Over the last few years, computing has been moving from “What machines can we give people?” to “What do people want to be able to do?”
The number one answer to that has been mobility. If computers can do cool things for us, we want to access those wherever we are, not just at our desks.
The number two answer has been that people don’t care about hardware and software, but about the media and information that catch their interest in the moment. Listening to music, watching videos, getting information about the weather or local cinema times…
Here’s a canter through how the technology has changed, and a starter for thinking about what it means for designing your documents.
Waves that change the landscape
So we’ve had waves of new kinds of devices, bolstered by new design ideas and advances in the supporting technology like high-quality interactive touch-screens; high-capacity memory chips instead of chunky hard disk drives; and compact, long-lasting batteries.
- Netbooks were a lightweight, low-cost version of the laptop, designed for net access on the move and just powerful enough for common computing tasks.
- Smartphones merged the handheld/PDA (personal digital assistant) with the mobile phone, making multifaceted, communicative devices. They wiped out the PDA market.
- E-readers, handheld devices for reading books, came into their own. Their key innovation is the “e-ink” screen that’s comfortable to read even in bright sunlight; alongside good battery life and the ability to connect to online bookstores and download content at the click of a button.
- For years companies had dallied with tablet computers, gaining only niche appeal, but Apple’s iPad blew the doors off (capitalising on the app modeal and the popularity of the iPhone). Now tablet PCs are a massive wave. Most models use the Android software platform, but the iPad still leads the pack, gaining support within organisations as a main computing device (for instance, based on what I saw at the London Book Fair, the publishing industry loves it). Lower-cost Android devices from the far east are coming through with ever-better specifications.
The app model for software is part of this success. Instead of a program that’ll do various tasks if you do the right things with the right settings, you get a program that’s optimised to do one thing in the best way possible. This is more intuitive for most people. If you want weather information, you tap the weather icon and it shows you the forecast for where you are, plus other places you choose. If you want to buy a book, the app is designed for searching a big catalogue and taking your payment.
This has become a serious consumer trend. If you travel by train, for instance, you’ll see all sorts of devices in use, from iPads to Kindles, and smartphones galore. I’d guess that in the UK most households of middle age and younger, and reasonably well-off, now have at least one mobile device. Look at under-30s, and at folks working in IT-related fields, and it’ll go way up. I’ve seen product feedback on Amazon where people have bought cheap tablets for toddlers to play on.
It’s pretty amazing. I remember the first personal computers appearing when I was at school. Now they’re everywhere and make cool stuff happen like turning on a tap.
Practical design consequences
I think there’s an important conclusion from all this. You have to assume that a significant proportion of your readers are viewing your content on a mobile device. (And if they’re not now, they will be within a year or two.)
That means you have to design your information products with an awareness of what makes a good experience for those people.
The main factor here is screen size. What works on a desktop screen or in print may not work on a 7-inch tablet. Other factors include the software those users have access to, and the file formats they can use.
I think this will bring gradual changes in our expectations for how documents are laid out. While it’s possible to produce different versions for different users, that’s extra layout work and it’s natural to want to avoid that with an all-purpose design when we can. That means smaller page sizes with single-column text will become more popular.
Here’s a low-cost Android tablet with a 7-inch screen (that’s measured across the diagonal), displaying two different PDFs from books I designed. (They’re about playing games in fictional settings. But that’s not important right now.)
You can see that the screen is quite long and thin in the 7-inch models – presumably for playing vids and such. Tablets around the 10-inch mark have squarer screens more like the proportions of standard paper. But of course you don’t control what devices your users have; and lower cost means 7-inch is pretty popular. Also, the lower-cost models have lower screen resolution, so at any given size they don’t display text as clearly as higher-spec machines (like Apple’s ‘Retina’ screens).
The first picture is a book in Letter size. That’s the standard in the USA, similar to A4, but a bit shorter and wider. It’s designed for print, with a classic two-column layout and appropriate text size. It’s much too small to read comfortably with the whole page to view. With a touch-screen you can easily zoom in and out and scroll around (though that’s not the case on, for instance, the Kindle), but it’s still not ideal. You can also see that this page shape wastes a lot of the screen area on this device (the grey areas at top and bottom).
The second picture is a book in 6×9 inch size, also known as Trade (you see it in oversize editions of paperback novels). With the smaller page, a single column of text works well in print. The proportions of the page use the 7-inch screen more efficiently. For this book I made the text size slightly bigger than I normally would, trying for a compromise between print (type that’s too big looks like a children’s book!) and screen reading. You can read it OK on the tablet – though if it were reflowable text (like a novel on the Kindle) I’d choose to make the font a bit bigger.
A practical conclusion
Are there solutions that work across all reading possibilities? There are certainly better kinds of compromise, though some may be a step too far. No doubt design ideas and practices will evolve as technology does.
For now, start making your PDFs with decent-sized text; good contrast (no faint tinted text or weird colour combinations); in fonts that are clear and easy to read. Then your growing mobile audience will have a decent chance of reading what you have to say.