Monday, October 25, 2010

W3C Mobile Web Best Practices and HAT-Based Mobile – Part 6

Two recommendations related to the “size” of a “page”, or topic.

20. [PAGE SIZE USABLE] – Divide pages into usable but limited size portions.

21. [PAGE SIZE LIMIT] – Ensure that the overall size of [the] page is appropriate to the memory limitations of the device.

These recommendations relate to the issues of content quantity and file size.

For content quantity, the issue is how much content to put in one topic versus breaking that content into several smaller topics. This is partly related to topic-based authoring and partly just an arbitrary issue of file size.

“Topic-based authoring” says we create content in small, fairly self-contained units – topics. “Fairly self-contained” means that each topic tries to answer one question – “what is”, “how do I”, etc – with related but separate information in separate but linked topics. For example, consider changing a tire on a car.

One topic might cover the steps for changing the tire, and link to another topic that covers safe jacking practices, another that explains where to find the jack and lug wrench, etc. This structure, plus tight writing in general, keeps each topic as small as possible. But is isn’t perfect; different topics may follow the same “one-question” model but still have very different lengths. For example, a command reference section in a programming manual might cover command A in a quarter of a page but need three pages to cover command B.

On large-screen devices, this may be a design problem but isn’t a technical problem. The browser or help engine will display topics that are as long as you need, even if you don’t like the excessive scrolling. If the scrolling is too bad, you can add an “in-topic” links list at the top of the topic to let users jump directly to a desired section in the topic.

In mobile, however, length raises many problems. Reading scrolling material is hard on large screens but worse on small ones because you see less material per screen. Zoom the mobile screen to make the text legible and you’ll see still less plus add horizontal scrolling to the vertical scrolling. The “in-topic” link list idea just takes up valuable screen space. And, a long topic that works on a large-screen device may exceed a mobile device’s file size limits and get truncated on the display.

What to do about these problems?

• If you create content now for large-screen devices but see mobile being added to the mix, you first need to know the file size limits of the mobile devices you’ll be supporting.

• Based on those limits, you need to review your topic lengths to see if any are too long and, if they are, break them into separate smaller topics and/or edit them.

• Also, if you don’t use any particular methodology for writing content now, or if you’re coming to mobile from a hard-copy output environment, look at topic-based and structured authoring to see whether they’ll help you a) define consistent information types, b) create topic templates that you can use to apply a consistent structure to the material, and c) break the material into smaller topics based on the information type analysis. (There’s a degree of self-interest in this paragraph since I teach topic-based and structured authoring, but that doesn’t reduce its utility.)

• Finally, if you haven’t reviewed your content for a while, this is the time to see if your editorial standards have slipped a bit and let fat creep into the writing.

In summary, topic length issues depend on two things, much as in the previous post:

• Knowledge of technical issues – what devices, microbrowsers, standards, etc. will you use and what file size/topic length limits they impose?

• Knowledge of strategic content issues – what outputs do you need, what content applies to those outputs, and how to define and control that content?

Again, needs assessment and configuration analysis before moving to mobile – the same things we’ve always had to do but taken in some new and sometimes extreme directions.

More to come…

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