As an approach to eLearning, microlearning has a lot of appeal:

  • It’s less expensive to create than long, complex eLearning courses and often takes far less time
  • Learners gain control over their time and schedule when they can complete eLearning in short bursts whenever they have time, rather than having to set aside a half-day or longer
  • The brevity of microlearning forces a narrower focus, which can eliminate extraneous information
  • Much microlearning is highly portable—accessible on a variety of devices—meaning that learners can take it with them and are not tied to desktop or even laptop computers

But the diminutive size and scope of a microlearning project might introduce the temptation to cut corners, such as skimping on design. This would be a mistake. Well-designed eLearning demands attention to both the instructional design and the visual design (see “Instructional Design and Visual Design: The Pillars of Great eLearning”).

Here’s why: A key element of instructional design is providing information in a way that learners will understand. This means chunking information into coherent blocks. Whether each block is a five-minute microlearning module, a 30-minute eLearning course, or a six-week virtual seminar is irrelevant—the information within must be coherent and comprehensible.

“If the message is flawed, it is very difficult to create designs that can help supplement the message,” Crystal Rose, The eLearning Guild’s manager of web development and design, said in an email interview. “Proper design can help break up difficult-to-understand content by chunking the content or creating graphics to help explain those concepts.”

The eLearning must be accessible to learners. This means that they are able to use it when and where they need it. It also means that the visual design—the presentation of the information—must be clear.

Appearance matters

Visual design matters, even in small packages. While learners are less likely to get lost navigating through microlearning than in larger modules, they still need a coherent visual presentation of information.

“Poor visual design can impair the success of eLearning for several reasons,” Connie Malamed, a learning and visual design consultant and author, said in an email interview.

  • A cluttered design makes it difficult to process information.
  • Lack of clarity impedes learners’ ability to focus on what matters. “This wastes time and could cause people to miss the key point,” Malamed said.
  • A random or messy design impairs credibility. “In other words, it looks unprofessional, so how accurate will the content be?” Malamed said.

On the other hand, if the information is incomplete, inaccurate, or irrelevant, the most gorgeous visual design in the world won’t help. “I don’t think visual design can compensate for flaws in the instructional design. They more or less should move hand in hand,” Malamed said.

Design is design is design …

The approach to designing microlearning is similar to that used when designing any eLearning. Instructional designers scope out a project first, identifying the learning goals and format. You can present microlearning, like longer eLearning, as videos, text, or games; you can also present it graphically, as infographics or animations. In fact, using instructive graphics can be enormously helpful in reducing the amount of text; a short video or infographic can illustrate a process far more succinctly than written instructions.

Malamed recommends sketching out a series of thumbnails—“small sketches that help people visualize ideas.” That can both spark creativity and help designers identify a coherent flow. “You can draw six to nine small rectangles on a sheet of paper and brainstorm ideas, layout, interactions, etc.”

“With agreement on a general approach, I’d start playing around with design ideas in a graphics program (PowerPoint, Photoshop, Gimp, Canva, etc.) and come up with some styles that will work for the audience, content, and approach,” Malamed said.

Focus on the audience

As with any eLearning, a focus on learners and their goals is important:

  • What do learners need to take away from the eLearning? Are you reminding them of information that they’ve already learned or teaching them something new?
  • Where are they likely to use the microlearning? Graphical presentations might not work on smartphones, so the size of learners’ screens is a factor to consider.
Finally, don’t try to do too much. Microlearning works best if it is narrowly focused, clear, and, above all, concise.