I've spent a lot of time recently researching information about how people read on mobile phones, in order to identify best practice for writing effective text for mobile apps. Of course, writing for apps may not be something many of you do, but I'm sure you all write emails. And given that over half of all emails are now opened on mobile devices, you're therefore often writing text that will be accessed on the screen of a mobile phone. So what does this mean for how we write those emails? Here are my top seven tips:
1. Use informative headings
On average, we receive over 100 emails a day. Combine that with all the other information coming into our mobiles and your subject line will be just one of a mass of notifications that appear on the recipient's screen. If you want people to pay attention to you then provide concise and informative subject lines.
Your words should inform the reader what the message is about and if any action is required. Don't just refer to a broad issue or project title, be specific about the aspect of the project or issue you are contacting them about. For example, a subject line that says 'Tomorrow's meeting – technical set up' is more informative than 'Tomorrow's meeting'. But 'Tomorrow's meeting – do you need a laptop?' is even more useful.
2. Place the most important information at the top
Unless it's a very short message, your reader's screen won't display everything you've written in one go. So get straight to the point and state the key thread of your message and any action required right at the start. Then provide more detail in subsequent paragraphs. That way the recipient can decide whether to scroll through the message there and then or whether they can come back to this later in the day.
Keep in mind that many people check through their messages on their mobiles making decisions about whether to take action immediately or to delay responding until they are at their desk.
3. Use informative subheadings
When people read on a mobile phone they scan the screen looking for relevant information, so if you're composing a lengthy email, break it into sections by using subheadings that state your main points.
4. Write short sentences
Emails will appear in different formats on different screens, but my phone tends to show only seven or eight words on a single line when I’m reading an email. That means a 32 word sentence might take up four or more lines, which starts to look overwhelming. So try to stick to 20 words of less for each sentence.
If you're writing an email on a PC, bear in mind that what seems manageable on your monitor may swamp a mobile screen.
5. Write short paragraphs
My phone shows 26 lines of an email on one screen. Five 32-word sentences therefore almost fill my screen, giving an air of dense and off-putting text. Try to stick to three or four sentences in a single paragraph. And start a new paragraph when you start covering a new topic.
6. Keep your concepts simple
Research has shown that we struggle to understand complex text more on mobile screens than if we're reading on a PC. This could be because it's less easy to glance back at the sentence or paragraph before (which is likely to be off screen) to help you contextualise what you're reading. So take time to state things clearly and simply. Don't assume your reader will immediately grasp new concepts if you don't take the time to help them familiarise themselves with relevant terminology.
This may also mean you need to repeat names (rather than referring to she or he) or keep spelling out acronyms so your reader is always fully in the picture.
7. Think about calling
Mobiles are, of course, phones. If someone's reading your email on their phone they may well be able to pick up your call. If you want to contact someone about a complex issue, or need a quick response, why not skip the email notification and go straight for the incoming call? It will help to declutter the recipient’s inbox and will probably be much more effective.
These seven tips are all inspired by thinking about how people use mobiles, but in fact could be good practice for all emails, since they embody the general principles of good writing and effective communication. Whoever you're communicating with – whether in writing or speaking – getting straight to the point and using clear and straightforward language will improve the likelihood of your message being received, understood and actioned. And thinking about whether the easiest form of communication is necessarily the best is something we could probably all do more of.