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How to Crap on Your Readers with Smartphones

As we move into the future, more and more we’ll see people checking out our blogs with smartphones. Whether it’s because we’re commuting, or because we just woke up and the first thing we grab in our morning ritual is our phone, or whyever, it’s where blog-land’s going.

So, when I see someone entirely hate on mobile readers the way this article from Wizards did, I’m of a mind to speak about it. Let’s start with vector. Follow along with my iPhone screencaps to see where this article goes wrong:

The Vector: How I found out about this article

I follow @DaveTheGame on Twitter, because he’s fucking brilliant. So, when I see him talk about a favorite technique of his, and someone talking about it much better than him, my interest is piqued.

Here’s the thing, though. Part of the reason my interest is piqued? I have absolutely no idea what Dave’s talking about, other than it’s probably smart. A reminder that You Don’t Own Your Message.

Chris Perkins’ name sounds familiar, but there’s no traction in for me. Like I’m sure people will be linked to this and have no traction for Ryan Macklin. That’s important to keep in mind here. Anyway, continuing. I clicked on the link in my phone…

Initial View

Like most blogs, the initial page sucks. But the seasoned smartphone reader only briefly sighs, if at all, and moves on to make the article readable by tilting orientation and pinching to zoom in. (Side note: mobile themes rock. Daniel Perez introduced me to the plugin I’m using for my blog: WPtouch. Go ahead, load this motherfucker in a smartphone.)

Actually Readable

So, now I know the title is I Don’t Know What It Means, But I Like It. Which is funny at the time of this post, because my reaction is “I also don’t know what your title means.” You get the typical-of-certain-sites useless meta-paragraph at the top. Easily enough scrolled past to get to actual content.

Scroll Down

Alright, still no clue what’s being talked about. Whee for an intro vignette to a freakin’ article. Since I don’t know what’s being talked about, I’m skipping past this context. I can always go back and read it if the subject gives me cause.

Scroll Down II: The Quickening

Oh man, now with “…but not the focus of this particular article” I’m just pissed. Given the additional effort it takes to read this on a smartphone while traveling, being on screen four now, my time feels pretty damned wasted. (Dave’s tweet doesn’t count.) There are a lot of links I can follow on my Twitter feed and RSS reader in my travels. But I was really, really curious as to what Dave was referring.

This is what we call a “bait and switch,” except you actually need to bait beforehand. Still, Dave did the baiting for the author, so I continued on. That said, I went from being an interested reader into an annoyed one. An uncharitable frame of mind. Maybe if I had a vested interest in this author, I would forgive the irritation. But while you’ll have that with your alpha fans, your second-order readers won’t feel that. (They might become alpha fans over time, if you treat them well.)

Scroll Down: Endgame

And frankly, neither do I. Which brings us to the true subject of this article.” 367 words into the article, this guy finally gets to it. Even on a browser, the point isn’t arrived at until around the end of the first scroll/beginning of the second, depending on your screen size.

After four screens, clicked on the “Tweet” button at the time to go back to my timeline to find something else. No sense in reading something that’s just pissing me off. Not that I have any idea what Dave was talking about in the tweet that linked me here, but whatevs.

Why This Tends To Happen

Bloggers write stream-of-conscious. Sometimes they only copy-edit themselves, sometimes someone else copy-edits. You rarely get deeper editing in what’s typically treated as throw-away or short-benefit work. There will be another blog post tomorrow, or next week, or whenever, and a year from now people will forget a particular blog post exists. Not the same treatment you give books.

On some random fuck’s personal or micro-professional blog, that’s probably okay. Still lame, but not entirely detrimental. Likely a lower percentage of second order readers. (At least, until said blog ends up getting a stupidly large audience.) But for the website of the largest game company around, it looks pretty careless.

An Easy Fix

It wouldn’t take much to fix this article for the mobile reader. Without editing the original content, just add at the top: “Today I’m going to talk about X.”

Is it the best way? Usually not. But it’s not bad, especially if you still aren’t going to get to the meat of the article for four scrolldowns. And you don’t have to give away the farm in this opener — stating the topic is not the same as stating the conclusions you’re going to draw. So have no fear that you’re going to slice the balls from your wit by doing so.

A Side Note On Cutesy Titles

Later, I went back. On the next screen, which I didn’t bother grabbing on my phone, he finally gives you context for his title. That goes to show that this author is writing only for alpha fans, though that’s probably unintentional. A better title and an lead[2] that’s not utterly buried would do better for second order readers, whether on smartphones or not. Which leads me to a choice:

  • If you want a cutesy title that requires the article to make sense of the title, present that context in the first 100 words. People are going to refer to your article by title (if even that — Dave didn’t give any specific context), so know that people are going to be entirely clueless when they click on the link.
  • Or, you know, don’t use a cutesy title that doesn’t introduce what you’re talking about?

That’s actually a bit flippant. There is a good reason to use cutesy titles: crafting a lasting emotional context for the reader. At the point of discovery of what the title means, that mindstate will be associated with the article, like you’re laughing at a joke you an the author get. (Of course, that assumes one reaches a charitable mindstate at that moment. I think this post illustrates how easy it is to cement a lasting negative context with said technique.) But, like with every technique, what you intend by using it should be something that you as a writer are conscious of.

As Always, It’s All About Intent

Of course, if you actually understand what you’re doing by making a proper topic introduction nearly 400 words in and using a title that has no non-contextual meaning, hey, more power to you. It’s all about intent. But I’d be surprised if that was intentional here.

– Ryan

[1] He said, not having testing this post with graphics on his phone before scheduling it…

[2] Welcome the the post-insular journalism world that is blogosphere. “Lede” is jargon. :)

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12 Responses to How to Crap on Your Readers with Smartphones

  1. Wow, that annoyed me and I’m reading this with a normal browser on my desktop. I actually started reading the article before reading your post, just so I’d have context as to whatever you were going to mention. I admit, the title of your blog post didn’t put me in a charitable frame of mind, but my ultimate reaction was “Screw it. I’m sure Macklin will tell me what he’s referring to in this article.” Definitely going to be more conscious of doing this in my own blog/emails/etc.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Cap’n,

      I admit, the title of your blog post didn’t put me in a charitable frame of mind

      Which was part of my intent. :) Goes back to my comment about cutesy titles — done right, your title can create an emotional resonance. (Not that that’s universal.)

      – Ryan

  2. Dave T. Game says:

    Far be it from me to disagree with an article that calls me fucking brilliant, but what the hey :)

    Wizards website and whole setup is not mobile friendly, I certainly can’t dispute that and would love to see it better. Furthermore, they’ve taken steps to make the whole thing less magazine and more blog, while not taking all the good blog ideas.

    However, clearly I responded more to the structure of the article than you did. I think it’s OK to come up with a title that isn’t immediately evident what it’s about, especially since it circled back and explained the title in the copy.

    The rest you cover you pinpointed but was worth repeating: you came in expecting some interesting piece of advice, and instead, was presented with something written towards a specific audience who probably knows who he is, what the series is about, is following the recaps, etc. before getting to the advice to be taken from the installment that week. It definitely fails the “every post is someone’s first” test, but there’s always the danger in writing in a series. I do think he was intentionally writing for the alpha fans- they’re the ones likely to be on the site, attracted by his name (because the front page does a really bad job of drawing you in otherwise.)

    Would I have tackled differently? Sure, a much better approach is to start with a campaign snippet that directly ties into the point of this week’s piece of advice, instead of swerves away. The biggest nuggets of inspiration are at the end of the article, which is usually the worst place for them. (And the advice at the end is really one of my favorite techniques!)

    Anyway, I’d say I’m sorry for pointing you to a time-wasting post, but we got this article out of it, so that’s a net win :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      I don’t blame you, man. :) But it’s one of those “you don’t own your message” things.

      And I stand my comments. Every blogger should read this Seth Godin post: When a Stranger Reads Your Blog. Every single post is someone’s first one of yours.

      – Ryan

  3. Mike says:

    I actually agree with a lot that you’re saying. Personally, I resonate with articles that state clearly up front what I am getting from them. Sometimes there’s an author who I respect so much that I will read every word but most of the time, even for people I like, I’ll skim them to get to the juicy bits. The more juicy stuff up front, the better.

    Frankly, a lot of people aren’t writing for the reader, they’re writing for themselves. That’s fine. The internet is free. You can skim it in 10 seconds, see that you can’t parse anything, and move on.

    It’s probably pretty interesting to see how people have changed in their reading habits. I usually scan through an article one to four times before I actually “read” it and I’m betting I skim read almost all of them. It’s all part of our new attention-focused rapid transition economy I suppose.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mike,

      Thanks! Yeah, combine how technology advances have changed the user experience with how we’re dealing with a much, much larger firehose of information, and — as you say — it’s interesting to see how people have changed in their reading habits.

      – Ryan

  4. Codrus says:

    In my day job as a technical writer, my group spends a lot of time writing headings, first paragraphs and first sentences that communicate valuable information to the reader. One of our goals is that someone could skim just the headers on a page and still learn something important.

    This isn’t the page we looked at when we started this project, but it has similar information.

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html

  5. msilver says:

    I think in the age of 20 Mbps+ home broadband and rss readers, people forget that the principles about writing on the web in 1997 hold true, for the most part. Keep it short. Make your point, etc. Bullet Points are not terrible if they’re actually points.

  6. Jason says:

    Doing bad things to people with smartphones is never a bad thing, and always a good thing.

    *arms folded defiantly*

  7. Ryan,

    Very interested in your thoughts on this:
    http://errantgame.blogspot.com/2011/03/proof-of-concept-impressionistic.html

    possible smartphone applications of the idea are huge