If writing for web has come to be seen as a major element in a site’s success, writing for mobile is set to become the next poster-child for digital content creators. And one that contains just as many challenges.
The mobile-first approach applies just as well to content as it does to design. In this post, we’ll look at two tools that you can use to assess written content for its appropriateness to mobile, or to hone your own.
Many of the the much-loved Web Content Accessibility Guidelines relate specifically to text content, as explained by the 4 Syllables consultancy in their Accessibility for Web Writers series:
- 2.4.2 Page titles: Page titles should be descriptive of the page content
- 2.4.4 and 2.4.9 Link purpose: Links should be meaningful
- 2.4.6 Headings and labels: Headings and labels should be meaningful
- 2.4.10 Section headings: Use headings to organise and show the structure of content
- 3.1.2 Language of parts: Use mark-up to identify foreign language words and phrases
- 3.1.3 Unusual words: Define or explain non-literal phrasing or jargon
- 3.1.4 Abbreviations: Define or link to definitions of shortened forms
- 3.1.5 Reading level: Write at lower secondary level, supplement difficult text with other media, or provide an alternative version of content written at lower secondary level
At a glance, these guidelines seem self-explanatory—even self-evident. But many “creatives” see them as restrictive. They curtail the author’s “freedom.” They rein in the “voice.”
The thing with mobile—particularly in the case of smaller devices like phones—is that people don’t have the time or attention to get their heads around the lyric beauty of your prose.
The usability (read: usefulness) of your text comes down to comprehension, retention, and applicability. In this context, reading level deserves special attention.
Why Reading Level Matters
I used to be a reading-level sceptic. Reading level seemed all very well, but my audience was smarter than an eighth grader and my brand was prestigious. Sticking blindly to a reading level would insult my readers and undermine my employer’s carefully-cultivated brand.
If that’s how you feel, that’s fine. But for the moment, let’s put those objections aside and focus on the usefulness of your digital text.
- Sentence Length
- Word Length
- Syllable Count
As you can see, these elements are extremely pertinent to the mobile environment—by which we can and should infer more than the device, screen size, and download speed. Mobile writers need to be conscious of the situations in which mobile users read their text. That’s more likely to involve physical movement of the device, noise, screen reflection and grime, and more.
For these, as well as situational reasons, it’s extremely important that text displayed on mobile devices can be read and grasped extremely quickly. If reading on a computer monitor is a drag, reading on a phone is torture. More than ever, your readers are reading for facts—for answers—and they need them fast.
In this context, writing in short sentences, with shorter, more common words, makes perfect sense.
What About Creative Flair?
To say that these reading scores undermine creativity is like saying an artist can’t create anything decent with oil pastels alone. Or watercolors. Or a pencil.
It all depends on the artist.
The creative challenge for mobile writers is to communicate. As an example, let’s take the 4 Syllables description of reading level (numbered guideline 3.1.5 in our earlier list):
“Write at lower secondary level, supplement difficult text with other media, or provide an alternative version of content written at lower secondary level.”
In case you’re wondering, I’m using the 4 Syllables version because it rates far better on these readability scales than the official WCAG 2.0 description.
To test the reading scores of this content, you can copy it into MS Word, and run a spelling and grammar check. Once that’s done, a little dialog box will appear to tell you the reading scores.
The 4 Syllables sentence has a Flesch Reading Ease Score of 10.6 (which means only the university-educated can understand it—and that’s at the best of times). Its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 12.0, suggesting that you need a twelfth-grade education to understand that sentence. As a comparison, this article’s Reading Ease Score is 52.1, and its Grade Level is 8.6.
Let’s assume we all finished high school and/or went to university, so we don’t have trouble comprehending the 4 Syllables description. What’s the big deal?
Well, imagine you’re on a packed train home, being jostled by other passengers, with an elbow in your left ear and death metal blasting from a fellow commuter’s headphones to your right. You’re tired and hungry. You had a rough day. And you’re thrown against the door every time the train hits a bump or rounds a bend.
Wouldn’t it be easier to read—and comprehend—a sentence written more like this?
“Write for an eighth grader—if they get it, most everyone will. If the content is really complex, explain it with different content types.”
According to the Flesh Reading Ease calculation (74.8), people around 16 years of age and up will be able to understand those sentences. You don’t even need to have finished junior school to grasp it: the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Score is 5.8.
Perhaps the tone is too casual, but you get the idea. The second version of that text uses natural language, which, I believe, is more likely to be “heard,” and more loudly, in the reader’s mind as they’re reading, since it’s more familiar. It also has a more natural rhythm. And the shorter sentences mean more capitals—which makes it easier for your commuting readers to find their place again after their battle with the next bend’s g-forces.
The idea that we can reduce every sentence to language appropriate to an eighth grader is imbued with well-meaning hope… but is it practical?
The WACG suggests that if your text can’t be so reduced, you should write a second version that explains all the complex bits in eighth-grader terminology. But no client I’ve ever worked for has been happy to fork over the extra dollars to make that happen.
In the next post, I’ll talk about some of the challenges mobile writers face when using reading scores in practice—and how we can work around them to make our text usable on mobile devices.