Times have changed! Most grandparents hardly struggle with cell phones today. Parents are active members of social networking sites and at times, share friends with us. Domestic help asks for a phone reminder to get bread, next morning. Well, life without mobile phones is history!
Long gone are days when a mobile phone was used only as a phone. Every mobile phone today offers more than just that, whether it is sending or receiving e-mails, reading, being in constant touch with friends through social networking sites or simply maintaining a to-do list. Everything in today’s world is in real-time, whether it is getting to know the cricket score or that your friend has lost his wallet! The world is literally in our hands and the picture below aptly describes this transition.
In the past, the built-in features of the mobile phone were the selling factors for consumers. However, smartphone operating systems now offer the ability to run third-party applications enabling users to load their handsets with varied applications, tailored to their personal needs.
A recent study showed that thirty-six percent of U.S. mobile consumers now have smartphones. The advent of smartphones has brought about a whole new segment of mobile device development and usage. Manufacturers focus on the structure and look of the device and the applications available, to enhance the usability of the device and help in greater user adoption. iPhone’s launch of the 3.5 inch display area started a revolution. However, many years later, the trend changed to a larger display area and “Apple has been credited for being the major force behind many recent design changes”. Ross Rubin, Executive Director of industry analysis for NPD Group mentioned, “Apple’s iPhone addressed many of the form factor issues that had prevented users from easily performing tasks, such as using their phones to surf the Web…”
Mobile World: Possibilities of Assistance
User assistance has an important role to play in smartphones. Preparing documentation in the form of online help, embedded help (tooltips and interface text), and dedicated help pages for the mobile phone are just a few of the new age opportunities for technical writers.
In addition to creating documentation, writers can also contribute their expertise in other areas of mobile app development. They can use their technical writing experience to suggest intuitive names for the interface elements, such as button names or menu names. They can also test the applications being developed for the smartphones from an end user’s perspective.
Although the mobile industry has opened up new avenues for writers, there are a number of challenges still to be overcome.
People use mobile phones for multiple purposes: accessing e-mails, finding directions, sending text and multimedia messages, recording videos, capturing images, downloading various applications, making online transactions, playing games, social networking, reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and of course talking. All this can be done using one small device anywhere — a crowded bus, a subway train, a low-lit room — to name only a few. So what are the challenges faced by a writer?
- Small screen size
- Low attention span of user
- Unwillingness of the user to scroll too much or to read lengthy pages only to find information on how to perform a particular task
In addition to the above points, each device has its own operating system, user interface, icons, navigation methods, and standards. Moreover, smartphones are getting smarter and more advanced each day, so the writer must keep abreast of all the new advancements.
The challenge therefore lies in grabbing the attention of the users and in providing them optimal information that would make their life easier. So, the task of the writer is to plan far ahead, stay in tune with the ever-changing mobile application world, and design and develop content for users keeping in mind all these points.
Readiness to Create
With the advent of the smartphone era, new avenues have opened up for technical communicators. It is a field with numerous challenges in uncharted waters. Most writers are accustomed to writing for medium to large applications that require extensive documentation. But in the case of a smart mobile, the screen space is limited and the GUI is much more intuitive. So, the first question a writer must ask is “How much documentation does a smartphone need?”
The key to writing mobile documentation is to convey adequate information in as short and simple a style as possible. To do that effectively, the writer must be able to:
Understand the Smartphone Interface
Some smartphones are touch-based; others use the QWERTY keypad, whilst many boast of both (inbuilt and standard keypad). Each mobile application on a smartphone serves a unique function with different navigation and complexity. The first and foremost task of the writer is to understand the smartphone interface and the working of the various mobile applications on the smartphone.
Understand the Target Audience
The smartphone audience is active and web-savvy. They often use the mobile phone as an “on the go” pocket-sized computer. They require the most relevant information within a few seconds. The skills of a writer involve gathering fundamental or key information for such an audience and avoiding verbosity.
Design a Template
While creating the style sheet, a writer needs to keep in mind the limited display space of the mobile interface. The writer must appropriately define the stylistic elements, for example, font type, font size, font color, and spacing; to achieve little or no scrolling.
Develop a Table of Contents
The Table of Contents (TOC) is an essential garment of any documentation. In a smartphone, it is sometimes difficult to navigate back and forth across screens. The TOC should therefore be succinct and easy to maneuver.
Devise New Terminology
A technical writer must develop appropriate terminology that would suit the mobile user’s temperament. The terminology used to describe a task on a mobile must be spot on, depending on the type of smartphone: touch-based, QWERTY, or both.
Some of the major conflicts in terms of verbiage that a writer needs to resolve are:
- Tap or Touch?
- Touch or Select?
- Tap or Type?
- Enter or Type?
- Slide or Drag?
- Expand or Enlarge?
- Window or Page or Screen?
- Hold or Press?
Write it Right
The writer must exercise expertise in writing, editing, and rewriting the content to make it short and comprehendible. Procedures have to be short and to the point and the content must be skillfully divided into meaningful sections. A major chunk of effort involves maintaining links to related sections or to additional information. However, too many links can make navigation difficult.
Create Minimalist Documentation
While writing content for a smartphone, the aim of a writer is to adopt a minimalist approach with optimal usage of words and phrases. Minimalist documentation does not imply providing less information; it denotes isolating relevant and important information and presenting it concisely through an appropriate template and language.
To achieve minimalism, the writer can:
- Use short and descriptive titles for the topics.
- Create micro-concise instructions for difficult concepts and provide links to more information.
- Avoid too many graphics as they are difficult to accommodate in a small screen.
Design Graphics that Fit
Using images can be a bit tricky so it is best to keep them to a minimum. However, while designing graphics, the writer must ensure that they fit the available screen space and are compatible with different screen display types: 1-bit, 2-bit, and full color. Large detailed images are best avoided as they might lose resolution and obstruct the main content. Black and white images with simple shapes and clean lines are appropriate and go well with all color schemes.
Develop an efficient “Search” system
Searching for information on a touch-based smartphone is not an easy job. One method of making information accessible is to create context-sensitive topics along with an exhaustive index. The writer must work with the developers to design a quick and effective search system.
Some Android phones offer means to maximize the search functionality by enabling users to download applications that “enable deeper searching”. Users can configure the tool to search for specific information. “Any application that you’ve installed that has searchable items (such as Twitter, eBay, and Amazon Kindle) can also be enabled from this screen.”
To search for information within the phone, users need to tap the Search option and select the relevant location on the search tool.
Google Gesture Search is another such tool which enables users to search for information with almost a single tap on the screen. Using the Settings window, users can configure which section needs to be searched.
Tools and Technologies
A number of tools can be used for creating documentation for mobile devices: Adobe RoboHelp 8.0 or above versions, Madcap Flare 6.0 or above versions, Author It, and FastHelp. (This whitepaper focuses on the use of Adobe RoboHelp 8.0 and Madcap Flare 6.0)
The help files and manuals can also be transferred through cloud storage. In other words, the files can be uploaded to the cloud and then accessed from mobile devices.
Adobe RoboHelp 8.0
RoboHelp 8.0 can be used to generate a help document for mobile devices by creating an electronic publication (ePub) output for single source content using Scripting Power. ePub files can be read on any mobile device such as, Android, iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry with an ePub reader. ePub can adjust the size of the text according to the size of the screen on which it is displayed.
The prerequisites for generating an ePub output using RoboHelp 8.0 are the ePub Generator Script and a 7zip executable (both of which can be downloaded). The script can be customized and imported to RoboHelp using the Script Explorer and an ePub output can then be generated and ported to the concerned mobile device. This output can be viewed using an eBook reader.
Madcap Flare 6.0
Madcap Flare 6.0 or above versions can generate a help output for the mobile through the WebHelp Mobile output target, see Output. The help output can be viewed from any mobile device with a micro browser.
To generate the help output for mobile using Madcap Flare 6.0, the writer will need to carry out the customary activities of creating a stylesheet, help topics, TOC, index, and skin. Madcap Flare has in-built mobile skins which makes skin definition easy. After organizing the content, the writer can validate the preview before generating the mobile output.
Traditional Help versus Mobile Help: A Comparison
This white paper discusses the characteristic style of writing a help topic for a typical web-based or desktop application versus a mobile application.
Figure 1 is a screenshot of a Microsoft help topic on adding content controls to a template:
Figure 2 is a preview of the mobile output of a help topic created using Madcap Flare 7.2. It describes the process of adding a contact on a touch-based smartphone.
Comparison between Traditional Help and Mobile Help:
The following table provides a comparison between the traditional help and the mobile help:
<Traditional Help Mobile Help
The overview is detailed. The overview is succinct.
Instructions are elaborate and content-intensive. Instructions are brief and to-the-point.
Topics are generally distinct from one another. Similar topics are clubbed to avoid repetition and redundancy.
The terminology is traditional and suited for the device on which the help will be viewed, for example, a PC or a laptop. A distinct terminology is coined to suit the audience and the device on which the help will be viewed, for example, Tap is used instead of Click.
The style and template are designed for a typical application viewed on a PC or a laptop. The styles and template are designed keeping in mind the small screen space of a smartphone.
Graphics are used wherever required. Graphics are kept to a minimum to avoid unnecessary scrolling.>
At one go, both traditional help and mobile help are similar and distinct from each other. Both extend the capabilities of a writer from a form, style, and content perspective. However, in case of a mobile help, the writer needs to move away from the tools, techniques, and mindset of an application-based help and “think inside the mobile device”.
Smartphones are quickly becoming a necessary possession thus making it equally essential for a technical writer to create effective documentation for such devices. Recent trends necessitate writers to come up with improved ways of creating documentation and assisting users to work with different evolving technologies effectively.
So, the next time your neighbor clicks the help link in a smartphone and finds the information useful, let’s hope you were the one who created it!
About the Authors
Monalisa Sen – With 5 years experience as a technical writer, she is currently part of the Cognizant Interactive department in Cognizant Technology Solutions. She has led a team of writers in multiple projects. She has experience working in different business domains such as Banking, Insurance, Hospitality, etc. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her interests include reading, watching movies, photography, and travelling.
Amrita Chakravarty — She is working as a Senior Content Specialist at the Cognizant Interactive department in Cognizant Technology Solutions. She has 4 and a half years of experience as a technical writer and has worked as a project lead in multiple projects. She is a Masters in English Literature from Jadavpur University at Kolkata. She loves reading books, watching classics and world movies, listening to music, and writing.