Trends in Technical Communication: Mobile-Accessible Documentation

In a recent post at TheSearchAgents blog, Mary Hayes highlights the growing importance of mobile devices, which according to AdAge Global are “poised to become the most ubiquitous media device in history.” AdAge Global reports that worldwide, mobile usage far outweighs that of the PC:

PC vs. mobile penetration rates for China are (20% vs. 57%); India (4% vs. 41%); Brazil (32% vs. 86%); and Indonesia (5% vs. 66%).

By Christmas 2011, Nielsen has estimated 1 in 2 Americans will have a smartphone.

Despite these trends, blogger Chris Brogan aptly observes in his Future of Media series that “the way we create media right now is still primarily as if we’re imagining a laptop.”

Understanding Mobile Users

In the Difference Between Mobile Search and Desktop Search, Dhrub Raag explains that “users accessing the Internet via desktop PCs or laptops are in a totally different mindset from their mobile counterparts,” with PC users “spending large chunks of time in a fixed location,” possibly spending hours searching and researching.”

Mobile users, on the other hand, are on the go, with a specific task to accomplish, usually in transit.

Mobile users “snack” on the Internet in small browsing sessions, and generally access the web, when they need a quick answer.

Implications for Technical Communicators

In his recent alertbox, Mobile Content Is Twice as Difficult, Jakob Nielsen recommends that for optimal usability, “websites (and intranets) must design a separate mobile version.” (Mitch Joel explores similar themes in Do You Need a Mobile Version of Your Website?)

Extending Nielsen’s findings about mobile content to technical communication, it would make sense that we must similarly repurpose our desktop user assistance for mobile users.

QR Codes: The Future of Technical Communication?

As part of a single-sourcing solution with multiple outputs (including PDF, WebHelp, and WebHelp Mobile), help-authoring tool MadCap Flare 7.0 already offers a Mobile format.

What’s more, Madcap Flare has expanded its leadership in mobile-accessible documentation, with support for creating and publishing Quick Response (QR) codes in printed documents.

Mobile devices can scan the QR Codes to access searchable, interactive content on the Web, including product usage information (see 10 Ways to Use QR Codes).

Repurposing User Assistance for Mobile Delivery

Most importantly, repurposing desktop content means keeping in mind what Mary Hayes calls the 15 Second Rule:

Mobile users want to find, not search. Determine what you want the user to do, then ask, “Can they do it in 15 seconds?” “Chances are, if they can’t, you’ve lost them for good.”

Streamlining content for the mobile platform will not only accommodate mobile users’ most immediate task requirements, it will also mean faster page load speeds.

…but Jakob Nielsen’s findings suggest to me that repurposing content for mobile users, involves a lot more than simply developing quick reference versions of our user assistance, in a mobile format.

Instead, repurposing desktop content for the mobile web will require technical writers to think even more than we currently do today about information types (Concept, Task, and Reference),  delivering the right type of information, via the media that best support that kind of content. Level of detail and scope, as well as how our efforts complement other content disciplines will take on increasing importance.

We’ll also need to start developing mobile-accessible documentation in a high-context communication style, which contrasts to the more low-context style, which has traditionally defined technical writing deliverables, especially in the US.

Another important consideration will be incorporating links back to the web versions of our user assistance or corporate web sites, for additionl context, as well as where to embed QR codes in the user assistance, which can possibly complement broader corporate objectives, as part of a comprehensive content strategy.

Getting Started: Audience Analysis for Mobile Users

When formulating a mobile strategy, Hayes suggests considering Action, Context, Location, and Mood, as part of our user personas. Though Hayes was writing about marketing content, I believe the same questions apply to user assistance, delivered via the mobile web, or otherwise:

  • Action – what does your audience want to achieve?
  • Context – what is specific to their situation?
  • Location – where are they?
  • Mood – how are they feeling? (This point ties in especially well with Trends in Technical Communication: Affective User Assistance.)

Your Thoughts?

Has your documentation group used Madcap Flare’s WebHelp Mobile format? Do you have any additional tips on how to customize user assistance for a mobile audience? Can structured authoring achieve some of the same ends?

What ways can QR codes enhance the product documentation?

Finally, how can our collective organizations help technical communicators better understand our customers, especially the context in which they use our products? And how can technical communicators continue to learn more about their customers, on their own? (see Analyzing Audience Without Direct Access to Customers).

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