"Build mobile first". You may have heard this as a guideline for designing content, but why has it become known as the "mobile-first principle"? This is important advice that many successful instructional designers follow. There are two basic reasons: first, internet use on mobile devices passed desktop use five years ago, in 2016. Second, more people access the internet from mobile devices than from desktops. In addition, going "mobile first" saves time and money. In this article, you will find a basic set of ideas that will help you apply the mobile-first principle in a way that will result in better mobile learning products.

Mobile learning requires a different approach to design

The first challenge in designing mobile learning is that the designer has a lot less room available on the screen of a mobile device. The designer must fit an instructional delivery into a display as small as a smartphone screen, and the space available will never be any larger than what will be available on about a 16-inch display (most of the time a lot less). This is the primary concern the designer of mobile learning must deal with.

Don't convert your desktop courses

Build mobile learning independently from "the ground up", don't convert desktop courses. Adding content later to fill a larger display is less of a challenge than removing content from a small one if you intend to deal with the same set of learning objectives in both cases. In addition, authoring tools designed for use on desktops may not produce content that can be delivered on mobile devices.

Basic development choices

There are two basic ways to deal with development of asynchronous content for delivery across the range of mobile devices. Here are the choices, and links to Learning Solutions articles that explain them:

You may also want to consider taking one of these alternatives when synchronous learning or cloud-based learning are appropriate choices: A performance support app to guide the user (including the use of augmented reality), a game or simulation (including the use of virtual reality) to promote learning by doing, or for a synchronous approach you can use social media or a virtual classroom. This article does not address these alternatives.

All of these, with good design, can support mobile learning.

The fine details

  • User-centered design (UCD), including accessibility, is the foundation of great mobile learning. Start by understanding the outcome you want from the learners' experiences, and the setting in which the learner will be engaged in those experiences.
  • Minimize the use of text—it can be hard to read on small screens. Use video or animation instead if you need more content in the course, being careful to avoid cognitive overload.
  • User experience design: Fit the production to the user and the user's situation.
  • Select an authoring tool that matches objectives, design style, learner setting, and situation.