At Fluent we’re making more and more mobile sites. Writing for mobile – whether apps, mobile only sites or websites optimised for the small screen – is a challenge. Space is limited. The user interface is different. Most of the time, users don’t want to read.
This is how we’ve been facing the challenge so far.
Don’t write anything unless absolutely necessary
The main rule about writing for mobile is that you shouldn’t. Mobile users are task-focused and short on patience, and their screens small. They don’t want words getting in the way of what they are trying to achieve. Reading is harder on a mobile phone.
George Orwell’s dictum, ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out,’ has rarely been more appropriate. Look for as many ways as possible to avoid using words altogether.
- Avoid context-setting words such as welcome messages and unnecessary subheadings. People will work it out.
- Always ask if there is a shorter phrase or word than the one you’ve written.
- Write links that are simply the nouns: ‘Desktop site’ instead of ‘Read on desktop website’.
- Write microcopy for forms as a watermark in the text boxes instead of outside them.
- Shun repetition. You might think you’re driving the point home, but on a small screen it feels like an annoying waste of space.
- Show don’t tell – use symbols and visual cues to replace verbal instructions.
Focus on a single task
The key with mobile design is to deliver what the user is trying to do, and nothing else. The temptation, especially if you already have a full desktop website, is to add other content to the page: internal adverts, disclaimers, company information. But on a mobile screen, this doesn’t work. It distracts and confuses.
Present only the core service, supported by only the core words.
Jakob Nielsen calls this deferring secondary content (he makes it sound like a military procedure – yes sir!). If further content is necessary, put it on other pages. But keep each page about one thing.
For example, on the Checkatrade front page you can check out a tradesperson that you have heard of, or search for a tradesperson in your area. For their mobile site, we reduced it to only the second task. The first task is on its own page, linked to from further down the front page.
Notice how for mobile the section has no subheading, the microcopy is reduced and watermarked in the text box, and the location geocoded to reduce user typing.
People don’t read on mobile, except for when they do
Of course, people still read on their phones. I couldn’t survive my kids’ swimming lessons without a stack of articles to read via Readability. When people want to read, they will. But when they’re looking for a restaurant contact number, film times or an emergency electrician, that’s when words can get in the way.
Nielsen identifies a paradox of mobile users: they want to kill time but not waste it. They are in a rush to get to what they want, even if they will spend time on it when they get there. For reading, there is a distinction between reading to accomplish a task versus reading as the task itself.
When we write copy for mobile sites, we need to know the difference. We need to shut up until people want us to talk.
Tone doesn’t have to be informal
Some people say that mobile copy should be less formal in tone. Not necessarily. An informal tone may take up less space by using ‘you’ll’ instead of ‘you will’, but a more formal tone can omit the ‘howdy’s and ‘awesome’s.
It’s up to the client how they want to come across. The big change from their desktop site is not in register but in utility – people just want to get the job done. Trying to appear super-friendly-cool might be just as annoying as formally explaining what the company believes.
On one mobile site that we made recently we added a little copy back to the front page, linking to the main site, so that users would realise it was not an isolated app but the tip of a large iceberg. The page was still task focused, but encouraged visiting the full site later for additional services.
Pay attention to the breaks
On a small screen we need to be extra sensitive about the layout of words, working closely with the designer to keep it tidy. The difference between two lines or three on a mobile screen is significant.
So mop up the widows and orphans, choose small words for buttons and distil strap lines and marketing copy into their shortest possible form. Where copy is going to be truncated, for example in a list of headlines, make sure that you know how many characters will be displayed, and front load with meaningful words accordingly.
Learn the new user interface
Text links are hard to select on a smartphone, even more so if they are close together. Copy should not be peppered with links, nor crucial to the navigation.
Navigational links need not necessarily be text anyway, as whole areas can be made into touch targets. This is an example of the differences between desktop and mobile user interfaces.
As a writer, you will not necessarily be creating the UI. But you should be working with those who are. You are less likely to use a contact page than a phone now button. Location can be geocoded. Principle navigation needs to be obvious – a few, consistent large targets at the top of the page.
When writing for a mobile site collaboration with developers and designers is more important than ever. Reading back though what I’m learning about writing for mobile, I can’t help thinking that most desktop websites would benefit from this advice too.