Mobile First Content in Practice

Last time, we looked at two tools that are handy for those writing for mobile: the WCAG 2.0 and reading comprehension scores. We saw how and why they’re useful to mobile writers.

In this post, we’ll look more closely at the issues you’re likely to face as you strive to make your content more comprehensible to mobile users with the help of these scores. We’ll do that by considering a couple of text-heavy mobile apps.

A Balancing Act

As we saw last time, the Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level calculate the comprehensibility of text on the basis of a handful of factors:

  • Sentence length
  • Word length
  • Syllable count

But, depending on the content, writers have to balance other factors, too:

  • Content purpose and context
  • Communications objectives
  • Tone of voice
  • Audience expectations and assumed knowledge
  • Brand language

As you’d expect, there’s no handy formula for balancing these considerations. Throw in the fact that we’re talking about mobile users, who are reading text in varying physical and psychological contexts, and the mobile writers’ work is cut out for them.

Reading Scores in Practice

When it comes to making content that’s comprehensible to mobile users, traditional writing techniques can seem to clash with the objectives of the reading score calculations.

Sentence Length and Syllable Count

In reducing sentence length, many writers end up lengthening words. More syllables per word reduces comprehensibility of text.

The best bet here is usually to break already-edited sentences up, rather than trying to say more with less.

Brand- or Topic-specific Language

The requirements of brand managers can be challenging to integrate into prose, especially when you’re trying to reduce sentence length. Recently I worked for a financial services firm whose product names average about four words in length, but are often longer. These kinds of product names increase a sentence’s word count, syllable count, and overall length.

The solution in this case may be to lobby the marketing team to relax branding requirements within body text. Alternatively, you might resign yourself to using the full name once at the start of each page, and referring to “us” and “we” (or “it” and other generic synonyms for a product) thereafter.

SEO Keywords

Much web writing needs to include keywords for SEO purposes, but a requirement to include longer, polysyllabic keywords can reduce comprehensibility.

So far, my workaround for this problem has been to include the longer keyword variants less often than the shorter ones wherever possible.

Page Titles and Link Length

The WACG guidelines specify that page titles should be descriptive and links should be meaningful. To do that, you’ll often use more words, which will lengthen sentences.

Longer text link can make for a more tappable on-screen area for users, which, again, helps to make the content usable (and I say that as a blunt-fingered phone user). But it can impact reading scores for the worse.

My solution is usually to include the full link text, but shorten the sentence in which it appears. This can make it more challenging—but not impossible—to provide link context.

Beware: Reducing Meaning

Massaging language and sentences into shorter, more readable, comprehensible chunks can reduce actual clarity, and I think this is probably the biggest concern of those who are anti-reading ease.

If you need to talk about, for example, “socially responsible investing” or “turbo-charged performance outboard motors”, how effectively can you substitute common, low-syllable-count verbage for these topic-specific terms?

There’s no clear answer—that’s where the writer’s talent comes into the picture—but the answer may require the writer to get perilously close to changing meaning. Those changes can be very subtle, and they vary with the context.

Consider, too, the context of the user. What makes sense at a glance? What successfully tells the story in an instant? These are the questions that mobile writers need to answer with every sentence they make.

Let’s look at a couple of apps and see how these ideas play out in practice.

Example App: Goings On

Goings On is a very cool, very text-rich events app from The New Yorker. If you’ve ever used this publication, you’ll know that it’s not targeted toward eighth-grade-educated people: The New Yorker is an intellect-fest targeting highly educated, high-income-earning individuals living in and around New York.

The way The New Yorker puts things is central to its branding and positioning. Language and expression are key to its approach to its audience, and its engagement with them. But how does that heady, highfalutin’ branding translate to what is, essentially, a functional phone application?

Leaving aside the app’s interaction usability (which I love), let’s look at a listing for a performance by Amon Tobin:

The Brazilian electronic-music composer Amon Tobin, whose work has graced major motion pictures such as “The Italian Job,” has repeatedly defied convention and genre over the course of his sixteen-year career with compositions based largely on manipulating existing sounds. He continues his exploration on this year’s “ISAM,” a sprawling electronic collection that goes beyond typical sample-based fare.

This blurb is supported by the venue location, times and dates, and a map. So the facts are covered.

But the text is difficult to understand: the Flesch Reading Ease Score is just 8.4, while the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 12.0.

Practically speaking, I read this blurb on the platform waiting for my train, and lost my way at “has repeatedly”. By the end of that sentence, I was all “Wait, what? He what now? He .. who?” I had to start all over again—which meant going right back to the start of that 39-word sentence (39!) and telling myself, “Concentrate, concentrate…” as the train screamed down the rails toward me.

The New Yorker uses the same text on its site as it presents in the app, but it’s far easier to follow on my monitor in the comfort of my office. Let’s take a swing at making this content easier to read:

Amon Tobin’s 16 years in electronic music have seen him defy convention and genre. His latest work, “ISAM,” continues that theme. This sprawling collection goes far beyond typical sample-based fare. But that’s almost expected of this Brazilian artist, who’s created soundscapes for major films such as “The Italian Job.”

The Flesch Reading Ease of this blurb is 50.3; its grade Level is 9.3. Easier to read? Yes. Do these edits undermine the brand integrity? You tell me.

Example App: New Scientist

Functional content like that presented in Goings On is one thing. But what about article content? Special-interest publications target specific audiences and tend to use a lot of topic-specific words which, as we’ve seen, can hinder comprehension.

New Scientist is a case in point. Like The New Yorker, it’s a publication renowned for its expression, but in this case clarity is key.

That said, this publication faces a number of challenges in creating mobile-friendly content. First, science writers can’t exactly avoid using scientific terms. Topic-specific language is unavoidable here.

Second, this content is replicated on the New Scientist website as well as in its print publication. The need for this content to be appropriate to mobile and fixed electronic media, as well as print, flies directly in the fact of typical web writing convention—that web and print deserve separate, individual attention.

As media and publishing companies move to centralize and leverage their content assets at low cost, this trend is growing. So whether we like it or not, writers will likely need to go with this particular flow.

Thirdly, we need to consider the use case. Users of this content are more likely to be using the app for pleasure than because they need pertinent information immediately (as in the case of Goings On). Perhaps this content is all about distraction – filling in time on the commute, for example. That might give us some creative leeway, but not much. The content still needs to be usable to achieve the role of “entertaining distraction.”

Let’s take a look at the opening paragraph from the article UK’s carbon-capture failure is part of a global trend, which is accessible through the app:

Whatever happened to clean coal? A global push to develop technology for capturing and burying carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants is faltering as governments and business bicker over who should pay R&D costs, and hopes recede that a global carbon market will pay for future operations. Public opposition is also growing.

This text has a Reading Ease Score of 37.9 and a Grade Level of 12.0. It has a nice, big text link on the words “capturing and burying carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants”—easily tappable for us fat-fingered types.

Not surprisingly, the need to reuse exactly this content across multiple media means it won’t be as easy to rework this text to improve comprehension as it was for the Amon Tobin blurb. We don’t have complete flexibility here: the text needs to work as well in print as it does on the road.

The lightly edited version below does improve matters: its Reading Ease Score is 49.5 and the Grade Level is 9.5:

What ever happened to clean coal? A global push to develop technology that captures and buries carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants is faltering as governments and business bicker over who should pay R&D costs. Hopes fade that a global carbon market will pay for future operations. And public opposition grows.

This may not seem like much of a difference, but reducing the reading level by more than two high school grades certainly opens up the New Scientist readership a lot, no matter what the medium. But it’s likely that these shorter sentences, shorter words, and more active prose will be more easily grasped—and enjoyed—in the pressurised mobile use environment. That might also apply to the print version of the mag (which I, for one, also read on the train).

That said, it’s worth noting that the opening para of an article isn’t likely to contain as much topic-specific language as later paras. They may not be so easy to tweak. But is it worth trying? I think so.

Reading Ease: A Mobile Rule of Thumb?

If reading ease measures are considered handy in making web content more usable, they’re a boon for mobile writers.

If we can put aside our creative differences and look at these scores as a means by which to identify areas for improvement of the comprehensibility—and thereby usability—of our prose, we may be able to find more creative, direct, and personal ways to engage and connect with readers, no matter where they’re accessing our content from.

(If you’re curious, this article has a reading Ease Score of 54.6, and a Grade Level Score of 9.8.)

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