It’s easy to get hung up about technology with mobile learning, but the real market driver is content. You can’t re-heat just any old content and drop it onto a mobile. Content needs to be fit for purpose to deliver a return on investment by improving productivity and content retention, increasing compliance, or reducing risk. Here’s what makes great mobile content.

1. Two minutes of content

Dividing content into two-minute segments began as a way to quickly and cheaply send content across mobile phone networks. While these technical considerations are less of a concern today, the two-minute segment has become a terrific driver for sharpening key learning points.

By studying the psychological interaction between users, their mobile phones, and learning content, we have found that after about 90 seconds the user begins to lose concentration. True, people watch 30-minute TV episodes on their mobiles but that is a “lying back” style of entertainment. What we want to achieve is the “lean forward;” a more interactive engagement in which the user works alongside the content. A 90- to 120-second duration works.

2. Animation works

From our experience, the tone of voice for mobile content works best in the animated format. (Figure 1) Animation brings a more playful, relaxed style rather than the more formal “presentational” or “broadcast” mode that you often get in traditional video.

two images: photo image of person and animated profile of the photo image

Figure 1. In mobile learning, animation works better than video for engaging learners.


Our research shows that learners are consequently more engaged and the content retention is higher. That goes for the most serious of subjects. It’s not a coincidence that most aircraft in-flight safety videos are animated today. Nor does the animated format diminish the “seriousness” of the content import.

3. Conversational style

We are supporting new research to look at the mobile phone as “personal space.” We have recently begun producing learning content for an Australian high street bank (Editor’s Note: For our North American readers, a “high street bank” is a retail bank with a physical location, as opposed to a bank that only exists on the Internet.) to help support their Internet banking customers on issues such as personal finance. The driver for such content has to be personal utility. It may seem common sense, but it is so often not common practice. To many people, their phone is as important as their wallet, purse, or car keys. So if the mobile is personal space it needs to be treated as such, and we need to be clear about what is acceptable and not acceptable within this personal corral.

Relying on SMS and automated voice messages is perhaps not the most appropriate way of treating someone’s mobile. We believe the user wants some type of personalization of the content. This may come from branding, or from putting a local accent on generic content, but personalization is best achieved through highly customized content. So the challenge is to try and get the right ratio between generic and customized content.

4. Deliver some smarts

Content needs to encourage a number of “do differents.” Anything else is corporate “infomercial.” Mobile content can deliver “how to” instructions at the point of use. But people also want to know how they can be better, smarter, and faster than they were before.

5. Target the 5% remedial or recidivist behaviors

By identifying those areas of work that are either not done right or lack compliance (i.e. people know what to do, they just don’t do it), you can achieve productivity benefits and cost efficiencies for an organization. Most organizations do the basics well most of the time. That allows you to quickly identify the areas where they need to do better.

6. Participate: co-opt users to design content

We expect learning to come from an expert. But you also respect the smarts of your successful colleagues. Getting users to generate ideas supports the more open and collaborative style of learning that organizations are looking for. A series of “do differents” from respected people on the ground drives up the use of mobile content and increases its retention. While some people are always keen to participate, others may need encouragement. And others may need to be engaged simply to stop them from blocking the introduction of mobile learning. (How we deal with these types of people is addressed in the sidebar.)


Sidebar: Early Adopters, Floating Voters, and Resistors

At Skill-Pill, we divide people into three categories according to their initial response to mobile learning.

One-third are the early adopters, typically Generation Y [those born after 1980].

The second third are the floating voters — not necessarily characterized by generation: they are open to the concept but are not going to drive it themselves. While they are open, they are also quite passive. These are the people to sell mobile learning to. Addressing this segment will get your user base to about 60%. This is not bad going.

The final third are the “resistors” who tend to be less interested in new technology and/or perhaps feel that they know what they need to know anyway. Ignore these people at your peril as they can often be very senior in the organization, and they can be blockers. They will never be drivers, or probably even users, but they need to be engaged to avoid having them block your project.

So the core challenge is to convert the “floating voters.” Asking them for ideas for content is one way. Another way is by having some content come from people in the “outputs” of an organization, and not all from senior executives at the center.


7. Characterize content by upcoming events

Events or immediate challenges change the value of mobile learning content more than anything else for users. The need to acquire essential knowledge and “tune up” previously acquired skills is the driver of mobile learning and can ensure it returns on its investment far beyond what eLearning can manage. Events create the need among people for event-based training and advice content that can make a real difference to their performance.

The sales process is a good example. The sales cycle is defined by specific events around opening, negotiating and closing, following up, and so forth. There is a clear difference between success and failure. If people ultimately buy from people, then the seller needs to be in the right frame of mind. Well-designed mobile learning can support the seller in this high-pressure environment. Ideally, we want all employees, not just sales people, to recognize their challenges and proactively look for the right content that suits their needs.

8. Resist the temptation to put it all into push-mode

Mobile learning can improve a person’s productivity because it gets into their personal space; and, because it’s with them all the time, they can self-diagnose their own challenges in the context of their daily needs.

Mobile learning moves the organization to “receiver” mode rather than “push” mode. The trick is to encourage people to look for the content. Most people today learn informally. If we can instil and reinforce best-practice learning via the mobile or laptop, then the user turns to their preferred choice of technology, rather than their colleague, at which point the mobile device can be managed more tightly for best practice. By the way, there is nothing wrong with an individual getting guidance from their buddy at work. That said — the organization has no real control over what that buddy will respond with — it may be best practice; it may well not be!

9. Encourage users to self-diagnose

Encouraging people to take responsibility for what they need to know and do, and assessing how efficient they are when delivering against tasks, is part of a productive learning pathway. It sounds like a big thing to ask but it is really common sense.

We need to encourage users to define where they need help, and give them the ability to call down that help as they begin to deliver against the upcoming task. This places the onus on the organization to trust individuals more to self-diagnose and market the learning resources effectively. We must come to realize that making every employee (at a set level) go through the same training program takes little account of their current knowledge level or specific job needs. It is a blunt instrument. This inefficient model is going to get pulverized in the upcoming decade.

10. Make the experience elegant and emotional

Mobile learning needs to be simple. And it needs to be fit-for-purpose — flexible content delivered at the time and place and on the device of the user’s choice, and in a style and format that is easy to consume. You can’t re-heat eLearning content and expect much success.

The responsibility for deciding how, when, and what someone learns, is shifting from learning providers to the learners themselves. This all-of-the-time availability of information is crucial to empower and motivate users as to when, where, and how they “consume” their learning. More motivated learners will hopefully give us higher levels of use, retention, and actual application of the learning — our learning goal.