Mobile Learning Design Principles: Let’s Steal Them From Social Media

When designing your learning app, you want it to be engaging. How about adopting some design principles from apps that built a cult around the world “engagement?”

Dana Yatsenko

Uber has millions of drivers worldwide, and new ones join the platform every day. Being Uber, you obviously have a hard time trying to keep quality standards across the whole network.

Uber ride meme
Uber rides can go wrong in many, many ways

Face-to-face training centers for drivers may be a solution, but it’s an expensive, hardly scalable and barely standardizable solution. Online learning sounds better, but you still have to provide a bunch of employees with computers.

Uber’s decision was to provide drivers with bite-sized, interactive lessons on their smartphones. In gaps between rides, drivers accomplished 2-5 minute microlearning modules on everything, from delivering excellent customer service to lawful road behavior. Drivers upskilled via Uber’s mobile course saw consistently higher customer ratings — by 10% higher

Uber’s story shows that the mobile learning concept rocks.

What is mobile learning (and why it rocks)

Mobile learning, also known as m-learning, is an educational strategy that uses digital content through mobile devices.

It is flexible, informal learning. You don’t need to slouch in front of your laptop. Instead, you learn on the go, whenever you can spare a moment. Plane delayed at the airport? Go through some lessons. You're in line for chili hotdogs? Watch a short video. Feels like the bus is taking forever? You got the point.

It has a broad toolkit. Mobile phones possess functionalities that are not possible for desktops or laptops. They allow designers to build a genuinely unique learning experience. Like, smartphone's geofencing enabled PinPoint to develop lessons that trigger when a person enters a set location. And smartphone cameras helped Visible Body to create a comprehensive anatomical 3D atlas.

The Human Anatomy Atlas app learning design
The Human Anatomy Atlas app

Finally, m-learning is more effective. Since learning paths can be easily customized and content is broken down into smaller chunks, users show better completion rates on mobile.

There is just one small fly in the ointment of mobile learning

The flip side of the fact that m-learning doesn't make you slouch in front of your laptop is that you don’t make time for learning specifically. Staying in a line for chili hotdogs with the same success you may open either a learning app or Instagram. Or Twitter. Or YouTube.

So yes, your eLearning mobile app design is going to compete with Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. You may create the most engaging learning app in the world, with superior content, attractive design and UX so smooth that users would want to stay forever. But they will not, because…

learning apps vs. social media meme

Social media apps dominate smartphone users’ time. They take more of our time than gaming, chatting or music apps. And much, much more time than any mobile learning system.

social media are the most engaging type of apps
Image credit: simform.com

Mobile learning design principles from kings of attention economy

Our cognitive processing capacity is finite while content flows are infinite. Yet, social media apps know how to earn a piece of our attention pie in the age of notifications, calls, texts and the whole world wide web at our fingertips. Let’s steal some basic design principles from them.

Human interaction

People are social animals, our whole civilization is built on communication. We even have a chemical in our brain called dopamine that rewards us for evolutionarily beneficial actions like eating delicious food, exercising and having successful social interactions.

Social media know that, and trigger our reward system for better engagement. They offer us opportunities to shine, to get positive feedback and peer recognition — and we return for that experience again and again. 

social media positive feedback loop diagram

So don’t make people take your courses in solitude. Simple interactives such as group discussions, quizzes, and contests can stimulate that sweet feeling of reward that improves both user engagement and retention.

Mobile-first learning experience

Mobile learning instructional design is notorious for trying to squeeze desktop interfaces into mobile. But to design a seamless mobile app, designers should think in terms of taps, swipes and pinches rather than mouse clicks. 

It's pretty understandable that businesses want their app to be available across multiple devices. For instance,  PublishXI asked Eleken to design learning management system for both web and mobile. Thus, we created different products for different devices. The mobile app differed due to minimalistic UI and navigation buttons on the bottom.

LMS design for PublishXI
LMS design for PublishXI

The same way  social media approach their mobile-first interfaces.

Most users navigate on their phones with a single hand, and the layout should allow them to click, zoom, or pinch the screen easily. Look how Twitter and Instagram put all navigational buttons at the bottom of the screen so users can reach them with their thumb. They also make clickable areas large enough to tap with your thumb or finger. 

social media UI design
Learn mobile UI design from the best. Image credit: inc.com

Scrolling is another mobile design best practice we can adopt. There’s a temptation to transfer the “click next” style of learning design from desktop to mobile, but it may feel awkward on portable devices. Better let users scroll through content with a flick of a finger.

From social media we can also learn how to value the screen real estate on mobile devices. Actually, the recent trend among top apps is to minimize the number of UI elements and colors down to vanishing them. Thus, users can fully focus on content.

Bite-sized content

Social media believes good things come in small packages, so they limit users’ verbosity. 280 characters to express yourself in Twitter, 60 seconds for a video in TikTok — you have to communicate the message as quickly as possible.

That makes a lot of sense. Snackable content is primarily designed for people to consume on the go in tiny time spans on tiny screens. Not to mention users themselves preferring their content to be shorter.

people prefer short content graph
Image credit: Source Global Research

The concept of thinking small for maximum results works perfect when it comes to the content for a mobile learning environment. Educational content that has migrated from classroom training or e-learning rarely works for mobile phones. 

Users will ignore a tiny screen packed with bullet points and will get overwhelmed by collages of tiny images. But they will appreciate your effort if you summarize the information to small learning activities they can complete in 5 minutes or less.

Design for different circumstances

Apps that are too feature-rich may look great and feel amazing, but fail to work on old, low-end phones with a poor internet connection. Social media are designed for billions, so they try to keep all the diversity of their audiences in mind. They don't always succeed, but they definitely try hard.

Margaret Gould Stewart, the director of product design at Facebook, said that she and her fellow designers traveled the world, used products in non-English languages and tried using low-end devices to make sure everything worked well. She called it "keeping in touch with others' reality."

Consider that in most cases, learners will use your app using mobile internet. Reduce the number of heavy features and heavy assets you use. Compress your images and videos as much as possible before importing them.

Good LMS design principles also include offline functionality. People looking for something to do with no access to the web is a golden opportunity for mobile learning.

Here is how it worked for Booking.com entrepreneurial learning program's participant:

“Using Udemy’s iPhone app, I managed to download an amazing course just moments before boarding the London Underground and ended my 45 minute train journey (quite boring usually) feeling so empowered.”

Mobile learning design principles to help people learn

We like to explore new stuff, probably no less than clicking on "like” buttons. It’s in human nature to be curious, to seek knowledge and eliminate uncertainty by discovering new stuff. So maybe when mobile learning technology in education will unleash its winning strategies, just like social media has found one that works for them, people will shift their attention from facebooks and twitters to learning. 

If you’re reading this post and think you want to enter the market with your own m-learning application, Eleken UI/UX agency would be happy to assist. Drop us a line.


Read more about SaaS design