Lee Capps would like to thank Glenn Stout for this month’s column. Glenn is a senior functional specialist with The Revere Group.

"Micro content" refers to the information presented on the small screens of electronic devices that are making their way into the nooks and crannies of our lives. The term is here to stay – people are defining it, debating it and even writing articles about it – and the content itself will only grow in influence due to the incredible increase of cellular communications and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Those devices offer real-time Web access and often require alternate versions of Web content to work with their smaller displays. With this trend comes the proverbial good news/bad news scenario. The good news is obvious: we can truly gain access to the right information at the right time in the right place (R-cubed). In this case, the bad news comes in small packages: small devices have an inherently unique set of problems, due to their size and shape.

The Challenges of Micro Content

The ergonomic challenges for these types of devices involve trade-offs between increasing levels of miniaturization, the complexity of the software running on the devices, the relative size of our hands and the visual acuity of our eyes. Other challenges that face Web-enabled applications delivering micro content include difficulty of use, lack of flexibility and less than robust functionality. Usability problems include awkward task flow and menu structure and the semantic aspects of the interface. The result is a flawed and disappointing experience for the user.

As developers ferret out best practices in this uncharted turf, the final challenge becomes clear: there are no current standards for the hardware or software to be deployed. We’re in the painful process of creating them.

What Will Help?

The challenges of micro content are well known throughout the industry (and are often the cause of considerable moaning and groaning among consumers). To combat them, experts are beginning to publish best practices and design standards – in some cases redefining "challenges" as "design issues."

To better design micro content specifically for wireless application protocol (WAP) usage, the basic design practices [1] include:

  • Context- directed wireless content. That is, information that is personally relevant and meaningful to the end user at a specific time and place. For example, "I’m in a strange city; where are the public restrooms? "
  • Short, simple messages. Screen space and user time are limited.
  • Device-agnostic Web pages. We cannot count on a standard screen size.
  • Action components that minimize the number of steps required to act on a message.
  • Critical summarized information – with only a few keystrokes or minimal text entry.
  • Navigation that is trimmed to a minimum. When creating pages, leverage the cell phone menu structures that people have already learned.
  • Simplified text that curtails excessive scrolling to get to all of the important information.
Intuitively, it would seem that screen size is a negative component in WAP in general, but experts suggest that this criticism could be a bit uninformed. A small screen does not necessarily lead to poor readability – poor content does. The negative story that’s been created around small screen size is probably fueled by inappropriate user expectations that are set by marketing hype. Perhaps more appropriate marketing would actually enhance the experience by setting and supporting more realistic user expectations?

What Do the Experts Say?

Noted Web- usability expert Dr. Jakob Nielsen found that 70 percent of the people who tested some form of WAP application for a week said that they would prefer not to use it for the next year – until it improved.[2] Elsewhere, Nielsen has advised, "WAP usability fails miserably; don’t waste your money on fielding services that nobody will use."[3] He goes on to urge companies to wait until the next generation of wireless before they launch mobile services. However, he gives positive reviews to a new phone that has "improved readability," making it "reasonably nice to browse and read medium-length information."[2]

It would appear that even a credible WAP expert has mixed feelings about where this technology currently stands – does it fail miserably or does it show promise? There are mixed messages here, as should probably be expected in a relatively new field. Overall, it seems that there is a push towards acceptance and standardization; if not currently, then in the near future.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The initial introduction of WAP devices and the proliferation of WAP Web sites are the product of the technology boom of the last few years, as is micro content. It hit the market quickly, and the challenges that came with it still exist today. We need a better feel for usability factors. We need standards for both hardware and software. The industry is moving toward these outcomes, but does it make sense to wait until the next generation of devices catches up with software capabilities?

The need for "R-cubed" is real and compelling, and we are on the cusp of making it work. If WAP sites are designed using the lessons we are learning and leveraging the developing standards, we will soon see successful WAP implementations using the micro content technology within our current reach.

 

[1] Buchanan, G. and Wichansky, A. "Usability testing in 2000 and beyond." Ergonomics, 43(7). 2000. Pps. 998-1006.

[2] Zastrow, J. "It's a small world after all: content for wireless and mobile." EContent, 24 (3). 2001. Pps. 32- 37.

[3] Hamblen, M. "WAP gets both jeers, cheers for usability." Computerworld, 34(51). 2000. P. 60.

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