Mobile Development & Design in Learning and Development

Mobile Development & Design in Learning & Development

Sarah-Gilbert-mobile-development-SMEGuest contributor Sarah Gilbert shares her expert knowledge on mobile development and design in a Q&A format with us.

Sarah specializes in training strategy, design, and development at meLearning Solutions. She also serves as Director of the
Informatics Academy at The Task Force for Global Health, a nonprofit organization in Atlanta, GA. There, she leads a team to create global solutions for public health informatics workforce development. Sarah facilitates the Mobile Learning Certificate and Essentials of Mobile Development using Adobe Captivate for the Association for Talent Development (ATD), and she serves on the Greater Atlanta Chapter of ATD board of directors.

Sarah’s work has been published in The Book of Road-Tested Activities (2011), 68 Tips for eLearning Engagement and Interactivity (2013), T+D Magazine, and various other training and workforce publications. She regularly speaks at conferences and business events on the practical application of learning technology.

How do you develop a scope and manage client expectations when engaging in a mobile development project?

This can be challenging, especially when it is their first mobile project. It helps to start with a detailed project plan that has clearly defined milestones and dependencies. I use a tool called Smartsheet to set up a Gantt and dashboard and provide access to the client. Regular review meetings to discuss decisions and any changes to timeline are also critical.

I also follow a transparent design methodology. I break up the design and development process into explicit steps that are very clear. For example, rather than creating a storyboard (like you would in elearning), I separate each piece out (content, structure, visual design, functionality) into separate deliverables for review, so there is a very specific ask of the client in each step throughout the process.

Do you recommend native app development or mobile web development?

This decision is wholly dependent upon the requirements of the project. However, what we can do with mobile web has come a long way in a few short years, so most projects I’ve done end up in that space. Mobile web is more flexible because it is browser-based and many organizations have gone with BYOD (bring your own device). It simply isn’t always practical to develop and support apps for multiple platforms.

Keep in mind, though, that there are other mobile options aside from mobile web or native apps. Sometimes an interactive PDF, podcast, video, or eBook is the best solution.

How do device differences affect mobile development projects?

Really, the device can have a huge effect on a project, or very little. If you’re creating an app, it has to be built for the device’s OS. There are pretty detailed design guidelines for the different platforms (example: Apple HIG, Android). However, if you are creating a mobile web project, you can apply standard mobile design that is device agnostic. This is a great article of curated resources for mobile web development guidelines.

What tools are available for creating mobile wire-frames or mock-ups?

My absolute favorite tools are Balsamiq and MockFlow for more high-fidelity work. For the rapid development projects, I’ll use a combination of templates from, Gliffy (Chrome plugin), and POP app (Prototyping on Paper). All of the latter suggestions are free options.

What do instructional designers need to consider in designing mobile learning courses?

Honestly, it is the same thing that we want to think about when designing any kind of learning solution. Consider your users. What do they need to know? Where are they when they need access to this information? What device(s) do they have with them? Further, can we drop the word “course”? We should focus on a user-centric design that is structured appropriately for the content. Let’s think more about connecting our audience with answers/ information in a way that is logical, practical, personalized and simplified to the extent possible.

What design considerations should be made for accessibility?

Not everyone is used to designing for accessibility, but many are at least somewhat familiar with 508 compliance. This is an area where I wish we would give more focus instead of just shortcut designing for the majority. When it comes to mobile, you have to know that individuals with visual (and other) disabilities will likely be using the device’s accessibility features. It is important to test with those features turned on, at a minimum, to validate your design. Apple has an Accessibility Programming Guide that I have found to be valuable as well.

What is your recommendation for tracking data to improve the mobile learning experience?

This is probably the area that is most exciting about mobile – it is forcing us to re-think how we evaluate the usefulness of what we build. For a few years now, several organizations have taken advantage of xAPI to capture very specific data on how users are interacting with content. I have seen everything from tracking a user’s path through a scenario to identifying specific failure points in a simulation. If we can learn more about the user and their environment (context) through content interaction, we can continue to improve upon their experience and better support their development and performance. I highly recommend building a project that reports XAPI statements, even if you are just using a free Learning Record Store (LRS) to test it. There are tons of opportunities to learn about xAPI, whether it is at an upcoming conference like DevLearn’s xAPI Camp or on your own time through a MOOC or other resources.

What are future trends you see in mobile learning development and design?

I’m already seeing a big transition from mobile being something that just a few companies or industries are interested in to wider adoption of mobile as a platform. In the last few years, I have noticed that attendees in my mobile workshops are increasingly more mobile savvy. Many are already leveraging mobile in a variety of ways, whether it is delivering content or peer-to-peer sharing/ collaboration. I think that we will continue to see improvements in our tools, or altogether new tools, that better support mobile development. Specifically, I’m hoping that we see better responsive project support and the ability to take advantage of xAPI a little more easily.

Where I’d like to see us continue to improve is in the area of content management and strategy. We need to continue to refocus away from just the output, or deliverable, and getting a better handle on our real content. I am also really pushing for us to look at thoughtful design of other types of mobile experiences, like digital publishing (interactive ebooks) and video.

LMS vendors will have to continue to push the limits of hosting a variety of content with the flexibility and administrative control to measure and track more than just access, time, and completion. To that end, I’m noticing more vendors trying to support xAPI with built-in LRSs and dashboards. Some are also supporting and a wider range of content types in a mobile environment, and I expect that we will continue to see that shift.

Share your mobile development experiences in the comments. Check out the meLearning Solutions blog for more of Sarah’s insights! 


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