How Great Mobile Apps Are Like High School English Class


Think back to your high school English class (if you haven’t completely blocked those memories from your psyche). It was probably a time of drafts, red-ink, and many do-overs. For most of us it was our first encounter with the seminal classic Elements of Style by the infamous Strunk and White; William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White to be precise (Elwyn Brooks White to be more precise – and yes the same guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). I remember struggling through revision after revision trying to get my writing to align with all their recommendations. One of the bits of information that stuck in my head, perhaps because I often ran afoul with run-on sentences, was that great writing needs to be succinct and to the point. Elements of Style puts it this way:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Boy was that one a tough one for me. My sentences went on and on as I tried to make them as flowery as possible. Mostly it was because I felt I just needed to fill space. Trouble is, my reader got lost and my point got lost. There was something legitimate I was trying to communicate but since I couldn’t make it a crisp point my writing was a tangled mess.

A close cousin to writing succinctly is writing in the active voice. Writing in the active voice is where the subject of the sentence performs or causes the action expressed by the verb; in other words constructing sentences where the subject “acts”.  This is the difference between ‘I closed the deal’ versus ‘the deal was closed by me’. The former is very direct and makes immediately makes clear who is doing what.

OK, so enough English memories and lessons – how does this all relate to mobile apps? Mobile apps would do well to follow these same elements of style. Great mobile apps should be succinct to the point in their layout. They should also allow subjects (users) to quickly act and not belabor the task at hand. It should be obvious what the point is and how to execute it. Mobile apps have the added challenge of needing to perform in a very small space. Great mobile apps promote productivity through recognizing the limitations of their medium, namely the size of the screen, and work to allow the most concise experience.

Unfortunately, to some degree, we are still in the draft, red-ink, and re-do stage of mobile maturity. Many apps and app developers are still not thinking in the mobile form-factor mindset. They don’t design and code for screen and workflow minimalism.  Users should be able to connect, act, and leave. They should be able to get their task done as quickly and efficiently as possible with the least required touches to the screen. Being able to do so is the beginning step in mobile productivity. This will take time and revisions. Apps that figure this out first in their domain will have a higher probability of success. In order for business to really leverage the consumerization of IT and the BYOD phenomenon mobile apps need to reconcile their functionality to their screen size. This will allow users to find their true mobile productivity potential.

What mobile app do you find efficient and productive? Got any memories of Elements of Style? I would love to hear from you. Post a comment and let me know!

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