What does mobile-first mean and why isn't mobile-friendly enough?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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Nearly all of your learners have a smartphone, a tablet — or both. Mobile-friendly learning or “m learning” is simply eLearning that works on mobile devices. It can be video, text, audio or multimedia; what matters is that learners can access and use it on a smartphone or tablet. Ideally, it’s available anywhere and can be downloaded and used offline.

Mobile-first eLearning goes farther than simple access. It’s no longer enough for a website or content item to “work” on mobile. Modern eLearning has to provide a great user- or learner experience on mobile. 

Mobile-first eLearning is designed for the digital learner and is created and optimized for a mobile environment. 

Mobile-friendly isn’t enough

Using responsive design used to be enough for eLearning developers to claim that they were creating mobile learning. 

Responsively designed eLearning content adjusts to display usable on different-sized screens. The design is often modular, allowing an image to move from, say, next to a text block on a wide laptop screen to underneath the text box on a narrower smartphone screen. Content might be divided into more screens. In addition to placement, text and image sizes scale. The idea is to reduce the amount of zooming and scrolling that users have to do.

But, the bottom line is that the content is not actually designed for a small screen. Much responsive content is designed for a larger screen, but implemented so that it is also usable on a small screen. Learners increasingly use their mobile devices as their first or only choice for consuming eLearning. Usable mobile learning should not be an afterthought.

Mobile-first is learner-first

A person with short brown hair and glasses sits on the edge of some stairs in front of a large corporate building. They're smiling while they hold a tablet. - Neovation Learning Solutions

LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report found that nearly three-quarters of employees want to learn during “spare time” at work; many prefer fully self-directed training. The main barrier to workplace learning, though, is time. The time needed to complete conventional eLearning courses simply doesn’t exist in most workers’ days. 

Mobile learning platforms can help solve that problem.  Available on demand in your learner's pocket, mobile-first learning is easier to fit into a free moment than a course or webinar that learners have to register for in advance or schedule. Learners gravitate toward their phones when they have a free moment; with engaging mobile-first learning, they’re more likely to use that moment to learn.

Mobile-first content is designed with these learning moments in mind. It’s generally short and self-contained, again making it easy for learners to complete in their limited spare time.

By designing mobile-first content with the learner experience front and center, eLearning developers meet learners where they are, providing the content they need, when and where they need it. 

Good design works anywhere

Mobile-first design — creating content with the mobile learner’s needs in mind — is, in many ways, simply good design. It:

  • Emphasizes conciseness & clarity — Succinct content, written in plain language, is easier to use and understand.
  • Demands minimalist design — Tiny screens have no place for clutter, forcing designers to pare down to the essentials.
  • Optimizes for speed — Mobile users won’t sit around waiting for a site or app to load.  

Innovation comes in small packages

Mobile-first content includes a variety of innovative and engaging formats. It might be a game or short video or podcast. It could also be a chatbot that engages learners in conversations about key products or concepts. 

Though the content is packaged in small units, these can build on one another to create in-depth training. Microlearning mobile-first content can stand alone or form a curriculum to teach complex topics and help learners retain that knowledge.

Choosing a mobile-first approach puts learners first without compromising on learning quality or depth.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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