Responsive User Assistance for Mobile Devices

October 24, 2016

We are experiencing a mobile revolution in the 21st century, with high-end, user-friendly smartphones, tablets, and ereaders and a great diversity of mobile apps.

According to a survey conducted by International Data Corporation, the global smartphone market grew by over 13% in 2015. The mobile market is expected to grow to about 2 billion people by the end of 2016. As a consequence, companies are altering their business and communications strategies to achieve maximum reach and exposure through mobile devices. They are leveraging mobile devices and apps to grow their business and are embracing responsive, mobile-friendly design strategies. Businesses that are creating mobile-friendly, responsive designs have an edge when it comes to engaging the ever-increasing numbers of mobile users.

How can user assistance—an important part of any effective user experience—complement the mobile experience? As the mobile industry continues to grow, it is creating exciting opportunities for technology-agnostic technical communicators.

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The Differences Between Web Apps and Mobile Apps

“Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users.”—Jakob Nielsen

Before we get into our discussion of how to create responsive user assistance for mobile devices, it is important to understand the difference between a mobile Web application and a mobile app. Often, the responsive user assistance that we produce does not differ significantly across different mobile platforms, but keeping their basic differences is mind can help us to create deliverables that work best on the relevant platform.

Web sites and applications consist of HTML pages that are linked together. Users type a Web address into a Web browser to access Web pages over the Internet. Both mobile Web applications and the mobile breakpoints of responsive Web applications are designed for smaller hand-held displays and have touchscreen interfaces. Mobile apps, in contrast, are native, device-specific applications that users can download and install on their mobile devices. Nevertheless, mobile apps can download content from the Internet—just as mobile Web applications do—and can store that content on a device so a user can view it even without an Internet connection. Mobile apps can implement loyalty programs and mobile payments on a single, device-specific platform. Hybrid mobile apps also comprise HTML pages, but are hosted on a native mobile platform, so users can access a mobile device’s built-in features such as its camera and contacts.

From a user’s perspective, a mobile app is ideal for frequent and repetitive use and provides a device-specific user experience. It offers the look and feel of the device operating system, along with location-based services and advanced video features. In contrast, as Rinish Nalini has said, “A mobile Web app combines the versatility of the Web with the functionality of touch-enabled devices.”

When creating user assistance for mobile devices, it is good to keep these differences in mind and determine our approach accordingly. Whether we’re offering product-oriented or service-oriented user assistance, we must determine the mobile platform and target audience first, then provide the right content and design solution to deliver an optimal user experience. Through iterative design and content development, we can ensure our solutions meet users’ needs and enable them to take full advantage of the mobile platform.

The Role of User Assistance on Mobile Devices

“The last several years have seen a very rapid conversion in the IT industry in the way software is designed, implemented, and consumed. This creates an important pair of questions for you as a user assistance professional: What is your role in mobile and how can you prepare to take that on?”—Joe Welinske

User assistance plays a major role in optimizing a user experience on any platform, including mobile devices. As technical communicators, we must always keep abreast of technical innovations and innovate solutions that complement them. User assistance has evolved from static Microsoft Word or PDF documents to interactive user assistance and context-sensitive Help systems. User assistance must be easily accessible, simple to understand, and effective, regardless of the device on which a user is viewing it.

Responsive Web designs automatically adapt to the user interface of the device on which a user is viewing them—whether a desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet. They enable users to view, read, and understand the same content across all of their devices. Similarly, mobile user assistance must be responsive in terms of both its content and its presentation. It is fruitless to design user assistance that does not work across all of the devices on which a user is likely to view it. As technical communicators, we must take that extra step to understand how we can create an effective user-assistance medium that works optimally across all devices, from the desktop to a tablet to a smartphone.

Creating Responsive User Assistance for Mobile Devices

“It’s somewhat surprising how ubiquitous smartphones are among tech writers—almost everyone has one—but how infrequently tech writers engage in user assistance for these same mobile devices. Why aren’t technical writers saturating the exploding mobile market by playing key roles with documentation on mobile development teams?”—Tom Johnson

As this quotation from Tom Johnson rightly points out, technical communicators have not been overly keen on creating responsive user assistance. Certain factors such as the types of information they create, the types of deliverables they produce, and costs may have contributed to their lack for interest. However, in the booming mobile market, more and more client companies now prefer user assistance as a medium for reaching people. So technical communicators really need to explore this new sphere, innovate, and deliver effective solutions for mobile users.

In creating responsive user assistance for mobile devices, technical communicators should first define their audience, then create content for that audience. Good user assistance starts with a good audience analysis that defines the needs of users and determines how to satisfy them. One size does not fit all. As a first step toward creating effective, responsive user assistance, technical communicators should focus of the following factors:

  • the type of audience that will use the user assistance
  • how users will interact with the Web app or mobile app
  • the logistics of supporting the operating platform—both the software and the hardware—with which users access the app

Only once the audience analysis is complete can the development effort really start. Technical communicators should create a user-assistance deliverable that ensures an optimal user experience that both has an aesthetically pleasing look and feel and is easy to use.

To create responsive user assistance for mobile devices, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the presentation of information, as well as content management. A technical communicator must carefully display the right words in the right places, creating lean content that is just enough, but does not sacrifice usefulness or quality. Thus, the means by which a technical communicator presents information—for example, overlays, wizards, or references—are also key. Plus, the types and sizes of images that appear in user assistance play a big role in delivering an aesthetic, yet functional user experience.

Technical communicators who not only love to write words, but can also write code, know that the effective use of HTML and CSS is vital for the delivery of user assistance, allowing them to structure words in compact, easy-to-read formats. For example, one effective user-assistance design pattern for presenting information on a mobile device is the Accordion—a panel that expands, then collapses when the user taps it.

Best Practices for Responsive User Assistance

As technical communicators, we must craft our content for mobile user assistance with care to ensure its accuracy and conciseness. Our design solutions should present information in a way that provides an optimal experience on mobile devices. Some best practices that you should keep in mind when creating responsive user assistance for mobile devices include the following:

  • Write lean content. Provide just enough content for it to be useful and comprehensible to the user in the current context. Ensure the content is easy to read and understand.
  • Avoid bulk information. Chunk information logically and present only the information that is useful in the user’s current context.
  • Keep file sizes small. Although mobile devices today have better hardware, it still takes time for large files to load, resulting in user dissatisfaction. Therefore, try to keep file sizes and image sizes small.
  • Reduce the number of taps. Simplify navigation to create a better user experience. Present the relevant information immediately, if possible. Create fewer links, and don’t rely too heavily on tables of contents and indexes. Make tables of contents concise and try to use no more than two levels of headings.
  • Create responsive tables. When presenting information in a tabular format, make the tables responsive. Rather than displaying information in columns, you may be able to stack all of the information that appears in one row in a single table cell. Alternatively, you may be able to employ fixed headers or switch the layouts of columns and rows. Apply minimalism to table data, making the user assistance easy to read.


In an ever-expanding mobile market, responsive user assistance offers considerable promise. As technical communicators start creating user assistance for mobile devices, we should disengage ourselves from the legacy of conventional documentation. We should recognize mobile user assistance as a new medium and hone our skills and ideas to utilize this medium in the best possible way. Nevertheless, the basics of technical communication still apply to mobile user assistance. Usability testing is key in evaluating the functionality of platforms for the delivery of mobile user assistance.

We must keep in mind that mobile users are on the move so do not want to read much content. Accordingly, mobile user assistance must adapt to this user preference. The words that we present must be concise, reduce users’ cognitive load, and deliver optimal usefulness and quality. 


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Welinske, Joe. Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps, 2nd Edition. Seattle: WinWriters, Inc., 2014.

Human Service Solutions. “Mobile Web Site vs. Mobile App: Which Is Best for Your Organization?”. Human Service Solutions, undated. Retrieved, June 12, 2016.

tcworld. “Making Content Flexible with Responsive Design.” tcworld, undated. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

RapidValue. “Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Web App: What’s Best for Your Enterprise?RapidValue, undated. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

eMarketer. “2 Billion Consumers Worldwide to Get Smart(phones) by 2016.” eMarketer, December 11, 2014. Retrieved June 12, 2016.

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Staff Technical Writer at ServiceNow

Hyderabad, Telangana, India

Samiksha ChaudhuriAs an experienced technical writer, Samiksha has skillfully developed comprehensive documentation across diverse industries, including service and operations management, telecommunications, media and entertainment, banking and financial services, and healthcare. With a Master’s degree in Computer Science, Samiksha not only possesses a deep understanding of technology but also possesses the ability to effectively communicate intricate details to both technical and nontechnical stakeholders. Beyond her professional endeavors, Samiksha is an avid trekker and passionate traveller, seeking adventure and exploring new horizons whenever possible.  Read More

Programmer Analyst at Cognizant Technology Solutions

Calcutta, West Bengal, India

Abhishek GangulyAbhishek has over seven years of experience as a technical writer, working in domains such as retail, banking and financial services, manufacturing and logistics, and healthcare. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English from Kolkata University and a post-graduate degree in mass communications from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.  Read More

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