Apply this approach to designing an effective mobile user experience.

These days, traditional models in computing and education are challenged by new paradigms, expectations, and behaviors that ubiquitous, touch-based technologies create. Mobile learning opens up a world of possibilities for building richer experiences between the user and the content, and between the user and his surroundings.

But to successfully design for mobile, we need to understand its fundamental elements and how they are reshaping most of our daily activities. By observing users' changing behaviors and perceptions, we can design experiences that can live up to users' expectations and needs.

Focus on your target audience

The key to success in the design of mobile applications (native or web-based) lies in a user-centered approach that can fully address the target audience's needs. It is the consideration of a target audience immersed in a real context that really matters.

When designing for mobile, the target audience is a dynamic user who demands continuous connection to relevant information and people. The user expects to carry out tasks as fast as he can and, if possible, expects the same experience regardless of the device being used.

However, users sometimes struggle with small screens and tiny links and buttons. They also face unpredictable interruptions, unreliable connections, and fragmentation across different platforms.

This might seem like an enormous challenge for instructional designers, but we already have the tools to enter this new arena of design. Have you ever tried to storyboard the environment, problems, and needs of your target audience instead of starting right away with the look and feel of the intended learning application?

In the case of mobile learning solutions, the learner's lifestyle, culture, behavior patterns, age, learning styles, and motivation are far more critical than in any other training initiative. All these factors heavily influence the activities and goals that learners seek to accomplish through mobile devices.

After observing and collecting data about the target audience, storyboarding can be used in experience design to clearly display different scenarios and problems, visualize possible solutions, and determine the relevance of a mobile initiative according to the learner's characteristics and requirements.

Early evaluation of the design

Once you have developed your first working prototype with the target audience's profile and needs in mind, it is time to test its usability. In other words, you need to determine how effective and satisfying it is for users to interact with the application as they try to perform a certain task.

How well does the interface adjust to learners' work environments? How quick and efficiently can learners perform the activities? How easy is it to find, apply, and retrieve relevant information? These are some of the questions that should be considered at this stage to avoid issues that could hinder the optimal performance of your solution later.

Use the following general guidelines, based on Jakob Nielsen's "10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design," to test your solution and ensure a more effective and enjoyable experience for the target audience.

Feedback. Keep communication fluent between the application and the learner. For example, provide the instructions, notifications, and feedback at the exact moment the learner needs them.

Remember that the learner wants to achieve a goal, so she needs to understand the overall system, evaluate the consequences of her actions, and know what is expected from her.

Tasks relevance and consistency. Innovation and creativity can be dangerous when they lead to applications that feel unnatural. By following design patterns and consciously replicating elements from the real world, you can give the perfect balance to your application. Provide a safe performance environment and facilitate real-life situations tasks.

Exploration and guidance. Ideally, the interface should be so intuitive as to require no instructions at all. Also, effective interfaces let learners perform different actions in a flawless manner. However, sometimes, errors happen.

Give learners enough freedom to explore and discover features, as well as learning paths, but also anticipate potential mistakes and always provide timely guidance to undo the unwanted function. Better yet, prevent errors by informing learners of what the consequences of their actions might be.

Uniformity. One characteristic of successful interfaces is consistency, and the goal is to facilitate the interactions between the application and learners as we help them to accomplish a task. Don't make learners wonder what the function of a button is, how they can go back to a specific screen, or why some options are missing when they most need them.

Efficiency of use. When considering efficiency, you may often think about the aesthetics, fast performance, and flawless operations of an application. Even though all these are important aspects to consider, we also need to evaluate how productive the learner is or has become when using the application.

Is the application contributing to improved learners' skills, workflow, and overall productivity? Can learners quickly find the information they need? Can they easily understand that information and successfully perform a task?

Minimalist design. What is the application intended to do? When designing for mobile, the answer to this question should be focused on a single task. This will help you make more sensible decisions regarding what content to include and how to present it.

Make sure that your content is straight to the point and granular—in other words, that it's organized in small pieces of information. Text should be easily scannable, including short and illustrative titles.

Also, select only those multimedia elements that add value to the content to avoid cluttered screens. Mobile learners' behaviors and work context are different, and you can't afford distractions. Irrelevant elements just slow down performance and productivity.

Initial value. If you have successfully identified the learners' needs and you also are able to delineate the conditions of the environment where learners perform, the application should be able to provide useful resources from the moment they launch it. Every activity should constitute a significant step toward the main task and learning goals.

Test on real devices. Even though you can directly test how your course will look on a mobile device with an online emulator, it is better to always test your courses on the real performance environment and under the real delivery conditions.

That will allow you to identify problems more precisely. More important, you will gain a better understanding of how your design performs and renders when it is deployed on the target device.

Drawing it all together

In "Startups, This is How Design Works," Wells Riley writes, "The goal of [user experience] design is to create a seamless, simple, and useful interaction between a user and a product, whether it be hardware or software. As with UI design, user experience design focuses on creating interactions designed to meet or assist a user's goals and needs."

Mobile designers and developers need to understand their target audience's requirements and performance environment to offer useful and relevant solutions. In spite of apparent constraints—such as smaller screens, interruptions, and lack of connectivity—experiences on mobile devices can be much more engaging and powerful than traditional e-learning since they support the learners in a particular context of use.

To have a clear understanding of your target audience and what they expect to accomplish, use storyboards that depict common situations and problems for mobile users. Careful observation and analysis of these realities can help you meet your learners' expectations and provide a compelling experience through mobile devices.

Another key technique that can help you create the ultimate mobile user experience is usability testing. A "usable" application is a convenient and practical tool that allows learners to readily attain their goals.

As Scott McCormick states in "The ABCs of Mobile Learning," "strive towards a [user experience] that allows for the flow of information to integrate seamlessly into the user's workflow." All in all, aim at designing a memorable user experience that draws on learners' real needs to help them successfully accomplish a task in their performance context.


Best Practices to Enhance the Mobile User Experience

  • Prioritize core elements and functionalities according to the mobile learner's needs. Avoid irrelevant features. In the words of Luke Wroblewski, author of Mobile First, "focus comes from the natural constraints of mobile." Smaller screens, distractions, lack of connectivity, and so on, force designers to carefully select what to include and what to leave aside.
  • Think about how such features as audio and video capture; compass; access to contacts; audio, visual, and tactile notification; image recognition; and QR scanning could contribute to the learning experience by supporting learners in a particular context of use.
  • Design a streamlined interface with a clear and consistent navigation to guide learners toward the desired result quickly. Learners should know where they are all the time, how to go back, and how to advance through the application. Always, double-check for broken links or any other issues that may impede smooth, seamless interactions.
  • Optimize your content for mobile. To reduce response times, images should be compressed without losing resolution and videos should be no longer than three to five minutes. Also, make sure that the content is presented in a format that is compatible with mobile devices.
  • Put emphasis on designing a single task that enforces learners' goals. Create simple and useful micro-interactions to assist learners in accomplishing those goals.