If you haven’t noticed, a quiet evolution has been taking place in the digital learning environment.
Once the domain of desktop and laptop devices alone, digital content has increasingly been taking its act on the road. Across the land, tablets and smartphones are busy delivering content – news, information, recipes, photos, games, movies and music; messages of love, appointment times and shopping lists.
On trains, planes and automobiles; in bars, beds and bathtubs; even, somewhat annoyingly, in cafes and cinemas – these hand-held digital devices transfix our time and attention like few other innovations in the history of human civilisation. They have not only transformed where we consume content, but what kind of content and when, why, and how.
Unsurprisingly, this presents new challenges for learning designers, providers and procurers. Like other digital mediums, digital learning is also under pressure to be more aligned with our day to day lives, activities and technologies. What conventional e-Learning once meant by “anytime, anywhere”, “just-in-time” or “on-demand” is being redefined by the proliferation of these ubiquitous mobile devices.
So, what are these challenges and how might we approach them? The following outlines some of the considerations that need to be kept in mind when designing learning for mobile devices.
Mobile real estate: It’s all about size
While, digital learning for tablet and smartphone devices can be just as immersive and visually rich as any e-Learning solution for a desktop, there are a few critical points to keep in mind when designing content for these delivery platforms.
First of all, from a design and user experience perspective, tablets and smartphones are very different. The fact is, in terms of screen ‘real estate’, a tablet is much more closely related to a desktop than it is to a smartphone.
If you compare the screen size of an average 19” desktop monitor with an iPad2 and the latest iPhone 6, it’s becomes quite clear that one is not like the other two. While all of these devices are capable of displaying similar resolutions, the design, content and layout has to change significantly more to fit the smaller physical size of the iPhone. Furthermore, while most content is viewed horizontally on desktops and iPads, on an iPhone it’s more likely to be viewed vertically.
As an example, try this:
- Grab your iPad and open it on the home screen
- Rotate your iPad so that you’re holding it horizontally (note how the layout adjusts to this orientation)
- Now, take your iPhone and open it on the home screen
- Rotate your iPhone so it’s orientated horizontally and . notice how the screen does not adjust to this orientation
In effect, the user experience (UX) and ergonomic guru’s at Apple are telling us that they believe the iPhone will predominantly be held in the vertical or portrait position. As a result, iPads and iPhones require quite different approaches when it comes to designing effective e-learning content.
As a result, when designing for desktop and iPad you can use:
- A richer user interface
- Various page layouts with text and image side by side
- Graphics that the learner needs to be able to see and refer to while reading content
- Activities with more complex layouts such as interactive diagrams and flow charts.
On the other hand, when designing for iPhone, you’ll need to:
- Keep buttons as small as possible to maximise content space, but not too small as to make them difficult to interact with
- Limit the complexity of interactions so that the learner can navigate content with just their thumb (or forefinger depending on preference) when holding the phone.
- Use images only when critical to the content.
Broadly speaking, when designing for iPhones the ‘rule of thumb’ is – literally – the rule of thumb; if you can’t easily navigate and interact with content using just the thumb on the hand holding the phone, then it’s not an appropriate design.
Location, location, location
Physical size aside, it’s also important to keep in mind that a learner accessing content on a tablet has different needs to the learner accessing the same content on a smartphone. For example, when designing learning for smartphone delivery, it’s more likely that the learner will be on the move, between meetings, appointments or other tasks demanding their attention and only have a limited window of time to access their training.
We can also assume, duration wise, that the learning needs to be appropriately structured in short concise chunks or learning ‘bites’ to accommodate the amount of time and attention the learner has to spare.
In addition, for ergonomic reasons, the design layout has to be appropriate given the learner will be holding the screen and interacting with it directly rather than with a keyboard and mouse. For these reasons, we need to design solutions that allow the learner to access the information they need quickly and without unnecessary complexity to slow them down. For example, you don’t want the learner fiddling around with multiple buttons to access information when they could simply scroll through it on a single page.
As you can see, while it’s easy to lump tablets and smartphones in the same category when talking about mobile learning solutions, once you start to look in depth at the differences between tablet and smartphone design, it’s plain to see they have rather different requirements.
Device size, learner location and ergonomics all come into consideration, but are very commonly overlooked.
Therefore in order to create an effective piece of mobile learning for either tablet or smartphone, planning for which delivery is appropriate for the content from the beginning is critical in shaping what the solutions will look like, rather than simply selecting a different option at publishing stage.
Keep these things in mind when planning your next m-learning solution, and you’ll be on track to delivering your learners with an enjoyable and effective learning experience.