The Google Plus logo

Designing for mobile learning and communications

This post was written by Katie Hart and first appeared on the LINE blog on 3rd April 2013.

From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we fall asleep at night we are “in near-constant visual contact with bright, pulsating rectangles” (Dr. Richard Menken, 2009).

Originally published as part of a spoof article in The Onion, Menken’s quote rings startlingly true today with the rise of ubiquitous computing. The volume and intensity of the information that passes through these glowing rectangles is transforming and increasing at a rapid rate. At some point this massive influx of information needs to be counter-balanced. Dense information needs to be simplified and sorted and messages need to be sharpened and focused.

UX Magazine predicts a trend towards Digital Abstraction, with technology paring down functionality, personalising and extracting information and operating nicely around the edge – rather than at the centre of – our attention. After all, with a myriad of pulsating rectangles demanding our constant engagement, it is the app that simply makes life easier rather than demanding our full attention that will ultimately win audiences over.

So how do we go about designing learning, and creating engaging content for users in 2013? At the heart of any mobile content design strategy should be these three factors:

Designing for mobile learning & communications

  1. Context
  2. Content
  3. Users


In this article we will consider how we should treat these three factors when designing content for mobile. We will look at what mobile means for content design, for understanding our audience requirements and for mapping the context of use. Finally, we’ll reflect on what this means for learning on mobile devices now and how designing for mobile is different from what we’ve done before.

Speak to different mindsets not different devices

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight – ‘on the go’ does not always mean ‘need it now’. How often have you found yourself with 30 minutes to kill on a train, or in a coffee shop waiting for a friend to arrive? Google helpfully defined, as long ago as 2007, three mobile behaviour groups to cover the different mindsets we find ourselves in when consuming mobile content:

  • Repetitive now (repeat/micro-tasking) – something that is important to me and keeps changing or updating: I want to stay connected and on top of it
  • Bored now (play explore/learn) – there are different shades of ‘bored now’, ranging from wanting idle time distractions to wanting to use the time productively to learn, read or watch something
  • Urgent now (look-up/find/local) – I need an answer to something immediately, perhaps related to my current location

From the beginning of the design process, deciding what type of mobile content you are creating and which mindset your audience is likely to be in when they access it is crucial. Understanding these behaviours will determine how your mobile experience can be structured and organised to meet your end-users’ needs.

Case Study:

When designing the PandDA (Pashtu and Dari) language app for the Army, we quickly realised that it fitted into the ‘urgent now’ behavioural category. Our end-users would need to quickly access a word or phrase while at a vehicle checkpoint to help them communicate with Afghan nationals in their local language. We tested prototypes of the app with soldiers during their training pre-deployment and decided to move ‘search’ to the very first thing you see when you open the app (figure 1). During testing our audience members commented that it would be more helpful to be able simply to enter a word or phrase they needed and have this presented in one page (figure 2). We also identified a secondary behavioural category that our audience members could be in when accessing the app; ‘bored now’. We realised that there might be times when our app users would have time to spare and so we included a ‘quick learn’ chapter in our app (figure 3) for less urgent learning and browsing.

PandDA Army app

Figure 1

PandDA Army app

Figure 2

PandDA Army app

Figure 3

Fighting for attention

Google’s recent study Our Mobile Planet (2013) found that 80% of smartphone users were also doing other things while using their devices; listening to music, for example (43%), or watching TV (55%). We alluded earlier to UX Magazine’s concept of digital abstraction – “a compressive reduction of dense information sets into radically simplified communications and visualizations”, but we really need to design for interruption. In other words, we must be aware when we are designing that the user’s attention may be called away at any moment, and make it easy for them to re-engage with what we are showing when their attention returns. Here are four design tips you can bear in mind when designing mobile experiences for busy people:

  1. Make it glance-able – provide top-level menu structures that are quick and easy to absorb.
  2. The three-tap rule – try and make sure I can get to where I need to be in around three taps – don’t send me off down a rabbit hole!
  3. Short, sharp and focused – keep your content interesting, to the point and focused on topic. Layer information so that I can make the choice to take a deeper dive.
  4. Picking up where I left off – with a medium prone to interruptions (phone calls, text messages, Facebook comments, etc.) make sure your app will let me pick up the content where I left off.

Habitual digital extensions

For some of us, mobile devices have become a second limb from which we simply can’t bear to be parted. Google’s study found that 78% of people surveyed would not leave home without their smartphones. There does seem to be a pattern to some of the optimum times when people are likely to use a particular device, which may also have an impact on design when you are thinking about context. The graph below from comScore shows that we are likely to be glued to our smartphone on the daily commute into work, whereas we are more likely to pick up a tablet whilst sofa surfing in the evening.


Focus on the user

It goes without saying that focusing on the end-user is imperative for designing engaging content. We know this, but what does it mean in a world alive with glowing rectangles? We already know we need to think carefully about what mindset the user will be in when they look at our content. What else do we need to consider about the user in order to create that compelling mobile content piece, or ‘killer’ app? Here are four tips to take into consideration when assessing your audience requirements:

  1. Map my goals – what is my motivation to open your piece of mobile content instead of checking my Twitter feed?
  2. Talk to me – make some paper prototypes and show them to me, let’s talk about what terminology will make sense to me.
  3. Iterate your design – iterate your ideas using low-fidelity prototyping and user trials to get the build right first time
  4. Be sympathetic to my multi-tasking tendencies – face facts, I’m likely to be on a busy tube or watching TV at the same time as looking at your content so don’t be too demanding

Content – don’t dumb it down!


Don’t cut your content down just because it is going on to a smaller device. Just be smarter and more succinct about how you write it in the first place. Look at your content and work through what is ‘must know now’, ‘can know later’, and just ‘nice to know’. Here are four tips when transforming or crafting content for mobile delivery:

  1. Short, sharp and focused – mobile users typically consume content in several short sessions, so think soap opera rather than epic movie.
  2. Layer it – think of a pyramid starting at the top with the key point and gradually building down to a broad and deep understanding of that point.
  3. Always leave a path for me to follow – mobile is a mode for exploration; think about opportunities for related content, additional information and case study material. Never lead me into a dead end.
  4. Entertain me – video is huge on our mobile devices so consider how you can deliver content in more visually rich and entertaining ways.

How is mobile learning different from learning on a PC?

In her book, The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman uses the analogy of snorkelling and scuba diving to describe the differences between mobile experiences versus PC experiences. Hinman explains that the larger screen and static environment allows audiences to become more immersed in rich, graphical worlds within their computer screen, exploring deep oceans of information. The mobile audience, on the other hand, is likened to snorkelers who float on the surface of the water riding with the ebb and flow of the ocean. Snorkelers tend to be searching for interesting seascapes while being distracted by other factors affecting them in the ocean’s surface, whereas scuba divers are deeply immersed in their environment.

Quite often when I am designing mobile content, clients tell me they want it to be engaging and interactive. In pre-mobile days, my fellow designers and I always strived to achieve deep levels of interaction in PC-based learning, because we had to entertain our learners for an hour at a time (or more). However, it is necessary to adjust what we think of as ‘engaging’ and ‘interactive’ in the mobile context.

A mobile learning strategy is much more liable to be augmented with other learning activities in different modalities – face–to-face activities, social and informal learning, etc. Blended learning has become far more prevalent. We are much less often trying to teach users an entire topic, and we’re not asking them to stay with it for 60 minutes. We can engage audiences by giving them micro journeys to follow – providing short video and audio pieces they can consume on the commute, for example. TED talks do a fantastic job of this with their 20-minute videos, which are the perfect length for commuter entertainment. A mobile user’s time and attention is difficult to get, so by time-bounding content to something which meets the audience mindset you will be on to a winner.

Be aware also of the differences in designing for smartphone and tablet. Tablet is not just a bigger version of smartphone! Tablet applications really let you explore and bring content to life through touch: that’s the real trick to interactivity on a tablet device. There’s a certain level of expectation about the quality of the design and the feel of what we consume on our tablet and you need to maintain this if you are going to compete with Angry Birds.

We are on the cusp of some major changes in the digital space and exciting times lie ahead. This high level of connectivity and ubiquitous, just-in-time-driven learning requires a “need to expand our vision of pedagogy so that learners are active participants or co-producers rather than passive consumers of content, and so that learning is a participatory, social process supporting personal life goals and needs” (McLoughlin and Lee, 2007).

This ultimately is how we can reimagine engagement and interactivity in the future of mobile learning, actively engaging audiences in co-creation and participation in learning experiences which transcend the digital and the physical space. As learning practitioners we should work towards participatory learning design, using the device’s natural capabilities to geo-locate and working with data and information that is up to the moment. We should allow learners to share, comment and curate their own learning experiences, making learning contextual to them and evermore personally relevant.