Mobile First Instructional Design – the interview

by WorkLearnMobile

Rob Geoff Vodcast Pictrue

What’s the secret to mobile learning design? Dr. Rob Power of the International Association for Mobile Learning (IAML) interviewed Geoff Stead for a recent VodCast series:

Rob: How does User Interface impact mobile learning?

Great mobile learning design is all about the context, and about supporting the learner at their moment of need. If your learner can get the help they need, when they need it you have succeeded. If not you fail.

But, that said, I’ve seen some poorly designed apps that were compelling enough that users still used them, as well as a fantastic user interface on a boring app So the UI isn’t everything, but getting it right will give your app the best chance of succeeding. The trick it to focus your efforts on ensuring the learner gets the support they need, as simply as possible, at that moment of enquiry.


Rob: Are there any particular constraints of mobile user interfaces that could affect the effectiveness of mobile learning?

There are two ways to answer that, the obvious way, and the strategic way:

The obvious way is comparing with a PC. Clearly mobile doesn’t offer the same things as a bigger device: small screen, no keyboard, many screen sizes and device types, intermittent connectivity, fewer accessibility options.

The strategic way is starting from what mobile does best. A phone might not be the best tool to design a poster on, but it’s with your learner all day every day. When designing engaging mobile learning the trick is to start from the device, and from the learner’s needs. This approach makes it easier to sidestep the constraints, and rather build on the strengths.


Rob: What do we mean when we talk about mobile first instructional design? How does this concept impact designing mobile learning interfaces?

“Mobile First” is a call to action most often heard in the world of web designers, and e-learning developers. It often means “responsive web page design” which is the modern way to develop any web content. The theory being that if content is designed to work on a small screen, it doesn’t take too much tweaking to make it work on a big screen too. The reverse is normally not true.

This is a good first step, but doesn’t really optimize for different devices. The best mobile learning goes one step beyond this, to offer different features for different devices. Imagine a new video-learning app and website:

  • Website: Huge archive of videos, together with note-taking and video sharing.
  • Mobile app: Tools to record your own videos. Native note taking app that supports text to speech and syncs notes with the website. Streaming video that delivers lower bandwidth versions of the video. Notifications of deadlines on learning tasks. Locational search to find other videos recorded near me.

This example shows real “mobile first” features, not just re-rendering the same content on a smaller screen.


Rob: What advice would you give to help teachers or instructional designers make sure their mobile learning resources are as accessible and easy to use as possible for learners?

  1. Keep Content Granular. Design small reusable chunks
  2. Strip out the pedagogy! Much e-learning embeds the teaching model into the content, or the navigation. Setting the context and only revealing content when the learner is ready for it. Great mobile learning takes a different approach, often more akin to performance support. Create content that is easy to search, and look up. Then set complex tasks that require learners to navigate and find the answers themselves.
  3. Design for any device, used any time. If you get the design right, your learning content will be used in all sorts of ways you didn’t expect.
  4. Embrace social
    a. Make sure your content is easy to share, and link to
    b. Allow learners to review / recommend / rate / comment
  5. Be where your learners are. My team used to focus on developing the perfect app, but we’ve shifted more and more to using other, existing channels to reach our learners. We run a facebook learning group with over 4m students! Other channels you should consider include wechat (China), whatsapp, linkedin


Rob: Do you have any other advice on how teachers or instructional designers can help ensure their mobile learning resources don’t create or reinforce digital divides?

  1. UX! Don’t underestimate the benefits of asking users for feedback. Spend as much time as you can building prototypes and seeking feedback. The better the user experience, the more success your app will be
  2. Users swap devices. If your learning app is good, users will swap different devices at different times of day. iPad. Smartphone. PC. Make sure your instructional design is ready for this
  3. Is your pedagogy embedded or embracing? I’m not sure “embracing” is exactly the right word here, but this goes back to converting content from linear courses to be more like “performance support”, to be reused when needed.


Rob: In terms of how learners access mobile learning resources, what are the differences between native apps and web applications? Does either type of interface have particular benefits that make it better suited to mobile learning?

They are both different, but both relevant and useful. I’ve been doing both for years, and still don’t think there is a single right answer: Mobile web is cheaper to build and maintain. Native apps give you access to more mobile features.

  • If I was running an internal learning team, I’d do mostly mobile web.
  • If I was building apps to sell, I’d probably go native
  • If I’m building a companion app to a website, I might end up building a bit of a hybrid app, with some embedded web, and some native features

In the end, the real goal is to ensure your app is easy to use and there when your learner needs it, so focus on minimising the taps / clicks required to find content, and make sure it is easy to navigate.


Rob: How do you see mobile learning user interface designs evolving, or changing, in the years ahead?

  • In-app search: Soon learners won’t be opening your app to find your content, they’ll be searching directly on their phones, possibly inside other apps. This makes it all the more important to design small, modular, discoverable units of content. (video is great for this)
  • Voice active: Growing numbers of users navigate their phones with voice. Speaking to search, to enter text, to load apps. Is your app ready for this?
  • More Devices: How will a learner interact with your content from a smart watch. Or Google Cardboard? Or a VR headset? As the numbers of devices continue to expand, it is all the more important not to limit your content design to single formats
  • Augmented Reality: Pokemon Go is hard to ignore at the moment, but AR isn’t new, and is likely to continue growing. AR is a great tool for mobile learning, linking digital learning content to real places.


We hope this interview is useful to the wider WorkLearnMobile community. For more information on Rob Power’s VodCast series, as well as a chance to hear from some fantastic mobile learning experts, see the rest of the series at

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