You’ve invested in a microlearning platform. And you hope will fill in what’s missing in your present training regimen. It’s ready to go and you’ve downloaded the app.
Now it’s your turn to deliver by creating successful microlearning programs for your employees. But you and your learning designers are used to the big screen of the desktop. This is the first time you have ever designed for mobile devices or used the features of a microlearning platform. You’ve read that microlearning content should be between three and ten minutes long. But the smallest course you have ever authored gave you half an hour to get your messages across. This is entirely new.
Here are a few hard-won lessons from practice on the front lines of microlearning.
1. DON’T THINK OF MICROLEARNING AS A MINIATURE SCORM COURSE
Microlearning isn’t just about authoring for a smaller screen; it takes much more than merely scaling down your SCORM courses. Microlearning’s usage patterns are entirely different from e-learning on your desktops or laptops. E-Learning compels employees to block out an hour in their busy schedules to take a course in one sitting, for example. But in microlearning your learners might engage with your programs ten times a day, a few minutes at a time. You have to adapt to this new pattern by structuring your learning experiences differently. Don’t think of microlearning as a course.
Instead, think of it as a multitude of tiny pieces of training designed to fill countless moments that pepper each learner’s workday. Google calls these micro-moments, and they are transforming the way we perceive the world. Here’s what Google has to say about them:
As mobile has become an indispensable part of our daily lives, we’re witnessing a fundamental change in the way people consume media. What used to be our predictable, daily sessions online have been replaced by many fragmented interactions that now occur instantaneously. There are hundreds of these moments every day — checking the time, texting a spouse, chatting with friends on social media.
Micro-moments occur when people reflexively turn to a device — increasingly a smartphone — to act on a need to learn something, do something, discover something, watch something, or buy something. They are intent-rich moments when decisions are made, and preferences shaped. In these moments, consumers’ expectations are higher than ever.1
Try to capture as many of these micro-moments as possible and fill them with your pieces of training.
Find out how a major automaker used training reinforcement to drive a mission-critical new product launch. See our article Let’s Make a Dealer: Examples of Microlearning in Action.
2. Do Embrace an Agile Development Approach
Whichever microlearning and training reinforcement platform you’ve chosen has probably overwhelmed you with its wealth of features. Let’s be honest: it makes your LMS look like something out of the Cretaceous period. (That’s the one that ended with the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.)
The truth is you don’t know which features of your platform will work for your company’s employees. The good news is that you don’t have to.
Microlearning is data-driven. Your new microlearning platform collects far more data from each interaction between the user and your training content than your LMS ever could. That data is your secret weapon for continuously improving each of your microlearning programs.
In place of e-learning’s long course authoring cycle, you can create early versions of small microlearning units, deploy them quickly, and use analytics to measure what works and what doesn’t. You bring those insights to your next production cycle and refine your earlier version. This rapid, incremental model of continuous improvement is called an agile approach to development. The agile model allows you to correct errors, work in user feedback, monitor the difficulty level of quizzes, fix weak or confusing parts of your program, and add new content — all on a regular basis.
3. Do Design for the Mobile Use Case
Microlearning has to work harder to keep your employees’ attention than classroom training or e-learning. With e-learning they usually sit at their desk, possibly in a cubical protected from nearby distractions. On mobile, however, they might be in the cafeteria during a busy lunchtime, with the TV turned up and an intriguing discussion going on at the next table.
Microlearning, therefore, has a different use case than desktop e-learning. And it may require your instructional designers to unlearn some aspects of their craft.
Design for the ergonomics of smartphones. (Your employees will access your microlearning programs primarily on their phones.) Pay attention to the capabilities the mobile environment offers you and the limitations it imposes. Consider the following:
Are you new to microlearning? Read our feature article: A Definition of Microlearning . . . and Why We Need It.
Engaging Does Not Mean Expensive
First, you don’t have to build costly multimedia or shoot custom video to compete with the extra distractions on mobile. Keeping your users’ attention can be as easy as placing good questions throughout your microlearning content and designing an effortless user experience. Good questions with variety and well-developed explanations prompt learners actively for answers, instead of giving them blocks of content that they must watch passively. And they don’t have to take much effort.
Pay Attention to Context
E-Learning’s development process focused mainly on content. You began by identifying learning objectives and found subject-matter experts (SMEs) to provide material. Microlearning, however, depends heavily on context. To get it right you need more than an SME.
People remember new learning better when they can connect it to knowledge they already have. It’s a technique called elaboration. Look for strategies to connect learning to the real-life pattern of your employees’ work. For instance, maybe you discover that a group of project managers holds a status meeting every Friday afternoon. Prompt them with questions on Monday morning that ask them to recall the discussion from their meeting. Set aside enough time in your analysis phase to shadow end-users for a day or two to learn the rhythm of their workday. Seek out their managers to understand their departments in detail. How is their week structured? Where and when are they most likely to engage with your program? Pay attention to the distinctions within and between your audiences and assemble your programs to take advantage of them.
Format for the Small, Narrow Screen
Format learning resources to be readable without pinching or zooming on your learners’ screens. Make your PDF documents narrow and tall, easily scrollable like any long web page. And make sure the text is large enough to read. It’s a small thing that has a big effect on learners.
Design For the "Thumb Zone"
As smartphone screens keep getting bigger it’s getting harder to position on-screen controls within reach of the user’s thumb.2 It’s called reach navigation.3
In 2013 mobile expert Steven Hoober conducted a study with more than 1,300 smartphone users. He found that 49 per cent hold their phones with one hand. And of the 36 per cent who cradle their phone in one hand and use the other to navigate, 72 per cent of those navigate with their free thumb.4
See the Thumb Zone heat maps below for the iPhone 6 (left) and the iPhone 6 Plus (right).5 They show the areas an average thumb can reach without strain when holding the phone with the right hand. (The “ow” means “Ouch!”) (The images are not to scale.)
Make your buttons or links large enough for a thumb to press but small enough to avoid touching other parts of the screen. Hopefully the microlearning platform you have chosen comes with a native mobile app. Native apps produce a pixel perfect design that delivers the same experience on all phones that use the same operating system. They will have been designed to optimize your user experience.
Shoot Vertical Video
Don’t make your learners rotate their phones to watch a video. Video in vertical format can maximize your completion rate. For example, users on Snapchat, one of the most popular social networks for Millennials and Generation Z, are nine times more likely to watch a vertical video ad to the end than a horizontal one.6
You can navigate a vertical screen with just one hand, but a horizontal screen requires two. If a push notification arrives when your learner has something in their other hand, that small annoyance is enough to make them skip the session.
You probably have existing horizontal videos. There are free online tools that can crop some videos to fit a vertical screen — for instance, by shaving off the unused space on either side of a talking head. But if the important content uses the whole width of the screen you may have to reshoot, deliver the content in some other form, or compromise by using as few horizontal videos as possible.
4. DO use a variety of content types to enliven your programs.
If designing classroom learning and eLearning are like making a PowerPoint presentation, microlearning is more like conducting an orchestra. There are many different instruments you can use to compose your content. Options vary among platforms, but your repertoire might include quizzes and different types of questions for testing, learning reinforcement, or even as entire standalone microlearning units (see number 5 below).
Your microlearning platform might have:
- a format for mini-courses designed for mobile use
- flash cards
- tips sent to the learner through push notifications
- special content curation tools
- various learning resources including documents or media such as videos
- provisions for learning competitions
- or even coaching features.
And you can fine-tune your microlearning by choosing different settings for each type.
5. DON'T lead with content. Lead with Questions!
In classroom or e-learning courses you normally teach concepts and information first, then test learners with a quiz. But research shows that students retain learning better when they try to tackle a question before they learn how to answer it. Microlearning, therefore, turns the relationship between content and quizzes inside-out. In microlearning, the questions often come first, and the content is taught afterward.
Quiz questions in e-learning have a reputation for being simplistic. Even a ten-year-old can outsmart a lot of e-learning multiple-choice questions. But questions can elicit higher-order thinking if they ask the learner to analyze something in the question prompt or apply what they have learned to solve an unfamiliar problem. (Note that these questions can reach the Apply and Analyze levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, not just the initial Remember stage.)
You can use questions for more than just retention and testing. Each segment of a question, especially when media is embedded in it and explanations are written well, can become an opportunity for complex learning. You can also arrange a small set of questions to treat a subject in progressively more depth than the previous one. Each question can build on the last, challenging the learner to think more deeply about the subject with each one. And because the learner constantly interacts with the questions, instead of viewing a passive e-learning course, you will generate a high level of focus and engagement.
Many microlearning platforms can also embed multimedia in their questions. Depending on your platform you may be able to use audio, video, still images, animation, and sometimes even fully-functional applications such as active Microsoft Excel spreadsheets in your question prompts and explanations to enrich the learning experience.
6. DO Build on Intrinsic Motivation
Microlearning platforms usually offer gamification features. Gamification allows you to add certain aspects of games to your microlearning program, such as points, badges, leaderboards, and rewards. Friendly contests between individuals or teams can stoke the fire of excitement to participate. Gamification provides two types of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Your learners will come to your microlearning programs with some initial intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation springs from each individual’s internal values. In this case learners aren’t pursuing a reward — they want to participate because the activity itself is enjoyable or rewarding on its own. Well-designed programs can grow this nascent kernel of intrinsic motivation into sustained, autonomous participation. When you begin to see that happening, you know your program is beginning to succeed.
How can you tap your employees’ intrinsic motivation? Here are some ideas.
How to Tap Intrinsic Motivation
Use levelling to progressively unlock components of your program as the learner advances. Levelling generates excitement to meet the challenge. Perhaps there is an enticing learning competition whose icon they can see but can’t participate until passing a test with a minimum score.
Some microlearning platforms enable prerequisites for different modules in your program. One reason video games are so addictive is that they hold out the promise of discovering the next level while the player is still struggling through the present one. A player may set a limit on their participation (“I’ll go to bed once I finish this level.”). But when they get to the next stage they receive unexpected new character abilities — which, of course, they have to try out right away.7
- Use leaderboards to add excitement. (But don’t demoralize your audience.) Only show the learner a portion of the whole leaderboard, with them in the middle and just a few players above and below them. It’s frustrating for a learner ranked 50th to discover they have to bridge a chasm to reach the top ten. But it’s encouraging to watch yourself creep up the leaderboard by passing people just ahead of you.
- Restart leaderboards at the beginning of every new program so that everyone has regular opportunities to reach the top.
- Experiment with team competitions. Use group leaderboards where teams of employees are ranked instead of individuals. It generates team spirit and positive peer pressure without the demoralizing dangers of individual competition.
- Make sure your quizzes, levels, and challenges are written at the right level of difficulty. If quizzes and games hit that spot. Your learners will feel optimistic they can progress, and levelling can generate a sense of urgency to do so.
7. DON'T Rely On Extrinsic Rewards!
Intrinsic motivation is a precious resource, but it is perilously fragile.
Extrinsic rewards come from a source outside the subject’s control. They are tangible benefits someone receives for performing a certain activity or displaying certain behaviour. The task itself may be tedious, but you do it anyway because you want the reward at the end of it. Extrinsic rewards aren’t inherently bad things: no one would go to work if they weren’t paid for it.
But that’s also the problem. The surest way to destroy intrinsic motivation is to carelessly hand out extrinsic rewards. Think about a child whose enthusiasm for their homework waxes and wanes. To boost their motivation his or her parents decide to hand out an extrinsic reward, such as a small sum of money, each day that their child completes their homework. It works! They see their son or daughter dig into their homework enthusiastically every night. But when their parents discontinue the external reward, the diligence vanishes.
Scientific research shows that extrinsic rewards destroy children’s intrinsic motivation.8 Furthermore, the child is likely to sacrifice the quality of their homework in the interest of finishing fast.9
Tips On Extrinsic Rewards
This doesn’t mean you can’t use extrinsic rewards. It means you have to be very careful about how and when you use them. Here are some guidelines to help you get started:
- An extrinsic reward should be a surprise, it should almost never be announced in advance. The learner should not be enticed to think of an extrinsic reward as a reason to participate in your learning program.
- Extrinsic rewards should only be used on a program-by-program basis, never as a global feature of all your programs.
- Only give away extrinsic rewards after carefully thinking through the possible repercussions. You might occasionally use an extrinsic reward when you think your learners are likely to avoid taking one of your programs. For example, maybe you’ve created one that’s certain to put them to sleep.
As we have seen, designing microlearning programs for the mobile world takes a different approach to learning analysis, objective-setting, and content development than desktop e-learning or classroom training. The biggest difference might be that your microlearning programs have the potential to offer your audiences a continuous, always-on learning experience — one that never has to end.
Designing for microlearning for mobile will challenge you to think differently. But it doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s a dynamic training modality that will continuously reveal new insights to you and serve up thought-provoking new opportunities to try out creative new ideas. We hope it becomes as exciting for you as it is for us. We offer these suggestions merely as a place to start.
Sridhar Ramaswamy, “How Micro-moments Are Changing the Rules,” Think With Google (April 2015), https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/marketing-resources/micro-moments/how-micromoments-are-changing-rules/.
Scott Hurff, "How to Design for Thumbs in the Era of Large Screens," Scott Hurff (blog), http://scotthurff.com/posts/how-to-design-for-thumbs-in-the-era-of-huge-screens/.
Brad Ellis, “All Thumbs, Why Reach Navigation Should Replace the Navbar in iOS Design,” Tall West, Medium, undated, https://medium.com/tall-west/lets-ditch-the-nav-bar-3692cb17cc67/.
Steven Hoober, “How Do Users Really Hold Mobile Devices?” UX Matters: Insights and Inspiration for the User Experience Community,” UX Matters.com (blog), February 18, 2013, https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2013/02/how-do-users-really-hold-mobile-devices.php/.
John Steinberg, “Vertical Video,” Medium, March 31, 2015, https://medium.com/@jonsteinberg/vertical-video-86a68c45ac06/.
Yu-Kai Chou, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (Freemont, CA: Octalysis Media, 2016): 352–353.
Edward L. Deci, “Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation,”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18, no. 1 (1971):105–11, http://doi.org/10.1037/h0030644/; Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Robert Nisbett, “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards: A Test of the ‘Overjustification’ Hypothesis,”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28, no. 1 (1973): 129–137, http://doi.org/10.1037/h0035519/.