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Effective User Interface Design for Mobile Learning

by Noleen Turner

Sample mobile learning user interface developed by AurionWith the explosion of mobile learning many of us are now in the position of creating brand new mobile e-learning programmes or transforming existing e-learning content to mobile.

*A friendly word of warning to those involved in ‘conversion’ projects – mobile is different to traditional web – and your mobile learning programme won’t work if it’s just a regurgitated experience. Mobile learning is micro-learning, designed for short bursts of activity – your learners are likely to access it while on the job, performing a task, or in between other activities. And learners need to be able to access it via a range of mobile learning technologies which are likely to include smartphones and tablets.

But I digress…and to get back to the original point how do you design an effective user interface for mobile learning? And how do you manage navigation, usability, and aesthetics ensuring that the transition between screens feels natural and that users know where they are at all times during the programme?

LearningSolutions Magazine recently published an article entitled “From e-learning to ipad – how to adjust the user interface”. In the article they consider how the user interface design contributes to
the success of a learning mobile app – one in which the user interface enhances and eases the learning process.

According to LearningSolutions, the layout you build for your mobile learning app must enable users to answer these five questions:

  • Where am I?
  • How did I get here?
  • How can I return to where I once was? 
  • How far have I gone?
  • Where else can I go?

In response to these questions I’ve tried to come up with my own tips for optimising the mobile learning interface:

  How to improve the experience
Where am I?
  • Don’t overload functionality, features or content – just focus on what is necessary to get the job done.
  • Simple functionality will enable you to create a straightforward and easy to follow user interface.
  • Structure information so it can be easily accessed – learners expect to get the information they need with just a few taps.
  • Group similar topics together. The Learning Coach has a useful blog post on visual grouping.
  • Keep the screen uncluttered and use clear screen titles so learners won’t misinterpret visual cues.
  • Emphasise menu items already clicked (change colour or attach bookmarks).
  • Design for a low error rate – remember that selection errors on mobile phones are higher than desktops so surround selection areas with white space so that a learner can easily tap them and invoke the correct action.
How did I get here?
  • Create a visual trail as learners move through the content. For example, highlight a section already clicked on or use a “breadcrumb trail” so learners can track their progress through the programme.
How can I return to where I once was? 
  • Use navigation buttons to allow movement between learning units.
  • Ensure some navigation menus are visible throughout the entire course.
  • Provide Back buttons or Menu buttons to return to a map of choices.
How far have I gone?
  • Include a screen ID such as “Screen 2 of 24” to inform users of how far they have progressed through a lesson and how much there is left to do.
  • Use the word “screen” rather than “page”.
  • Group similar content and create intense learning nuggets rather that one long course – nobody wants to see “Screen 3 of 60”.
Where else can I go?
  • Use clearly labelled navigation buttons to help learners orient themselves.
  • Make sure navigation buttons are easy to find.
  • Stick to simple touch tap or swipe commands to manage navigation between screens (for now). Don’t assume that everyone knows how to use all the interface features of their smartphone / tablet – e.g. pinch open gesture to magnify text.  According to Josh Clark, author of Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps, most people don’t know about the more obscure gestures that work on some mobile phones.

And finally…don’t forget to test your user interface
Once you design an interface, make sure you test it with a sample group of learners, checking how long it takes to complete the learning, how easily they can navigate the learning, how many navigational errors they make etc.

Useful resources for designing mobile learning
iOS Human Interface Guidelines
http://thatcoolguy.github.com/gridless-boilerplate/  guidelines on HTML5 & CSS3 topics
W3C
10 Tips For Designing mLearning And Support Apps
From e-learning to ipad – how to adjust the user interface
Ten things to think about when designing your iPad App

M-Learning & The Evolution of HTML

by Lee Reilly, Senior Web Designer

HTML5 logo

My first real foray into the realm of coding over a decade ago pertained to making a text box on my page a solid colour, positioning it to the right and making the text white. After much musing (by which I mean searching around the internet) I fumbled a solution and had inadvertently coded something! In this case it was a <div> container to hold my text, which was aligned right and coloured accordingly. The beginnings of my first HTML site, though perhaps not as grand as I might have liked.

Over the years my HTML and CSS skills have improved, as has my understanding of the underlying processes involved. With the upcoming publication of the highly anticipated HTML 5 specification I find myself feeling like I did over a decade ago; is the difference between HTML 4 and 5 so great that I must start creating little text boxes on a page again in order to understand this new version?

The answer, mercifully, is no. HTML 5, in its simplest form, is a revised version of HTML 4. Sure, it has the ability to be so much more, but it does not have to be. I could take the latest project I am working on, amend line 1 to <!DOCTYPE html> and I would have an HTML 5 project. I would obviously not do that as it would be cheating and not advisable for compatibility of content within that project.

The real power of HTML5
The real power of HTML 5 (and CSS 3) comes from the improvements within. HTML 5 is created to improve the interoperability of HTML based documents. This means it is designed to work across multiple platforms and software setups. Numerous elements have been added such as <article>, <header>, <footer> and <section> to make the lives of developers easier. If nothing else these new elements reduce the quantity of <div> elements required for layout. These and other elements have been created to help add meaning to the content within. An example of this would be creating a news article:

In HTML 4 I might create something like:

<div class=”newsarticle”>
<h2>Why am I making this site in HTML4?!</h2>
<p class=”newsdate”>09-12-11</p>
</div>

In HTML 5 this could be created as:

<article>
<h2>HTML 5: That’s the ticket!</h2>
<date>09-12-11</date>
</article>

The benefits to creating this in HTML 5 are two-fold. First, there is less coding involved. Second, and more importantly, the elements used are created for the purposes illustrated; <article> is used for independent, self-contained content and <date> is used for defining dates and times. The freedom that HTML 5 allows in creating element names might at first make it appear to be less structured and potentially more prone to variation between developers. What this flexibility does, when combined with new elements and attributes, is allow for greater control of structure.

Can it make a difference?
Everything mentioned above give HTML 5 the potential to improve the way websites and web apps are built. The real power of  HTML 5, however, comes from its integrated Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. They have been designed to make developing web apps easier across multiple platforms. These include new APIs for audio and video, which will act to provide a uniform (and non-flash based) approach to getting rich media easily on to the web. Great in theory but these are still a long way off being perfect. In its current incarnation, HTML 5 has no full cross-browser support for video file formats. This means if you were to use the <video> element in a project today you would need to encode your video as both mp4 and ogg file formats to ensure all modern browsers would play them; a large overhead to say the least.

M-Learning
When evaluating how good HTML 5 is we must consider that it is still only a draft specification and elements and attributes are still subject to change. That said, it has the potential to deliver on numerous fronts and the thought of a fully interoperable web app or website across numerous platforms, complete with rich media and animation without the need for user-installed plugins makes its success all the more appealing. So much so that we have already begun project work using HTML 5. These E-learning projects have been designed to work cross-platform, from the traditional desktop E-learning to tablets and smartphones (so called M-learning or mobile learning). The benefit of using HTML 5 as the backbone is that the same pages are served up to each platform, the only difference being how they are styled. This technique of catering for different platforms using the same pages is called responsive design.

In future blog posts we will look at responsive design as well as the hugely anticipated <canvas> element in HTML 5 and its potential for usurping flash for cross-platform animation. We will also look at what new features CSS 3 brings to the party.

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