Communicating well on the small screen

Communicating well on the small screen

Scrolling on a smartphone and scanning computers has changed the way we read and absorb information.

San Jose State University’s Ziming Liu told us this way back in 2005.

In 2019, cheeky SMS slang like TL;DR – which means ‘too long, didn’t read’ – became an elementary part of digital copywriting, moving away from being a dig at long, blathery copy and actually describing the summary bullet points of online content to allow readers to get the bullet points of a story rather than reading the whole thing.

Humans don’t read screens the same way we look at printed matter – we scan web-based pages in an F or Z-shaped pattern to look for words or highlights that give context and meaning before our eyes settle and comprehend the text.

UX copy for small screens
This picture reveals the heat patterns of the way the human eye behaves when reading from a screen

Or sometimes we don’t bother with the comprehension part and scroll to the next thing, or answer that call or send that damn SMS. Damn those short attention spans.

The changing nature of screen reading has important connotations for how we communicate and engage people with our message, whether it’s for business or pleasure.

If an audience will give you less than a few seconds of attention, it’s a writer’s job to produce a great message that’s concise, engaging and distinctive.

Great digital copywriting helps the reader get their task done and let them move on to whatever they want to spend their time on next. This is no easy skill but it’s what separates someone who can open a Word document from a genuine writer.

Brevity is more than the soul of wit

Short, short, short. Sometimes you only have three words when you wish you had six. The mobile screen is unforgiving on this point.

Don’t think that you can make the font size smaller to fit more on a screen – most UI and UX designers would say 16pt font is a good guide, as you want the mobile screen to be as readable as a printed page.

Concise has helpers – use them

In the world of print, one headline and a story was enough to give a reader context. On a small screen, ‘helper text’ like sub-lines and buttons and CTAs (that’s a call to action for the uninitiated) are super important. These copy helpers are the canvas upon which a writer can paint meaning and relevance, all be it with just one to three words.

It’s non-linear – exploit that

Digital copy has advantages over printed copy – it can be interactive, contain text, audio, video and interactive graphics.  

Digital words are more often the source of immediate information to answer a search query, research where you want to go for dinner or entice you to read something.

Don’t waste words, and don’t waste the opportunity to add great imagery or links that make your content even more relevant and helpful to a reader. It’s also helpful to think “what do I want the reader to do next” and offer them the chance to click to that rather than complete reading the story.

Frontload what’s important

Copy doesn’t exist in a vacuum – how will your reader discover this content and what do they need to do next? Are you trying to inspire them to read something or get them to make a booking?

Put the most important thing first. The most important thing is very often the thing right at the bottom of the page – find the conclusion or point of the content and put it right upfront.

Saatchi and Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts once said, “Emotion, intuition, long-term memories and unconscious motivations make up as much as 80% of our decision-making processes.” So use your writerly judgment along with data to inform what should be upfront.