The 4 S’s of mobile design

Given that smartphone sales are estimated to exceed PC sales by the end of this year, and mobile Internet users are expected to exceed desktop Internet users soon after, I have finally concluded that the time is ripe for mobile learning.

Heeding the advice of start small and fail quick, I have dipped my toe into the m-learning space by converting an existing online course into a smartphone-friendly format.

While I am no m-learning expert, I thought I’d share with you several tips that I have collected on my journey so far. I call them the 4 S’s of mobile design.

Businessman looking at his PDA

1. Slim

Smartphones have a finite screen width. The going rate seems to be 320 pixels, so making your course canvas that wide would be a good start.

I would also suggest maintaining a small margin on either side of the text to improve legibility.

2. Simple

While show/hide interactions and other bells and whistles arguably improve learner engagement in an online course, they are downright confusing on a mobile device.

I suggest ripping the text and images out of them and running with that instead. I know it sounds boring, but as Tom Kuhlmann said recently:

Learners won’t complain about the lack of interactivity
if the content is relevant.

I believe the primary benefit of m-learning is the very fact that it is mobile. To me, bells and whistles run a distant second to finding out what I need to know when I need to know it.

Besides, if you are relying on bells and whistles to engage your audience, there are deeper problems you need to address.

3. Swfless

Yes I know Android sales exceeded iPhone sales last year, but the fact remains many of my colleagues own iPhones. That means I need to account for Flash compatibility.

Given the iPhone can’t play swf files, I have to make sure I either don’t use them or I use an alternative format – potentially HTML5.

Who knows… maybe Apple will do a backflip and start playing swf’s after all? And they might have to, given they are no longer top dog.

Other formats that should be considered in terms of cross-platform compatibility include audio (which I suggest is best delivered as mp3) and video (which I suggest is best delivered as mp4).

4. Short

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about the need to keep m-learning short. The general argument is that smartphone owners are a busy bunch who will accept only tiny snippets of information while they’re on the go.

I don’t buy it.

Sure, the mobile device is perfect for on-the-job, just-in-time knowledge and sporadic concept reinforcement – but that doesn’t mean it’s not convenient for longer content too.

For example, I wouldn’t mind working my way through a 30 minute course over two or three sessions on the ferry, especially when my boss lets me go home early to do so.

I rarely enjoy a clear half hour at my desk anyway, with the constant distractions of the office environment demanding my attention. So I might as well take advantage of downtime.

In any case, all e-learning content should be concise. Whether it’s mobile or not is a moot point.

Group of business people with smartphones

So according to yours truly, m-learning should be slim, simple, swfless and short.

Do you have any tips of your own? Any that you care to share would be gratefully received – even if they don’t begin with an S!

12 thoughts on “The 4 S’s of mobile design

  1. I agree with your thoughts that mLearning does not really need to be in small bites – if I have a long journey I look out podcasts as I know that I will have time to really think about them. Long rather than short in this instance is okay!

  2. I like the notion that mLearning offers the possibility of “stolen moments of productivity” Small chunks linked together makes using handheld device waiting for the bus much more likely. Five, 10-minute presentations can be more effective than any 50 minute lecture.

  3. Cheers Carol.

    Podcasts are an excellent example: they can be bite size or full blown lectures, both of which are valuable to the learner.

    I also enjoy those TED talks, which are long, monologous, and not at all interactive!

  4. Thanks Glen.

    “Stolen moments of productivity” – I like that :0)

    No argument from me, bite size works on mobile.

    I would also venture though, that I would prize a recorded 50 minute lecture if I missed it in person. I’m unlikely to sit at my desk in a 50 minute block to listen to it, but would rather catch up at other times such as to and from work.

    Everyone has different needs and preferences!

  5. Cheers Steve.

    I’ve been trying to keep up with the MobiMOOC.

    I’m glad they make the session recordings available, and the participant discussions are refreshingly mature.

    I’ve only been lurking thus far but I intend on actively contributing when I can spare some quality time.

  6. Adobe has just released Creative Suite 5.5 the Flash application now incorporates a ‘packager’ that will convert Swf to iPhone/iPad format. Can’t wait to try this new feature and judge the results! Excellent article!

  7. Wow, that’s a great leap forward. Thanks for letting me know about that, Gerry.

  8. Just getting into mobile learning and the #mobimooc so I very much appreciate your insights. I’d suggest that small bites (under 10 minutes) are important and can be sequenced to be consumed a little at a time building into a full learning meal so to speak. From my perspective longer elements will need a way to mark where I left off so I don’t have to listen from the beginning (although that could be a perfect review!)

    If I were going to add an “s” to the list I suppose it would be for social i.e., moving learning easily into the social learning realm, making the content portable and easily shareable via any variety of other media (blogs, twitter, facebook) via the mobile device. I’m looking forward to upgrading my iphone so I can use the copy/paste feature easier on-the-fly without having to completely close/open each app one-at-a-time. Thank you again for the post and discussion.

  9. You’re welcome, LaDonna.

    I certainly agree with the addition of a social “s”. With any kind of learning (be it mobile or otherwise), I am a strong supporter of a complementary social forum to facilitate further learning and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

    The more I delve into mobile and talk to others about it, the more I see that much of the advice for m-learning is sage advice for all learning – which we should be heeding anyway!

  10. Hello Ryan.
    We have met (briefly) I used to live in Melbourne and worked for Salmat Learning for a few years – I hope you are well.

    Now back in the UK, working for Epic down in the e-Learning town of Brighton. Mobile Learning is a quite a bit more tangible over here, meaning it is actually being built.

    You and you blog followers might be interested in a study Epic just completed for the NHS (worlds 3rd largest employer)on the potential benefits of mobile learning to meet the needs and preferences of
    the healthcare workforce. Peer reviewed by Oxford Uni and Professor John Traxler (UK’s only professor of mobile learning in the UK)

    The focus is healthcare, however the learns and messages can certainly be applied to the corporate and educational sectors.

    Click to access Mobile_learning_NHS_Research_Report.pdf

    Developed in tandem with the study were a couple of e-learning app’s for the iphone/ipad.

    These and a couple of other examples can be seen here:

    NHS Apps Demo:

    LinkedIn Demo:

    First Aider:

    Collins Demo:

    Above all on the Apple App store, mostly for free

    These and other apps were built using our SaaS based mobile authoring environment that produces for iOS, android, and RIM OS concurrently – this is an externally available environment and we are seeking partners overseas.

    I certainly do not want this to be a spiel – and apologies if it does, we however are excited about mlearning and are happy to share reports and examples like the above.

    Look forward to comments and feedback and more than happy to provide more info etc, check our website for whitepapers etc… thanks Jamie

  11. Hi Jamie.

    I’d be lying if I said I remembered you (I meet a *lot* of people in my role) but I appreciate your comment all the same.

    Please don’t think that m-learning isn’t gaining traction down under – if anything, it’s the opposite. My post here represents a personal journey ;o)

    Cheers for the whitepaper and demos. I particularly like the First Aider app. It turns something boring (let’s face it!) into something entertaining. You requested feedback so the one constructive criticism I can offer is for the app to say up front who endorses the advice. St Andrews seems to have endorsed it *after* its production, and the disclaimer says they aren’t liable, but that’s not quite the same as saying in the beginning “St Andrews First Aid endorses the following advice” alongside their logo.

    I look forward to seeing further apps in the silent movie genre. A point of difference in the burgeoning m-learning market, perhaps?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.