There is no escaping it, the accepted method of accessing information and experiencing the “web” is increasingly via a mobile device.

Looking at the timeline for the rise of the mobile device against the rise of the internet, shows us that we are only at the tip of the mobile device iceberg.

It’s generally agreed that the internet was initiated back in 1960 with the electronic linking of Stanford and UCLA colleges in the US by APRANET. Over time the technology improved and with that the capability of the internet along with the initiation of the first graphics based browsers emerging in the early 90’s. As such the internet has been evolving and refined over the last 50 years and that evolution has been at an exponential rate. Mobile devices are still in their infancy with the mobile web only just starting in 2007, it’s virtually impossible to imagine where the capability of these devices will be in ten years, let alone 50.

However the general agreement is the same, mobile devices are the way of the future.


What then does this mean for eLearning content?

eLearning by its nature is training and development interactions that are provided over the internet.  If the dominant method of accessing the web is to be via mobile devices, then what does the eLearning industry need to do to ensure that it keeps pace and still offer learners with the best possible training and experience.

The development of content for mobile devices is underpinned by three main areas for consideration.

  • The hardware that the content will be viewed on.
  • The design of the content to fit within a limited screen size.
  • The human element, being the physical and psychological use and perception of any content viewed on a mobile device.

The major technical factor to consider when developing content for mobile devices are the actual device(s) that will be used to view the content. The range of mobile devices currently available to view online content is very large and the operating systems for these mobile devices are in no way standardised.  What’s more, the types of interactive outputs available for standard eLearning on a PC can be limited by the devices operating system specifications, the classic example being Apple devices not running Flash Media.

This creates a large, however not insurmountable, problem. How can you guarantee that your content will work in the way intended for all of your audience?

There are a number of ways to get around this challenge. Firstly and most obviously you need to be able to test your content across the range of available mobile devices and operating systems that your audience will be using to ensure that the content plays and works correctly. If you find an interaction or media item that doesn’t work then you can make alterations before the content goes public.

Secondly you can look at using a content development tool that recognises the emergence of the mobile as a valid delivery tool and is working to align the content publishing outputs with this delivery option. For instance Articulate has built an App for iPads that allows the majority of eLearning interactions to work on an Apple device. Articulate Storyline and now also Articulate Studio 13 allows for the publishing straight to HTML5 for mobile devices.

The design of your eLearning content is the next major consideration and this is directly linked to two elements. Firstly the physical, mobile devices have a much smaller screen size than a PC and mechanics of accessing and manipulating the content on screen is very different when there is no external mouse and keyboard. Secondly the psychological, the nature of the majority of popular content available via mobile devices is creating prejudice amongst users for very small and succinct packets of information.

As a subtext to both of these design considerations is the environment in which the content is being viewed. As the major appeal of mobile devices is accessibility of content from any location, we should rightly assume that the content you are developing will be viewed from any location. More specifically the content you are developing will be viewed in a non-office environment which is fraught with distraction both on the device in the form of texts, emails, phone calls and also from the person’s surroundings such as emergency vehicle sirens, kids playing, their bus arriving.

All of the above design considerations lead us down one particular pathway. Make it quick, make it relevant.

So let’s break down these design considerations and look at what we can do to make the content work within the constraints of the device and audience perception.

1. Visual Design

The single biggest and most obvious design consideration with mobile devices is the limited screen size and also significantly the range of screen sizes between smart phones and tablets. This means that unless you have a specified device you are designing for, you need to make your design operable in the smaller smart phone screen sizes as the standard. This thinking then takes us down a particular change in the way that mobile eLearning content is designed and that is that text on screen is out and images and media are in.

You can only fit a certain amount of text on a smart phone screen before scrolling or zooming is required and both of these functions will disrupt the flow of your content and lead to distractions in your audience. Recent studies have shown that the average attention span for reading text on mobile device is no more than three short paragraphs and if you were to have multiple screens of predominantly text the attention and therefore retention of the audience would drop off extremely quickly. This is very large design shift for eLearning since the vast majority of content is still heavily reliant on text to relay information. To overcome this we need to shift our attention away from text and focus more on the audio narration of concepts, video content and relevant imagery since images can tell a thousand words.

The smaller screen size also means that any images or video media that you do use will need to dominate the screen simply to make them easily visible.

Having said this, interactions such as drag and drop and clickable items are still entirely viable in a mobile delivery however the screen size constrains do limit the number of intractable items on a single screen.

2. The Psychological Design

Beyond the pure aesthetic of the screen and the necessity to increase the usage of audio, and video  content and simple image based interactions, there a number of design considerations around the way mobile content in general is perceived and consumed by the users of these devices.

Any content made available on a mobile device is accessed and consumed at the convenience of the user. There is no set timeframe for this access and there is no control over the environment in which the content is view or engaged with. Companies who develop mobile Apps and content for mobile dissemination generally understand this and deliberately segment their content so that it is delivered in small, quickly and easily digestible chunks of information.

This concept directly fits in with the surveys conducted on mobile device users, as mentioned previously, where the active attention spans of these users when reviewing content averaged out at:

a) Less than three paragraphs of text

b) Less than 30 seconds of audio

c) Less than one minute of video

eLearning developers who are designing content for mobile devices should take these types of surveys into consideration when storyboarding their courses.

Granted the above statistics represent all types of online content viewed and in a large number of cases the content being viewed may not be immediately or socially relevant to the consumer, which would automatically reduce attention spans, eLearning design should still embrace the same principles.

Even mobile eLearning content that is job specific or career or personal development based, which should engender great willingness to view and therefore longer attention spans, is still subject to the external environmental interruptions we encounter every day.

So the design message we take from this that if we can chunk down our content into much smaller bytes of information, perhaps focusing on single scenarios, individual concepts or theoretical summaries. Then provide these smaller chucks as a suite of interrelated content items, from which the user can either cherry pick individually relevant items or view interrelated items as a series of sequenced events, then we can still deliver the learning outcomes required in a format and a manner in which mobile content users will understand and engage with.

Beyond this the chunking down of content into smaller bytes also allows us to start embracing gamification concepts such as progression, investment and cascading information streams, which we will look at in another blog.

At B Online Learning we are able to provide comprehensive training in mobile and eLearning design and delivery as well as the usage of all Articulate development products Articulate Storyline and Articulate Studio. These products have been developed with output of content  to mobile devices as one of the key features.

Ben Saunders About Ben Saunders
For the past 10 years Ben has been immersed in the world of learning and communication (and training and development), from planning and design to build and implementation, from both the client and vendor perspectives. His experience bridges the gaps between business expectation, technology and learning theory, importantly this allows Ben to translate and articulate business needs into defined learner outcomes. He has experience with various LMS implementations including Moodle, Docebo, Plateau, SABA, DOTS as well as bespoke solutions. Ben is a Solutions Designer and Certified Articulate Trainer with B Online Learning.