Messaging in a Mobile Era

Preparing students to shine on the small screen.

AN IMPORTANT TREND is emerging in business communications: People are now opening email on their phones more often than on their laptops. Activities such as distributed decision making, remote workforce management, and even employee recruitment are increasingly taking place via mobile platforms.

That’s why, in our Managerial Communication course, we’re teaching students the key skill of writing professional messages that display well on tablet and smartphone screens.

MOBILE LIMITATIONS

First and foremost, students must be aware that in mobile communications, brevity reigns. Because of the limitations inherent to reading on mobile devices, the most clear and accessible messages fit on a single cell phone screen.

This is true for two reasons. First, according to a study by researchers from the University of Alberta, “Evaluating the Readability of Privacy Policies in Mobile Environments,” people comprehend only half as much information on phone screens as they do on laptop screens. As readers scroll down, they must depend on short-term memory to recall information on prior or subsequent screens, which can lead to information overload in a mobile medium.

Second, people spend less time with text they read on mobile devices. In his book The Smarter Screen, Shlomo Benartzi notes that our ability to process information is limited “by the scarcity of attention [and] by our ability to focus on more than a few things at a time.” In fact, a user’s typical interaction with information on a mobile device lasts an average of 72 seconds, compared to 150 seconds on a desktop. One reason is that reading on cell phones is more prone to interruption by incoming calls and texts.

WHAT WE TEACH

Effective mobile-based messages achieve three things: They create positive first impressions, are easily comprehensible when read word for word, and are designed so that readers can easily recover context after interruptions.

As Benartzi writes, “Good design can speed up the learning process.” He goes on to say, “We know what we like even before we know what we are looking at.” We take this idea to heart in Managerial Communications, where we emphasize that readers’ first impressions of a message predict how they will assess its importance and trustworthiness. We also identify a recipient’s initial and subsequent readings of a message as “moments of truth.” To win the first moment of truth, students learn to use a few high-impact visual design tools:

  • Headings and subheadings—the message’s “table of contents.”
  • Lists that indicate the number of points and where they begin and end.
  • White space to give visual relief between sections.
  • Short paragraphs of no more than five lines to prevent information overload.


  • Make it personal. Start with a brief greeting.
  • Keep it simple. Use a simple organizational structure so that the message is easy to understand in one reading. We give students a three-step process: Start with the message’s purpose (what, why, and when); next, share information related to the purpose; and, finally, close with next steps (who does what when).
  • Prioritize the essential. It’s important to keep messages short. If additional information is necessary, we advise students to provide it as an easily accessible link or attachment suitable for larger screens. Make sure any longform information can be printed easily for further analysis.

PRACTICE THE PRINCIPLES

As an exercise, we ask students to write an email message on their laptops that follows these principles, and then send it to themselves on their mobile phones. They then read and evaluate it as if they were the recipient reading it for the first time.

Finally, students send their emails to the instructor, and as a class they reflect on what they learned from the exercise. Many are surprised by how poorly their previous emails must have come across to readers; they realize that most of those messages won neither the first nor the second moments of truth.

SCREEN-SAVVY STUDENTS

Students enjoy this exercise as they discover how to create truly reader- friendly, single-screen messages using effective writing, organization, and visual design techniques. More important, they realize why it is so important to create business messages that suit different platforms, whether on paper, laptops, or mobile devices.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

Thomas Clark is a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Xavier University’s Williams College of Business in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also is president of Communiskills, a company that trains executives in effective communication.