An example of a . Image via drupal.org.

The “top tasks” principle dictates that only the most important tasks and features should appear on mobile devices. Image via drupal.org.

I had a conversation with a publisher not long ago about mobile publishing and we revisited the old topic of whether or not the content you publish on mobile devices should be the same for tablets, web and print platforms. He believed the content had to be different.

I disagree.

Many publishers believe that different devices should offer different content for several reasons.

First is “user context”: Mobile screens are smaller, the thinking goes, and thus less suitable for reading long-form content since mobile users are often on-the-go and have less attention and time to spend.

Another reason is the “top task” principle, as described by Christiaan Lustig and Jakob Nielsen. The idea here is that on non-mobile devices publishers can display multiple user interfaces for all sorts of different tasks.

Because all of those tasks do not optimally fit on a smaller mobile screen, the logical solution here is to focus on “top tasks” and offer only the most important tasks and features on mobiles.

These reasons have lead publishers to create what’s known as “responsive content,” which is typically a short-form or alternative version of the content that’s available on the web.

Change context, not content

Josh Clark, the author of the book Tapworthy, said in a podcast with Spoolcast

that “the content that I might care about in one case might be pretty different than what I care about if I’m sitting at my desk.”

Image via Google presentation "The New Multi-Screen World"

Image via Google presentation “The New Multi-Screen World”

It’s pretty clear that our context drives our choice of device. Personally, it’s rare that I will boot up my laptop from my couch when I have my tablet in front of me. But that doesn’t mean that I’m looking for different content.

As a consumer, my expectation is that I get the same exact content on every device. And I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks this. Karen McGrane, the author of Content Strategy for Mobile, sums up the dilemma nicely in her book:

“One night on your tablet, you’re browsing articles for a report you’re writing at work. Back at your desk the next day, you struggle in vain to remember what you searched for to find those articles. Why can’t you find them again?”

McGrane goes on to cite Google research that found that 90 percent of people start a task using one device, then pick it up later on another device.

The takeaway here is that while it might not be convenient or optimal to read a 20,000 word article on my smartphone, I should be able to if I need to.

My only two expectations are that I can find the article with ease and speed – don’t make me download 800 Mb – and that the publisher has done their best to adapt the reading experience to the device.

Design for experience, not outcome

When it comes to content, design should take a backseat to the reading experience on mobile devices. Image by Blake Patterson via Flickr.

When it comes to content, design should take a backseat to the reading experience on mobile devices. Image by Blake Patterson via Flickr.

The problem may be that designers have taken the “top task” principle and mistakenly applied it to the world of publishing.

The “top task” principle makes sense for a banking app where I might need to quickly complete the task of checking my balance, without other features and content available on the desktop (such as a detailed analysis of my portfolio) getting in the way.

With an application, my goal is “outcome” – I want to reach an end result quickly and how I get there is irrelevant.

This is not the case with content. When I consume content, regardless of device, my top task is reading.

The goal of content is experience – the experience of learning and enriching my mind. Reading holds an intrinsic value. An app is instrumental; I want to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you cut out content you take away from my experience of reading.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the reading experience is platform agnostic. Content needs to be responsively designed so that my experience is just as good on a mobile device, tablet, or desktop computer. Just don’t throw out the content with the bathwater.