or browsers may render content differently.
Use graphics judiciously
The limited real estate on mobile devices means you need to carefully consider the number and size of your graphics. Besides taking up precious space, graphics take longer to download. So be sure to include only those graphics that significantly contribute to your content.
The bottom line
By applying these and other plain language principles to mobile device content and design, you can ensure that your mobile site or app will be easy to read and understand.
Here are a few sites you can visit for more information on plain language:
Or, if you’d like to know more about the use of plain language in mobile content development contact
©2011, TechWRITE, Inc.