Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Design > Voices That Matter

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

If in Doubt, Leave It Out

Our research on how users read on mobile devices has uncovered something of a paradox:

  • Killing time is the killer app of mobile. As we’ve seen since our first mobile usability studies in 2000, killing time is the perfect match for mobile devices because they’re readily available when users are waiting around for something to happen. Favorite time wasters include gossip, games, and sports. But even a seemingly serious task, like checking the stock market, is often no more than a time-killing episode in which users look up the current index numbers with no intent to trade.
  • Mobile users are in a hurry and get visibly angry at verbose sites that waste their time. Also, it’s twice as hard to understand content on small mobile devices as it is on bigger desktop screens, making wordy content even more despised.

How can people simultaneously want to kill time and get angry when their time is wasted? Well, that’s a conundrum to be teased apart.

The solution to the puzzle lies in recognizing that even relaxation is purposeful behavior: According to information foraging theory (see the sidebar “Information Scent” in Chapter 3, “Designing for the Small Screen”), users seek to maximize their cost/benefit ratio. That is, people want more thrills and less interaction overhead.

Filler = Bad

Unfortunately interaction costs are inherently greater in mobile, which is why you need to focus mobile content even more tightly than content for desktop websites. Figure 4.6 shows a typical example from one of our studies.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6. The CNN News app, as shown on a study participant’s phone. This photo is a frame from the video recording of our usability study.

When reading the “breaking news” story about a tornado, one test user found commentary from local people and said, “I don’t need to know what everyone else is saying and the event from their point of view. I don’t mind a quote from a local leader, but all this to me is just filler, and I wouldn’t read it.”

She went on to say, “This is what came to me as breaking news? That’s too much. It should be: This is what happened, and this is what’s going on.”

Several other test users made comments about not wanting to read entire news stories–especially “filler” content–on their phones. Users didn’t want to bother with extra, secondary text, particularly in mobile apps designed for quick information consumption. They just wanted to know the main points.

In all fairness, CNN has slightly changed its app since our testing, and now it has a summary (or “story highlights”) at the beginning of the article that makes the article more scannable (Figure 4.7). It still doesn’t fix the filler-information problem, but at least it makes it easier for the users to find the main points.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7. A newer version of the CNN app for Android. The main story points are summarized at the beginning of the article.

You might ask why people don’t simply stop reading once they’ve consumed as much information as they want about a given topic. Sure, users do stop reading and are quick to leave sites. But they still feel drawn in by the writing and often skim more words than they really appreciate. And, after doing so, they feel duped because they didn’t get sufficient payoff from investing their precious time.

There are two solutions:

  • Cut the fluff. In particular, ditch the blah-blah verbiage that people inevitably place at the beginning of pages before getting to the meat of the matter. A good exercise is to simply delete your first paragraph and see if the page works as well without it. If it does, don’t click that Undo button.
  • Defer background material to secondary screens that are shown only to users who explicitly ask for more info. Such additional content supports people who have extra time on their hands or an exceptional interest in the topic.

When you’re writing for mobile users, heed this maxim: If in doubt, leave it out.

Old Words Are Best

“Speak the user’s language” has been a primary usability guideline for more than 20 years. The fact that the Web is a linguistic environment further increases the importance of using the right vocabulary.

In addition, mobile users are growing ever-more search dominant. Search is how people discover new websites and find individual pages within websites and intranets. Unless you’re listed on the first search engine results page (SERP), you might as well not exist. So writing for the mobile Web is writing to be found.

There are many elements to search engine optimization (SEO), but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, “Speak the user’s language.” Or, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.

Winston Churchill said that “short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” Churchill was talking about how to write punchy prose, not about SEO. To be found, precise words are often better than short words, which can be too broad to accurately describe the user’s problem. For example, our audience is more likely to search for “usability” than for “easy”.

But Churchill was right that old words are best.

Old words rule because people know them intimately. Familiar words spring to mind unbidden. Thus users are likely to employ old words when they boil down their problem to a search query, which is typically only two or three words long–particularly on mobile where it’s hard to type.

Because old words are used most frequently, people understand them faster. Remember that on mobile, users are often rushed and text comprehension is difficult. Using familiar and precise words delivers the gist of the content more quickly and makes it less likely for users to need to refer back to other parts of your text. Figure 4.8 shows an example of hard-to-read text that relies heavily on economic jargon (from the app Labor Stats). You could perhaps argue that this app is for an audience with some sort of economic education. If so, such an audience is probably fairly versed in the economic lingo and needs neither a vague definition of “labor productivity” (“relationship between output and labor time”–what is the nature of this relationship and how is it calculated?) nor a more precise one.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8. The Labor Stats app for iPhone. The news release in this app has been rewritten for mobile, but the use of economic jargon (as well as the lack of formatting) makes it hard to read and hard to follow.

Bylines for Mobile Content?

Should you identify the author of articles and other website content? Or should the material remain anonymous and be published under the organization’s institutional voice?

Unfortunately there’s no single answer to the Web bylines question. But there are a number of criteria, some that follow the mobile writing principle discussed earlier–cut the fluff.

Against bylines: Cut the fluff

Here are the reasons to remove bylines:

  • As always when writing for online use–and particularly for mobile–one main guideline is to keep it short. Users spend very little time on Web pages; information that doesn’t provide sufficient value-added should be left out. On average, users read only about 120 words per page view, so you may not want three of those few words to be “by Joe Schmoe.”
  • Mobile copy should be cut even more than you might cut verbiage for a desktop site. Even if some of the following criteria lead you to include bylines, it might be better to remove them for the mobile version of your site.

For bylines: Establish credibility

Bylines can be worth their word count in the following cases:

  • If the author is famous –maybe even famous enough that people might read the piece mainly to hear what he or she has to say on some current issue. In this case, you should include the author’s name when linking to the article from homepages, SERPs, article listings, tweets, and so on.

    Note that “fame” doesn’t necessarily equate to “celebrity.” Respected geeks can be well known in specialized communities while being completely unknown to 99 percent of the population. What counts is whether the author is known to the target audience.

  • If the author has credentials or status that support the article’s credibility. The classic example is a medical doctor writing about a health issue, in which case you should certainly list the article as being “by Joe Schmoe, MD.”
  • If the author has experience that provides some credibility. For example, the designer of a website should be named when you’re writing an article discussing that design.
  • If the author often writes about a certain topic. Regular readers might recognize the name and want to seek out the writer’s other articles.

  • If the article is an opinion piece, review, political commentary, or other type of content that is specifically positioned as an individual person’s take on an issue. A byline is needed simply to clarify the content’s status. Depending on the nature of the site, such content might also require a disclaimer that the analysis does not necessarily represent the organization’s position.
  • If the article belongs to an intranet. Naming authors can help establish a feeling of community by helping employees get to know each other.

Here are some examples of situations where bylines are or are not appropriate on mobile. Zite, a news aggregator (Figure 4.9), justifiably uses bylines indicating the source of the different articles. On the other hand, including author information in the article listings (like ProPublica in Figure 4.10A) is not warranted. That prime real estate should be used for more important information. The Washington Post (Figure 4.10B) lists the article author on the article page beneath the title. Although better than listing it on the headline page, it still takes up valuable space; it would be best if that space were used for content unless the Washington Post has some reason to believe that this author is famous enough for people to seek his articles. (The top of the page tends to get the most attention and should be reserved for essential information.) If the author needs to be credentialed and is not famous, consider adding the name at the end of the article–as in the CNN Money example in Figure 4.10C.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9. Zite app for iPhone uses bylines to indicate the news source.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10. Author bylines are not necessary on mobile: (A) ProPublica’s website (; (B) Washington Post app for Android; and (C) CNN Money app for Android.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account