10 mLearning Lessons I Learned from reading Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski [Book Review]

I love Mobile and everything that it represents. I like the physicality of touch, the idea that nothing gets in the way of me and my content, no keyboard, no mouse, no stylus, no usb ports for a microphone or webcam to connect to, nothing but touch. I enjoy the simplicity of mobile. Some of my favorite apps, such as Clear, Snapguide and Snapseed have one thing in common, they are simple, innovative and yet they do amazing things without much effort from me.

The Mobile Effect

I was thinking about how my own experience with mobile since my first iPhone and later the iPad and all the other devices I’ve owned since, have impacted me in a big way. I no longer look at desktop computing experiences in the way I did before, my expectations for desktop software have completely changed, perhaps this is why I’m so critical in my reviews of software applications, maybe it is because as mobile users we are beginning to expect so much more from vendors of software apps we use every day.

I suppose you can say that I think “mobile-first” and everything else, including desktop-second. This is why I’m a big fan of Luke Wroblewski’s book entitled Mobile First. I have read this book several times and I highly recommend you do too, especially as you think about your own mobile and mobile learning strategy moving forward.

There’s so much to like about this book on the mobile-first movement, but here are 10 lessons I personally found applicable to all of us in mLearning:

Lesson 1: The Future is Mobile and Mobile Learning — Hopefully you aren’t too surprised by this truth but it’s worth mentioning it. We can argue when this whole mobile revolution started and while I realize that before the iPhone existed, there were certainly a kind of ‘smartphones’ available, I would argue that it wasn’t until 2007 when Apple announced the first iPhone and later the App Store, that we actually began to see the potential and impact mobile would have on our generation.  Since then mobile devices and Apps have only gotten better, faster and more innovative, and if there’s something the App development community has shown us, time and time again, is that mobile offers new possibilities never possible on PCs. And this precisely how we should think about mLearning as compared to eLearning. When you read Luke’s book you will find lots of statistics that prove this fact.

Lesson 2: We are just getting started with mobile and mLearning — Despite all the advances we have already made in mobile in a fairly short period of time, ask anyone in the field and they will tell you we are just barely scratching the surface of what’s to come. Amazing right? This is why I’m so excited about what the next few years will bring us and you should be too. This is why if you are an Instructional Designer and you haven’t paid much attention to mLearning, you need to start now. Mobile is the future and we must to be part of it. For starters, you need to become a mobile user if you aren’t already, you need to understand the mobile experience before you can start thinking about delivering the next generation of learning experiences through mobile devices. Again Luke provides great examples of what we have today and other things we can expect in the near future especially around what mobile browsers need to support in comparison to native apps.

Lesson 3: It’s important not putting Limits on mLearning — I completely understand why it’s easy to look at mLearning today and want to assign specific learning tasks to it, such as performance support and job aids for example, but I think it’s too early to start limiting mLearning to just these obvious applications. Having said that, I agree with Luke’s view of what mobile devices capabilities allow you to do:

reinvent ways to meet people’s needs using exciting new tools that are now at your disposal.”

In other words, it is still early and the future of mLearning hasn’t been invented yet.

Lesson 4: mLearing has vastly more potential than eLearning — I am fully convinced that when you couple the mobility and physicality of mobile, with all the other sensor superpowers inherent in mobile devices (i.e. digital compass, gyroscope, audio, dual cameras, bluetooth, proximity, etc), we will actually create better learning experiences on mobile as compared to what we have today through desktop eLearning. I recommend you hold weekly brainstorming sessions with your teams, where you start to reimagine your learning on mobile devices.

Lesson 5: Thinking Mobile-first forces you to focus and prioritize — This is an important lesson for all of us transitioning from eLearning, where we have big desktop screens, over to designing for the smaller mobile screens, where screen real estate is at a premium.  However as Luke says, this is a great challenge and something we need to build on. When you have a limited Canvas to work with, you prioritize and get down to what’s really important for your learners and there’s no room for all the extra fancy stuff you currently have in your eLearning courses today. I personally think that one of the biggest challenges we will have in this transition will be embracing simplicity, and letting go of all those bells and whistles we have in our eLearning courses today. As Luke says in his book, when designing for the small screen:

“there simply isn’t room for anything else.”

Lesson 6: Thinking Mobile-First makes Desktop eLearning better — This is a continuation of the previous lesson. Thinking mobile-first makes you not only focus and prioritize in order to decide what’s important, but also gives us an opportunity to rethink what we are doing today and how we are delivering our eLearning experiences. I guarantee you that if you spend some time doing this exercise with your team you will start looking at eLearning design differently, and you will most likely find places where you can simplify things and your learners will love it for it. In his book, Luke has great examples of companies like Southwest, Flickr and ESPN that benefited from thinking mobile-first and desktop-second. I also agree with Luke, in that when designing for mobile we keep in mind that:

“users want immediate answers to their needs. Time is precious on mobile.” He goes on to say that when we need to do everything possible in order to “speed things up and reduce people’s monthly carrier bills.”

Lesson 7: Avoid thinking Desktop-first and Mobile-second — The problem I see with this backward way of thinking is that we will end up adopting HTML5 conversion tools, that promise to simply ‘shrink‘ our eLearning in order to make it available on the iPad. This is simply wrong for so many reasons, which I previously blogged about. Mobile offers an opportunity for all of us to think different, to hit the reset-button if you will, and thus I strongly recommend you don’t buy into this conversion-to-HTML5 hype.  Here’s what Luke says about this in his book about this:

simply porting over what worked for you on the desktop to mobile often doesn’t make sense. Instead, you need to think about what mobile is uniquely good at and align it with the needs of your customers.”

Lesson 8: Go small by going Big — This is a continuation from my last lesson learned, where I advice against shrinking your desktop content for the smaller screen via HTML5 conversion tools. In fact, I very much agree with Luke, who says that when thinking mobile, we should “go small by going big.”  I personally think that one of the biggest technical differences between eLearning and mLearning is that eLearning was created for that very tiny mouse pointer, while mLearning requires a much bigger touch target for our fingers. This minor, seemingly insignificant difference changes everything in terms of design, and it’s yet another reason why ‘one size does NOT fill all‘ in eLearning and mLearning. Take Microsoft’s design guidelines for their Windows Phone 7 platforms for example, which recommends that each touch target be at least 9mm in size and that there be at least a 2mm space between actions.

Lesson 9: Don’t wait until your ready for mLearning, think mobile-first now — Here’s what Luke says about thinking mobile-first now:

In fact, there’s enough benefits to a mobile first design approach that it’s worth thinking about even if you don’t have immediate plans to ship a mobile experience.”

I completely agree in that we need to start thinking mobile-first and everything else second now. I have been doing consulting with companies for a few months now, and my advice to every company is for them to start thinking mobile-first even if they don’t have immediate plans to deliver learning through mobile devices.  Whenever possible the eLearning UIs I submit to these companies as prototypes have areas where I get my inspiration from mobile and I always get good feedback, mostly likely because just about every eLearner is familiar with mobile applications. I will share some of these in future posts. My point is that you shouldn’t wait until your boss comes to you and say we need a mobile learning strategy, start thinking mobile-first now and become a mobile user yourself now. By doing so, as I said above, you desktop eLearning will also improve.

Lesson 10: Embrace mobile constraints — And last but certainly not least, in my opinion, Mobile represents the biggest paradigm shift in the history of computing and as such, the transition is not going to be an easy one for any industry, including ours. There are lots of constraints we will need to deal with, but as I wrote in my previous post on Why the iPad and iPhone not supporting Adobe Flash is a Great thing for #mLearning, these shortcomings “force us to find new ways of developing learning experiences for mobile users, as well as to embrace new technologies, such as HTML5 and new principles, such as Responsive Web Design and thinking mobile-first.” In other words, this change will get us out of our comfort zone and in a way force us to innovate, and that’s a great thing.  In closing, here’s one of my favorite quotes from Luke’s book:

“Designing for mobile isn’t just about embracing limitations, it’s also about extending what you can do.”

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in mLearning and mobile in general. As always, thanks for reading and sharing this post, and please let me know what you think of my thoughts around this book and about thinking mobile first in mLearning. You can find this book, Mobile First, here.

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  • Hi RJ,

    Nice review and you’ve outlined and provided additional background on some of the many great concepts therein. One tiny flaw to your review though — the proffered link at the end to Amazon is their the French language version of the text not the English one. Easy to find from there, but this version requires some additional skills many of us might not posses.

    Keep up the good work and looking forward to discussing this publication on our next podcast too.

    Robert 😉

  • Thanks for the really good view of mobile learning. I absolutely agree that that
    mobile represents a paradigm shift for computing and not just for learning.
    Because of this we have to put mobile in absolutely everything we do. However,
    it’s important to remember that there are a variety of platforms across both
    mobile devices and non mobile devices. Ideally, it should be possible to design
    content that sits on a central server and when the receiving device is
    detected, the correct design and content for that device is delivered. For me
    this means thinking not so much mobile first – but impact first.

    • Gayle Haugen

      Ara, I totally agree with your perspective. I would go one step further and say we need to think content first and *assume* the content will be read on all device types. If you use responsive design, you’ll be prepared to meet readers’ needs with any device.

  • andrewsmyk

    I’ve moved my course content into a mobile friendly format and have seen an increase in course content engagement and access (as well as positive feedback from students). One of the primary considerations for mobile friendly content is taking advantage of “pivot, snack, burst” usage.

    Traditional LMS models create unnecessary barriers to course content. The greater the number of devices you can target, the greater the engagement. Content access is the primary driving factor when designing a mobile first content delivery focus.

  • jee

    what should I read first Mobile first or Responsive Web Design

  • You don’t have to worry about creating a mobile learning for your 1.0 and 2.0 e-Learning. I’m sure a lot of people still prefer a human professor that will teach them. But, you can still create one for those people who wants to experience an “agile learning”, just in case some people would look for it.

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