What to Consider When Building Help for Mobile Devices for Field Workers

There’s no denying that smart devices are taking over. Everywhere we turn, people are talking about the newest app they’ve downloaded (Angry Birds anyone?). But aside from avian masochism and borderline obsessive updates on Facebook, smart phones and other mobile devices (tablets, PDAs, etc.) have proven their usefulness in the professional world, and in particular, for workers in the field. Service providers like Verizon and ATT offer multiple business solutions for field workers. AirStrip Technologies, offered by Verizon, has a product called AirStrip OB which “delivers patient data, including fetal heartbeats and maternal contraction patters, in real time to the physician’s Blackberry, Palm, or Windows Mobile device” (http://solutionfinder.verizonwireless.com/). Good old-fashioned cash registers are a thing of the past in Apple stores. And trucking companies can monitor not only a driver’s location, but also idle time through mobile devices. But what does the age of mobility mean for technical communications professionals focused on user assistance? How do you plan and implement help on smart devices that field personnel can and will use?

Mobile Device and Field Application Overview

As in any worthwhile user assistance project, a successful mobile help for field personnel starts with determining the goals and the audience. Typically field personnel use mobile devices to a desktop-based system back at the office and information can be shared by syncing the devices, or through manual file sharing. According to Joe Welinske in his new book Developing User Assistance for Mobile Applications, there is “the challenge of providing a seamless transition between desktop UA and the small device.”

Currently application consists of three types of mobile applications: native, website, and hybrid (although hybrids are really just web apps that can be downloaded). Native apps run on the device’s operating system, are written in C, C++, Java ME, etc., may be downloaded and installed, and do not need to be connected to the internet to work. Mobile website applications run on the device’s browser, are written in HTML or javascript, do not need to be downloaded and installed, but need to be connected to the internet to function. Native applications are faster, but cannot run on other mobile devices like web applications can. Native apps can be a challenge for UA and other technical communications professionals because applications must be written in different languages in different platforms for each different mobile device. The benefit of mobile (and hybrid) apps is that strict HTML and CSS are more universally understood. (You can test how well your browser supports HTML 5 at: http://html5test.com/).

Knowing the audience, the application, and the hardware is just the beginning. Keep in mind that a mobile device is a completely different entity from the traditional desktop or laptop. Welinske writes, “Content types like user interface text, context-sensitive links, guided help (wizards), FAQs, and tips can all be integrated into mobile apps… Extensive reference information, blogs, support forums, and knowledge-bases usually fit better in a desktop environment where there is more screen real estate.”

Challenges in Planning Help for Mobile Devices

Let’s focus on two major differences between mobile devices and desktops that can present challenges for technical communications: limited screen space and navigational techniques (There’s no mouse.).

  • Limited Screen Space. In dealing with mobile devices, UA professionals must go from working with 20+ inches of screen space on a desktop to about 5 inches on a smart phone. Long PDFs with indexed help topics and lovely easy-to-see images are no longer feasible. Probably the most obvious solution to this challenge is to keep content as brief and exact as possible. Content should be written with as few words as possible, and images need to be small. Also to account for the smaller screen, many applications have the option of running a demo or watching an instructional video. Another solution to the small screen is help panels because help available in a single tap. When it comes to mobile devices, the less navigation required, the better. Welinske states, “Navigation is difficult for mobile users. Two levels of menus plus a level for topics is the maximum you would want to use. Even that requires the user to do a lot of navigation.”
  • Navigational Techniques. Obviously, with a mobile device, there is no mouse. There is a whole new vocabulary for explaining how get the mobile device to do what the user wants. Luke Wroblewski has created a clear and useful Touch Gesture Reference Guide: http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?1071. It is important to be familiar with the language of gestures. Along the same lines, it cannot be assumed that full keyboards are always available with mobile devices. The W3C website has a handy HTML 4.0 Guidelines for Mobile Access: http://www.w3.org/TR/NOTE-html40-mobile/.

Getting to the Help Development Stage

Now that you have identified the challenges in developing good user assistance for these field folks, you have to plan how to build it out. Here’s where universal technical communications truths and tools should support your effort.

  • Business and Functional Requirements. How does this app interact with other systems, which systems does it interact with (inventory, sales, billing, customer support, logistics, etc.)? Planning out help for this app means considering what other information from those apps needs to be incorporated.
  • Audience Analysis & Testing. How is the app used in the field? Harsh conditions, while with a customer, only when at their vehicle, audio, touch, keyboard? All of these help determine the kind of content you need to provide, and also inform the depth of the content. What kind of testing is being done for the application? This can have a major impact in how you organize and develop content, from the perspective of getting a feel for conditions of use, issues and error resolution, etc.

Application and device help in our ever more mobile world presents some new challenges, but there are some tools to make life easier, such as simulators and emulators. Simulators allow UA professionals to experiment and play with different designs. The following are three mobile emulators:





Fifty years ago, documentation specialists were clacking away on typewriters, using carbon copies for their documents. The invention of the PC and processor helped, but with new technology came new challenges, forcing them to think in new terms and contexts. It seems history repeats itself with this new wave of mobile technology as technical communicators once again take old ideas and work with them in new ways. In the end, all we can do is allow ourselves to get caught up in the technological whirlwind, try our best to keep up, and enjoy the ride.


Sources/Supplemental Info:

Fred Marcano

13 years ago

Hey Laura,

I’m a Technical Writer/Online Help Author for a Clinical Research organization in NYC.

Since 1984 I’ve used HATs such as RoboHelp, Doc-To-Help, and HTML Help to develop online help systems since for desktop and web based systems.

What mobile help authoring tools do you recommend that are compatible with device OS such as: Apple iOS, Palm webOS, Google Android? Thank you.

Fred Marcano
Contact Info. fmarcano@targethealth.com

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12 years ago

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