Good practices for creating help on mobile devices

I believe that technical writers will need to think more and more about creating online help for mobile devices as smartphone sales skyrocket. According to the Pew Research service, mobile devices will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people by 2020.

With that in mind, I’ve started reading more about creating user assistance for mobile applications. Joe Welinske, the president of WritersUA, recently wrote a series of webinars about mobile user assistance. I purchased the first webinar titled “UA in Mobile Platforms.” In it Welinske writes, “The single most important thing I have learned in my work with mobile apps is that bringing over Help designs from desktop applications is a really bad idea.”

So what are some good practices for creating help on mobile applications? As I am just learning about the subject myself, here are some recommendations that I’ve gleaned. One really good article on the subject is “A User-Centered Approach to Web Design For Mobile Devices” by Lyndon Cerejo. Here are some of Cerejo’s and Welinske’s recommendations that can be applied to help:

Design for a small screen size

Unfortunately, there is not one standard screen size (this reminds me of the browser wars from years ago). To complicate matters, some phones can change orientation and users expect the web site to resize accordingly.

Simplify navigation

• Reduce the number of categories and levels of navigation, and rearrange content based on priority, presenting the most important categories first.

  • Use clear, concise and consistent labels for navigation across the site.
  • When designing for touch, make sure the tap size (width or height) for the navigation item is at least 30 pixels.
  • Breadcrumbs are usually not used on mobile sites since navigation is not usually so deep that users need a trail back.
  • Make links obvious, and provide clear and immediate visual feedback to show the selected link.
  • Be succinct because of the small screen size.
  • Use short and descriptive titles for your pages.
  • If you must include scrolling, scroll in only one direction. Most mobile sites scroll vertically.

Design for intermittent connectivity

Cell phone companies are offering faster networks but it doesn’t mean the service is always available. And not all users have unlimited data plans. So make sure that pages can be loaded quickly on a mobile device, and that images are relatively small.

Search and indexes

Welinske believes indexing and search techniques are of less use in mobile applications. “If a user needs to search for Help content, then the user assistance is far too large.”

Design for a distracted user

Cerejo argues that you cannot control where customers will use the phone or even how it will be used. Here’s a quote from his article: “Picture a mobile user trying to find directions using a tiny phone with intermittent connectivity, while strap hanging and swaying in a subway train with sub-optimal lighting conditions, deafened by the screeching of wheels on tracks — that gives you some context of use. Simply put, context is about the environment and conditions of usage, including distractions, multitasking, motion, lighting conditions and poor connectivity.”


In the next decade, most people will be using their cell phones to connect to the Internet. If this prediction holds true, technical writers will need to master delivering help on smartphones too. It will be an exciting and challenging ride.

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