Neil James and Ginny Redish—Writing for the web and mobiles (PLAIN 2013)

Veteran plain language advocates Neil James and Ginny Redish shared some eye-opening statistics about web and mobile use at the PLAIN 2013 conference that may prompt some organizations to reprioritize how they deliver their content. In 2013, for example, there were 6.8 billion mobile phones in use—almost one for every person on the planet. Half of the users were using their mobiles to go online. In 2014, mobiles are expected to overtake PCs for Internet use. Surprisingly, however, 44% of Fortune 100 companies have no mobile site at all, and only 14% of consumers were happy their mobile experience. Mobile users are 67% more likely to purchase from a mobile-friendly site, and 79% will go elsewhere if the site is poor.

People don’t go to a website just to use the web, explained Redish. Every use of a website is to achieve a goal. When writing for the web, always consider

  • purpose: why is the content being created?
  • personas: who are the users?
  • conversations: what do users have to do to complete their task?

Always write to a persona, said Redish, and walk those personas through their conversations. Remember to repeat this exercise on mobile, too.

Consider the following areas when creating content:

  1. Audience
  2. Physical context
  3. Channels
  4. Navigation
  5. Page structure
  6. Design
  7. Expression

Words, noted the presenters, are only one element out of seven.

Some basic guidelines

Build everything for user needs

Again, think of who your users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Consider their characteristics when they use your site. Are they anxious? Relaxed? Aggressive? Reluctant? Keep those characteristics in mind when creating your content.

Consider the physical context

Mobiles are a different physical environment compared with a tablet or PC. The screens are smaller, and type and links on a typical website are too small to read comfortably. Maybe soon we’ll have sites with responsive design that change how content is wrapped depending on the device being used to read it, but for now,  creating a dedicated mobile version of a site may be the best way to ensure that all users have an optimal experience on your site regardless of the device they use.

Select the best channels

Smartphones, equipped with cameras, geolocators, accelerometers, and so on, are capable of a lot. We need to be creative and consider whether any of these functions could help us deliver content.

Simplify the navigation

Minimize the number of actions—clicks and swipes—that a user needs to do before they get to what they want. “People will tolerate scrolling if they’re confident they’ll get to what they want,” said James.

Prioritize the content on every page

Put the information users want at the top, and be aware that, for a given line length, a heading with more words will have smaller type, which can affect its perceived hierarchy.

Design for the small screen

Pay attention in particular to information in tables. Do users have to scroll to read the whole table? Do they need to see the whole table at once to get the information they need?

Cut every word you can

The amount of information you can put on a website might be seemingly infinite, but for mobile sites, it’s best to be as succinct as possible. Pare the content down to only what users would need.

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