How We Read on Mobile...and What it Means For Future Tech

Today, our guest blogger, Kayleigh Alexandra explains the different reasons why mobile is important and how it affects future technology.

Last Updated: July 18th, 2018 • Mobile •
Hands holding a smartphone

When smartphone technology and internet connectivity converged to take our online activity mobile, the bulk of existing web content stopped being fit for purpose. Simply taking existing pages and sizing them down to fit pocket-friendly screens was never going to work.

After all, there’s a significant experiential difference between how we use desktop or laptop computers and how we use smartphones. The mechanics are so divergent that distinct content requirements were inevitable.

But how exactly do we read on mobile devices? And what inferences can we draw from that behavior about the future of technology? That’s what we’re going to consider here.

How Mobile Reading is Different

Because we interact with smartphones in ways that we would never interact with desktop computers, and use them in separate contexts, you’ll invariably approach a piece of content on a mobile device in a unique way. Let’s review the major hallmarks of mobile reading:

We leave and return

When someone reads an article on a desktop computer, they’re most likely to be in their workplace or their home (possibly both if they’re self-employed or work remotely). With a large display in front of them, and their immediate situation fairly settled and relaxed, they’re in a position to take their time reviewing a substantial page of content.

When someone reads an article on a mobile device, however, they’re considerably more likely to be in a situation that isn’t ideal for extended viewing — they could be on a walk, taking a lunch break, midway through a commute, at a bar, or possibly just unable to sleep at 3am and looking for a distraction.

Because of this, our mobile reading is choppy. We start reading things, put our phones down, and return to them later. When we face persistent real-world distractions, we can’t focus on specific content for very long, and when we’re simply bored, we’re inclined to gloss over the pages we find in a rapid-fire search for exceptional content.

We gravitate towards action

With a desktop or laptop in front of you, it’s comfortable to simply soak up the experience. You can load up your favorite news site and take your time to go through all the latest updates. Particularly with desktop setups, you can easily filter out whatever is going on around you and simply act as a passive consumer.

Not so with mobile content consumption. When you’re using a mobile device, even if you have headphones and blinkers on, your attention is very much divided. You’re most likely distracted by mundane everyday frustrations — and since we can’t generally do much about those frustrations (like gridlocked traffic, noisy roadworks, or yelling neighborhood children), they engender the desire to exert influence in other ways, such as by taking action on our phones.

This is why we play thoughtless but flashy mobile games that require basic actions, and why we feel the urge to place minor online orders. When we read content, we want it to feel interactive somehow — this is a big part of why we like to share content so much, and why social sharing buttons have become standard. By linking friends to particular pieces, we’re being active instead of passive, leaving us feeling more powerful and in control of our lives.

We prefer succinct formatting

You could tie this into a principle akin to “keep it simple”, but — amusingly enough — it isn’t actually that simple. Simplicity isn’t necessarily about depth or a lack thereof. What we’re looking at here is a matter of structural presentation more than anything else, with space-saving features such as slideshows or videos being ideal for mobile content.

Imagine an encyclopedia entry for a person, for example. On a desktop or laptop (while it isn’t ideal), a designer can get away with having one long, relatively-dry encyclopedia page featuring countless subheadings because users will tolerate weak designs provided they can find the information they’re looking for.

But on a mobile device, visitors who are are both likely to be searching for potted highlights and unlikely to want to spend an hour scrolling through a page will soundly reject that kind of structuring. Content hierarchies (approached similarly to visual hierarchies) are so much more important for mobile content — ideally, top-level content will be succinct but provide options for getting more granular, allowing the reader to steadily drill down into the details once they’ve reviewed the generalities.

We expect personalization

The average smartphone today comes with a formidable array of sensors, biometric security, and access to an ecosystem (whether iOS or Android) that can tie together a user’s entire digital existence. Because of this, mobile content can readily support complex personalization, particularly if provided through a particular app as opposed to a website (though the lines are rapidly blurring these days).

You can get some personalization through desktops, of course (though often using location information drawn from one of the mobile ecosystems through a shared login), but it isn’t pushed heavily behind the scenes the way it is on mobile.

When you look up some content on your smartphone, you expect some calculations to be made in the background about what you’re most likely looking for (based on your account history). Some people object to that kind of thing, considering it intrusive or an assault on privacy, but most of us have come to appreciate it.

We use different feedback mechanisms

It’s considerably more enjoyable and intuitive to interact with a capacitive touchscreen interface than it is to operate a keyboard and mouse arrangement, but the control scheme also presents challenges through rendering a lot of the classic desktop feedback mechanisms unavailable.

Factor in the restrictions of the mobile space (driven not by the inability of screen technology to display enough content but by the inability of the human eye to perceive miniscule text) making navigation even more important, and it’s clear that UX design is vital.

Viewing an article on a desktop computer, I can see how long it is by checking the scroll bar on the right-hand side of the screen, and probably check an ever-present menu on the left-hand side (or possibly at the top) for clear context for where I am. And since the screen can display a large content area, the divisions of the page are likely to be evident.

Moving to a mobile device, I lose the scroll bar and the menu out of a need to save room, and my content window at any given time is potentially just a small chunk of the full page. Since (as previously noted) I’m likely to leave and return, how will I review the context?

It’s simple — I’ll swipe to bring a menu into view, and I’ll know how to swipe because there’ll be a visual cue on the screen (typically a hamburger icon — particularly in the hyper-optimized ecommerce world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an existing business that doesn’t use standardized icons). When I scroll down the page, I’ll know I’ve reached the end because I’ll get an elastic bounce-back effect. Since I can’t hover a cursor over something to see if it’s a link, every link will be clearly highlighted, made large and bold enough to be easy to press.

What Mobile Reading Habits Tell Us About Future Technology

To consider what future technology will look like, let’s first envision what great mobile content looks like in light of the mobile reading habits we’ve reviewed. Ideally, mobile content:

  • Is consistently digestible so that it can be consumed across numerous visits.
  • Provides the viewer with actions to help them feel in control.
  • Carefully balances information density to best suit demand.
  • Supports personalization to offer expanded usability.
  • Gives subtle and well-designed feedback to lend context.

What we’ve seen in recent years is that all of these features have moved across to desktop content as a matter of course. To some extent, this is a consequence of developers embracing mobile-first methodologies (designing mobile interfaces first, then expanding them to suit larger screens), but it’s also a reflection of how mobile-optimized reading has driven up UX standards across the board.

Once you’ve used a smoothly-animated and lightning-fast mobile page, you stop feeling too enthused about dealing with sluggish desktop pages. You lose your willingness to accept perplexing desktop navigations and huge walls of blandly-formatted text. You begin to expect your half-formed search queries to be correctly interpreted by a system familiar with your common typos and spelling mistakes.

Future technology is going to be complex and interconnected in a way that seems difficult to fathom now. The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t some half-baked concept — it’s an evident inevitability, and it’s going to arrive sooner than you might think. When it does, content that once was static will become vastly more flexible and mutable, and the end user will gain even more control over how they experience the digital world.

Conclusion

Gathering up all of this information, we simply expect more when we read on mobile. The innate challenges and possibilities of the platform have driven UX standards up enormously, and while there will always be a place for focussed desktop-style browsing, it’s likely to become increasingly overshadowed by adaptable mobile-inspired experiences.

The technology of the future is going to support that flexibility, collating data from countless connected devices and using myriad input methods to support users in creating the reading experiences that work best for their preferences. It’s certainly nothing to be feared!

How do you read your content on mobile? Do you use an app or just use the mobile web (browser)? Post your comments below and let's discuss.

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Picture of Kayleigh Alexandra

Kayleigh Alexandra is a content writer for Micro Startups — a site dedicated to giving through growth hacking. Visit the blog for your latest dose of startup, entrepreneur, and charity insights from top experts around the globe. Follow us on Twitter @getmicrostarted

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