We’re well past the point where mobile content is a novel presence in our lives: over half of all website traffic is on mobile and there are 5.22 billion unique mobile phone users worldwide. However, the widespread use of the format doesn’t mean that everyone designs mobile-first to take full advantage of its possibilities.
Against this backdrop, more learning is occurring on-the-go than ever before—but building learning experiences that work for mobile and truly engage learners still requires special attention. Enter professional learning designers such as Victor Verster, a Lead Learning Designer at LEO Learning, which provides learning content, strategy, and tech solutions to global businesses and government departments. We caught up with Victor and quizzed him about the key components and attributes of well-designed mobile learning experiences.
In general terms, what does learning design involve? What are organizations missing out on without a learning designer on their team?
Initially, learning design is all about requirements gathering. In other words, plotting what the business need is. That could be, for example, increased profit or cost-cutting. From that need, we derive the learning objectives, and these ultimately drive the design.
We wear many hats in our role. Some days we’re facilitators, some days we’re technologists, some days we’re investigators, researchers, storytellers, and more! To produce excellent learning content, you’ve got to play all of these roles but all under the banner of ‘Design Thinking’. We work very closely with subject matter experts to ensure the veracity of the content and make sure that it’s hitting the learning objectives. But, ultimately, it should be us leading the way, designing your experience with the end-learner in mind.
Steve Jobs is largely heralded as responsible for ushering in the Design Thinking era, and for that I’m very grateful. When washing machines were designed, the wonder of the machine wasn’t that it delivered a great user experience, it was that it existed at all. Whereas now, all of the big players in tech put UX and design thinking at the heart of their product strategies.
Bringing that back to learning, I think there’s a lot of learning content out there that was designed by people who, with the greatest of respect, don’t really have design skills. They were perhaps people in more technical positions who were told they had to adapt quickly, and as such often created digital content that was functional but not really desirable, enjoyable, and fun.
From a learning design perspective, Clark and Mayer’s Science of Instruction is my bible. It outlines eight principles on the nature of human learning that are crucial: multimedia, contiguity, modality, redundancy, coherence, personalization, exemplification, and practice. Then there’s the UX perspective to consider—we have to constantly interrogate our designs and ask ‘Is this solving the user’s problem?’ Without a learning designer, you lose that crucial learner experience-driven steer through every stage of production.
What, in your opinion, does a piece of mobile learning have to do to be an effective and engaging learning experience?
Modern learners kind of expect things to be quite dynamic. They expect a combination of text, audio and visual—especially on their phones. The modern learner is really only one Google search away from identifying solutions to their questions, and they often end up choosing a video demonstrating that solution on somewhere like YouTube. They really should be able to access your mobile learning content as quickly and easily as that.
How are some organizations failing to get mobile learning right?
When we measure the success of our learning, we’re really looking for behavior change, which may be, “once employees watch this video, we see a reduction in instances of the behavior featured in it by 35%”. But there are many technical and experiential issues that stand in the way of achieving that.
At LEO, we work with our sister company Gomo, which is a responsive eLearning authoring tool that works as effectively on mobile as on desktop. Some older tools are only adaptive: they scale or shrink desktop content and it results in a poor experience. In general, if the mobile solution you’ve designed isn’t engaging and it flouts the principles of good learning and good user experience design, your user will get distracted.
Distraction is a huge issue on mobile—the appeal of smartphones is that they do so much, so you’re competing for their attention against a learner’s social feeds, incoming phone calls, games, and so on. The impact of this is arguably greater than on a work-issued laptop, so your mobile learning needs to push that little bit extra on engagement.
A somewhat unexpected example of a common unengaging practice is having a voiceover narrative that is explaining a complex concept, and having on-screen text that repeats essentially the same script. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this approach is twice as effective—but it’s actually undermining understanding. Information presented in this way forces us to concentrate on minor differences in the scripts. For this reason, subtitles should be optional in your video player for those that need them and not forced on those who don’t.
The same principle is seen whenever production quality slips—your learner may be distracted by poor lighting, something awry in the set, or struggling to hear quiet or static-filled voices.
Finally, organizations of course need to work within the technical realities of their audiences. Even if everyone has a phone, remember that they don’t necessarily have constant connectivity or easy access to charging points.
Where do you see the future of learning design going, considering current working trends?
Mobile learning and video are only going to get more popular. I don’t think they’re a nice-to-have anymore. It’s true that video learning specifically is a lot more expensive than text, and training budgets are being cut right now, so we have to be realistic. Nonetheless, people want things that are convenient and familiar to them, and both technologies are exactly that for the employees now entering the workforce.
At the same time, the demands of our work and the increasing embrace of remote and hybrid working make being able to access learning at the point of need even more essential. Mobile presents such a great opportunity for learners. It empowers them to be more autonomous and puts them in control of the material they absorb, and when they absorb it.