It’s a fact: we live in a multi-device world. I’m currently sitting at a desk with my laptop open, my phone next to me, and a tablet within reach on the counter. What about you? How many devices do you have going at this very moment? Chances are it’s more than one.

I might start an online transaction by looking up a product review on my phone. Then I might switch over to my tablet or laptop to find out more info and make the purchase.

Maybe you start reading an article on your laptop and then move over to your tablet for a cozy-up on the couch with a cup of coffee. If you’ve got your browser set up to sync on both your devices, your tablet will even have the article bookmarked for you, ready to read.

Sequential screening—when you start an activity on one device and then move along to another—is the new status quo. We unconsciously make the transition from device to device in our personal lives; increasingly, we have these same expectations for interacting with our work environments. With more and more organizations opening up to a “bring your own device” (BYOD) model, we no longer have the luxury of designing our eLearning and training content for one device and one device only. (Recent research indicates that 74% of organizations have either already adopted a BYOD policy or are planning to allow employees to bring their own devices to work.)

The new multi-device world order is here, and it means you need to build and design content that will work on almost any device. This means you need to rethink that fancy slide-based eLearning show that was designed for a desktop and became unusable when viewed on a small tablet. It’s now a dinosaur, relegated to the forgotten corners of your LMS.

This is where the word “responsive” comes into the room, stands up, and makes itself known. Let me take a moment to give you some really simple definitions of “responsive” and “multi-device learning,” and then I’ll share a few tips for designing with this new framework in mind.

What is this word “responsive?”

Responsive website design is the current darling of the web world and for good reason. Essentially, it means that content will respond to the screen size it detects. So, if you’re looking at, say, on a desktop or a mobile phone, the content will automatically detect your screen size and adjust what you see. You can try this on a desktop—open a website in a browser and drag the browser size down. If content adjusts as you go, then it’s a responsive site.

You can even tag content on a responsive site—this means that designers can hide certain images and text strings on small phones and tablets, allowing them to tailor the user experience while only needing to build one version of the site.

Web designers who build responsive websites use, not surprisingly, web design tools like HTML, jQuery, CSS, JSON, and other tools that I don’t have the technical know-how to explain. These may not be the skills that your current eLearning development team has, but it’s likely that someone in your organization—maybe the website expert in marketing—does.

Responsive web design can take more time and budget, but it can be worth it. Why more time? Well, one big reason is the testing.  Just because a site is “responsive” doesn’t mean that it’s automatically going to work everywhere. You still need to test and adjust to ensure your site works well across different browsers and devices.

What are your use cases?

OK. So now you might be thinking that this responsive thing may be something to start thinking about for delivery of eLearning content. But first: Do you need to deliver eLearning that works on multiple devices? Perhaps the audience for your eLearning content will only really be viewing it on a desktop or laptop computer, and you don’t need to think beyond that.

Here’s where it pays to know your use cases.

Think about how your people will be using and accessing your content. Airline pilots in the cockpit access manuals and checklists on their tablets. At a fast food restaurant, a new team member runs through eLearning content on a tablet while sitting at a table in the lobby. In the field, a sales person looks up product details on her phone before going in to clinch the deal. A teacher prepares for a professional development workshop by running through a learning module on her tablet the night before while sitting on her couch. Between patients, a doctor accesses a product tutorial from her laptop.

What matters the most is how we use these devices and when. Know your use cases. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When will your audience access your content?
  • What devices might they be using?
  • Will they have different needs or use cases depending on the answers to those two questions?

In Making mLearning Usable: How We Use Mobile Devices, Steven Hoober and Patti Shank shared some interesting statistics around use cases in terms of our posture or stance when using certain devices (Figure 1):

Figure 1:
From Making mLearning Usable: How We Use Mobile Devices

(Source: Steven Hoober with Patti Shank, eLearning Guild Research Report, 2014)

Does this data sound about right? It does to me. I might look up a quick fact on my phone while standing at the kitchen counter, but if I want to digest an article or watch a movie, I’ll probably sit down with a bigger screen. 

Imagine your audience. Do you really think they’re going to run through all of your eLearning content on their mobile phone while standing in line at the grocery store? Probably not. They may look up quick facts or want a review of some key tips and information while they’re checking in at the lobby for a client meeting, but that small screen is not going to be used in the same way for the same purpose.

Does this data change how you think about your audience and how they might consume your eLearning content? Just because you can put your content on a phone doesn’t mean you should. Consider your use cases and design with the end in mind.

What about responsive eLearning? Is there such a thing?

Responsive eLearning defined: A single version of your course delivered to multiple devices, built using everyday web technology (HTML, JavaScript, CSS).

So responsive sounds good for your eLearning content. You’ve got a need, and you’re ready. How can you build it? In this day of rapid authoring tools, can we just turn a switch and go responsive? As it turns out, there is some good news.

Captivate 8 is billed as a responsive tool, allowing for course authoring in one place with output to multiple devices. At Kineo, we have been doing a lot of client work using Adapt, which is an open-source responsive elearning design and development framework. (Find out more about open source Adapt at

I expect other authoring tools will fall into the responsive camp sooner rather than later; the tide has indeed turned.


  • One version works on all devices
  • One version to track and maintain
  • Distribution from a single LMS or source
  • Accessible content
  • Searchable content
  • More cost effective
  • Allows sequential screening

Convinced and ready? Now let’s change how we think about eLearning design and run through a few tips and design shifts.

Put scrolling at the heart of your design

Users expect a different experience when they interact with online content, and the slide-based eLearning program that’s been the standard for the past 15 years or so is becoming, well, archaic.  It’s time for a paradigm shift.

Back in the olden days of eLearning, a scroll bar was considered a naughty thing to be avoided at all costs. We’re now liberated from this prejudice, with most of us scrolling an awful lot. Think about how you interact with your Twitter feed, Zappos shoes searches, and Amazon product pages: scrolling is natural when swiping on a tablet or smartphone, and it’s expected website behavior.

Plus, the scroll bar is not just a means of navigation. Smart designers use the scroll bar to their advantage, building the scroll right into the story of their content. Check out how these web designers have transformed the page by building the scrolling right into the design of the page itself, using the scroll bar to unfold a narrative and pull the user down the page.

We can do the same with eLearning.

Liberating the scroll bars gives us some new ways to present content. Imagine a course lesson that’s not locked down in a “click next to continue” slide show but that gives the learner the chance to swipe through and explore the content. You can still set it up so the learner has to view all content for completion rates to ensure compliance regulations are met, and you can even hide content blocks until the learner views previous ones. Scrolling provides a more organic, tactile, modern, and accessible experience in terms of absorbing the content.

Scrolling pages offers learning designers and users several benefits, namely:

  • The removal of unnecessary navigation (click next to continue) with pages being as long or as short as they need to be
  • A more modern way of presenting information (learners are already scrolling when they’re on the web) 
  • More opportunities to present the learner journey in new and engaging ways

Control the scroll

As you can see, I’ve fallen in love with the scroll bar, but at the same time, I suggest being cautious.  Avoid designing endless pages of scrolling content that go on forever, causing your audience to lose all hope of completing the experience. Instead, think about keeping a scrolling “page” to a single learning objective or activity. As we work more with scrolling pages, we’re finding we can do quite a lot in a page that has five to seven components that tell that part of your content’s story.  Building flexible content in small blocks and components creates that more nugget-like, micro-learning experience that we’re all aiming for these days.

For instance, you might create one page in your course that focuses on a particular customer service skill. For an instructional strategy, you choose an “observe and rate it” model. You open the page with a text block and graphic that sets the stage for this little lesson, and then you show a video scenario of this concept in action. Next, you ask the learner to rate the performance of the character in the video with a slider bar component. Then, you follow up with an audio clip of an expert sharing his rating for the character’s performance and why. You end by wrapping up the page with a short summary of the key points. One scrolling page, five components, one focused learning activity.

Make the most of your graphics

Now that we’ve unlocked the scroll bar, we’ve got a whole environment in the form of a page to work with visually. Think about how you can use the layout and the visual treatment of the entire page to support the content.

Tell a story by weaving together the content, the graphics, and the navigation.

As you consider the visual elements in this learner journey, lead the eye down the page with the art direction.

Look for opportunities to tell stories, particularly when you can weave the graphical backgrounds and the component content together to make the page a coherent and well-thought-out experience for the learner.

That said, take care with graphics and keep both the visual experience and the download time in mind. If you shrink that image down for mobile, will it still be meaningful, or do you need to create separate versions of images for different devices? You may even choose to lose certain images as your screen size scales down. But remember a crucial thing: no matter the device, a responsive site will download every image in the entire CSS file. So if you’ve got a huge image that you want to display on a desktop version of the course but hide for the mobile version, a mobile user will still need to wait while his or her connection pulls down all versions of the image.

Respond to the people, man!

Some final parting words (and these won’t be my last words on responsive eLearning design because I think it’s here to stay): stay responsive to the people taking your programs and never forget that there will be a human being sitting on the other end of that computer working through your content.

Just because you’re designing with a new page layout and paradigm in mind doesn’t mean that you can forget all that you know about instructional design. We’re not looking to simply throw content onto a scrolling screen and see what sticks. As with any eLearning program, you need to take the time to create well-structured content that follows a solid learning model, maps your instructional strategies back to desired performance outcomes, and provides a user experience that people will actually want to work through.

Editor’s Note

Check out Cammy’s presentation from DevLearn 2014 in the Conference Archive: Responsive eLearning Design Tips (also available on SlideShare).