Creating content in a mobile-first world


The layout of your website is responsive. There are no intrusive pop-ups on tablet or mobile. You’ve compressed your images, disabled Flash, even the size of your text scales according to the device.

By all general standards, you have a mobile-friendly website.

Most businesses would think this is enough to serve their mobile audience. And it is — in a time when most people still read newspapers and used a desktop computer to access the web.

The thing is, although the change is happening at such a rate that it all seems like a blur, this is no longer the world we live in.

Today, well over half of all digital content consumption happens on mobile devices. In China, 98 percent of people who use the internet do so from a mobile. In a little over five years time, almost three-quarters of all internet users in the entire world will access the web solely via their phones.

We live in a mobile-first world. And if you have any doubt about it, look at nearly a third of the population who have never known existence without an iPad. Or the growing number of young people who were first introduced to the written word and the world via an app on a glowing little screen.

The point I’m trying to make with all this dystopian-sounding data is not that you need to disconnect and abscond to the woods — although that might help. But rather that the rulebook for writing content for the web is being rewritten by and for a mobile-first society, and so it is no longer enough to simply have a mobile-friendly website.

In 2019 and going forward, to appeal to and build a mobile audience, you also need mobile-first content.

Creating mobile-first content doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw out everything you’ve learnt from generic web-writing rules and start afresh. But it does mean flipping the book on its head and approaching content through the lens of a five-inch screen.

Getting into the mobile mindset

At least in the West, the typical way readers consume large chunks of written content is from top left to bottom right.

However, when using a mobile device, research shows that the same reader often follows a different pattern. He or she may look more to the left side of the screen, but rather than following a strict left to right flow, their gaze is somewhat distributed.

One thing this tells us is that there is no “most important” area to optimise first. The headline, intro, subheadings, body: they’re all just as important as each other.

This scattering of attention isn’t necessarily because mobile users are reading for maximum efficiency. Just like desktop, there are all kinds of mobile readers: those who skim, those who read word-for-word, and those who do both. And we need to optimise each piece of content for each type of user.

However, unlike desktop, mobile readers are limited by the size of their screen and time. After all, mobiles are built for mobility and are generally used when on the move and during the in-between moments of life.

And so, whether they’re skimming a blog for a few minutes whilst waiting for the tube or reading a long-form article for a few hours whilst sitting in A&E, as well as actually trying to read the content, mobile readers are also always monitoring for and weighing up barriers to legibility and digestibility.

Life, one chunk at a time

Time is always going to be a barrier to engaging anyone in written content today. But on mobile, where users can and will leave your page in an instant — whether due to distraction, boredom, or simply moving onto the next event in their day — it’s somewhat more acute.

This makes it essential to create content that doesn’t require the user to work hard to consume. When users are pushed for time and also have to deal with endless walls of text, tiny washed out fonts, and long sentences stuffed with convoluted jargon, you can almost guarantee they’re going to bounce and never come back — no matter how good the content is.

Time is always going to be a limitation on mobile. But one way of approaching the dilemma of legibility is ‘chunking’. Chunking is a collection of methods that can be used to chop up written content into small, easily digestible portions.

Chunking methods are common and used on a regular basis. What makes them different here is that they’re used together to convey a message in the most concise and digestible way possible:

  • Headings and subheadings
  • Summaries
  • Short paragraphs
  • Whitespace
  • One point per sentence
  • Images and captions
  • Lists / bullets
  • Styling (bold, italics, underline)

Out of all of the above chunking methods, whitespace is probably the most effective yet most overlooked. Verbal communication would be almost impossible to understand, never mind incredibly annoying, without dropping in the occasional pause or moment of silence.

In the same way, whitespace acts as the backdrop of silence and breaks of speech which allows the user to digest what they’ve just read. This can prevent them from getting overwhelmed or disinterested, much as if someone was delivering to them a non-stop monologue.

Far from being a finished piece, the mobile-first content document is being crafted as we speak. This can make it tricky to make the leap and upturn the proven old-world desktop approach (guilty as charged). But as everyone is essentially in the same boat, those that do may open up a whole new world of opportunities.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from The Old North. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.