When Learning Games Go Small: The Four Principles of Design


The education game market continues to grow rapidly, and mobile games are the dominant force within this market. Newzoo provides the insights for the generic games market; the Serious Play Conference released its annual report showcasing the huge growth specific to the education and corporate training sector. The compound annual growth rate in the U.S for corporate learning games will be over 20% between 2017 – 2022 and about 35% globally with the U.S. and India being the top two markets for serious game play. Newzoo predicts the overall mobile game market across all game types will grow 40% between now and 2020, a significant growth increase.

Want to learn more about mobile learning games? Access our webinar recording of When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts.

So… it makes sense for L&D personnel to consider what space mobile games (aka ones intended for play on a smartphone) might occupy in their company’s learning and development portfolio. A smartphone game is not just a shrunken version of a PC game –  just as a limo is not just a bigger mode of transport than a unicycle.

The user experience and design aspects one expects from a limo, and the intended use of the limo, differs widely from that of the unicycle – even though both are modes of transportation. So it is with learning games. The use case for a smartphone game differs from that of a PC game, and the user experience should be different, too. L&D people need to think about this. When learning games go small there are four quadrants of design skills involved.

It’s highly unlikely that a single individual will possess skills in all four quadrants. It’s also very likely that if you opt to go the route of mobile games within your organization, you will need to pull together a team to create your game. Understanding each quadrant helps you assemble the right team and do a good job evaluating the game design the team evolves.

Here’s a quick definition of each quadrant followed by a checklist of factors to consider within each quadrant:

  • User Experience (UX) Design – the framework and navigation design of your game; this framework makes it easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to add/build onto it if you need to roll out future enhancements.
  • User Interface (UI) Design – the graphical “look and feel” of the game; it provides the aesthetics and helps create a mood or “feel” to your game (light-hearted, scary, humorous, intense, etc.). Lots of people think UX and UI mean the same thing. They don’t.
  • Instructional design – the design and structure of the experience to meet specific learning needs for a specific audience or audiences.
  • Game design – the design of the play experience; it includes the core dynamics of your game, rules, and game elements that all work together to enable players to achieve a game goal and have fun doing it.

Instructional Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Have a clear learning goal and measurable learning objectives focused on a specific learner?
  • Tap into learner motivation?
  • Manage cognitive load by eliminating irrelevant or extraneous content?
  • Provide relevant practice?
  • Give specific, timely feedback?
  • Trigger emotion that can help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Provide spaced repetition to help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Use story(ies) (again, for help with long-term retention of learning content as well as involvement during learning experience)?

Game Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Provide players with an intriguing goal or challenge?
  • Match the interests or player types of your target players?
  • Stick with one or two core dynamics?
  • Provide clear rules?
  • Use appropriate game elements from ones such as chance, strategy, cooperation, competition, aesthetics, theme, story, resources, rewards, levels?
  • Make the scoring relevant, motivating, and understandable?
  • Balance game complexity and difficulty for your player and the time you anticipate them playing it; not too easy or too little complexity, but not too hard or too much complexity either.

UX Design Checklist

UX best practice is that you design to the smallest screen. This means that your design supports these attributes on the smallest phone size players are likely to use. We draw the line at the iPhone 5, which is 1136 x 640 pixels or 4-inches diagonally. Good UX means you:

  • Have legible text.
  • Have touchable targets that a typical adult finger can easily succeed at using.
  • Cut the clutter.
  • Focus on one key action or use per screen.
  • Make the navigation intuitive.
  • Make the experience seamless if intended for multiple devices.
  • Cater to contrast.
  • Design for how people hold/use their phone.
  • Minimize the need to type.

Attend to the small things to make a big difference.

UI Design Checklist

This checklist is the smallest, yet the aesthetics or “look/feel” of your game has a major impact on uptake and continued game play (which translates into best learning assuming you executed well on the instructional design checklist items). When creating your UI design, make sure your UI is:

  • Consistent. Treat every button of the same type in the exact same fashion. Treat all screens of a single “type” the same way, etc. Use fonts and text labels for things consistently.
  • Designed to your user – and not to your personal preferences. Example: While you may love anime art, your corporate user may find it insulting or trivial.
  • Not reinventing standards; use what’s common and comfortable. There is a thing called “heuristics” for a reason. (Note: UX/UI heuristics are often bundled into a single list.)
  • An enhancement of the focus and not the focus of your game experience.
  • Forgiving of user mistakes with lots of prompts and helpful guides.
  • Clear on giving users feedback about what to do and where to go.

Want More Information?

If you want to know more, here are some great resources:

  • Sign up for a companion webinar to this post that will occur on October 10th – When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts.
  • Download a handy checklist for each quadrant of design.
  • Check out my book, coauthored with Dr. Karl Kapp – Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, published by ATD Press 2017.
  • And/or join Karl and me in Chicago on September 20-21 for a 1.5-day workshop on learning game design or join me at DevLearn for a 1-day workshop on October 24th.

What Learners Want: Anytime, Anywhere, 5 Minutes or Less (Webinar)


Your employees are already learning on their mobile devices. They are used to interacting with apps and websites that provide an excellent user experience. Unfortunately, some corporate training struggles to even provide an adequate user experience!

And while mobile learning adoption is speeding up, many organizations still lag behind. According to The Brandon Hall Group’s 2016 State of Mobile Learning Survey, only 10% of organizations reported that most or all learning material is mobile-ready.

Where are you at on the adoption curve? When it comes to training, are you giving learners what they want? And if you aren’t, is the performance of your employees getting your organization the results it needs?

Captivate Learners with Convenience and Clean Design

Mobile learning puts training in the palm of your learners’ hands anytime, anywhere, thus making it easier for them to choose to take the training.

But simply making training mobile doesn’t guarantee your training will be effective. You should also consider mobile design; the visual look and feel of your mobile training can have a huge impact on overall effectiveness. So don’t get stuck in the stone ages with outdated training modules that were poorly designed. It’s time to revamp your mobile design strategy to make training more effective and improve learner adoption rates.

How to Adopt a Mobile Mindset

Wow your learners and even wow yourself by attending our webinar, The Mobile Mindset: How to Wow Your Learners. The webinar will be held on Wednesday, August 31st at 1 pm ET / 10 am PT. In the session, we’ll cover:

  • Recent stats on the growth of the mobile web versus corporate mobile learning adoption.
  • Proprietary research from our contacts and customers on mobile learning adoption.
  • A summary of the common challenges organizations face when trying to shift to mobile.
  • A broad overview of responsive web design and Gestalt theory and how these principles can be used to improve training design.
  • Examples from three mobile training apps we have created for clients.
  • A simple solution for turning a simple web portal into a SCORM-conformant LMS.
  • Six practical tips for adopting a mobile mindset.

A recording of the session will be sent to all registrants.

Access The Mobile Mindset: How to Wow Your Learners and learn how mobile design can help you create better training.

Gaming, Microlearning and Mobile: The Perfect Trio


If you follow so-called learning trends, you’ve been hearing about microlearning. It’s everywhere. It sounds fancy. Suddenly, learning professionals want to call all of their training microlearning, even if it does not fit the descriptionSharon Boller, president at BLP, offered a word of caution about microlearning last year as the hype was growing. Like other learning trends such as mobile and gaming, it is not a be-all, end-all solution to every training need.

We have been creating microlearning for many years—even if we may not have called it that at the time. In 2012, Sharon wrote about the concept of ‘learning snacks’ in her Learning Trends, Technologies and Opportunities white paper:

Across our client base, the consistent demand is to limit course length—or to somehow modify the instructional design so that it’s possible for someone to “consume” a course in smaller chunks. As tablets and phones enter the workplace, we also see clients getting excited by “just-in-time” access to ePubs and reference tools. There’s a bigger push to reduce the total time spent in formal training. Conversely, there is a perception that people need more and more information to do their jobs effectively.

In its simplest form, microlearning is a terrific way to reference materials, look things up, do things, etc. In its most advanced form, microlearning allows you to reinforce, deepen and extend learning. But when we talk about trends like microlearning, mobile, game-based learning and the like, it’s important to remember that these trends are not entirely separate from one another. They are really part of a single trend: a shift towards anytime, anywhere, engaging learning solutions that foster long term retention and performance improvement.

Let’s look at how these three approaches to learning work, and play, well together.

Game-Based Learning Drives Engagement

Countless studies have shown the benefits of game-based learning as opposed to traditional training approaches. Game mechanics and game elements can motivate learners and help them connect with training on an emotional level. At least when they are designed well and linked to appropriate learning objectives. Games can soften the resistance some learners feel when faced with a required training. Innate characteristics of games, such as feedback loops and stories, also make it easier for learners to remember what they’ve learned.

Microlearning Improves Retention

When you do microlearning correctly, it is not a one-off, disconnected event. They introduce a concept, then build on it in short chunks. In fact, you should use spaced repetition to design the best microlearning. This helps to reinforce key content and objectives over time. A game-based learning or gamification solution that encourages short play sessions over a longer period of time can be highly effective at improving recall if the content is reinforced with each repetition. A word of caution: introducing new content with every microlearning lesson or gameplay session is little more than a distraction.

Knowledge Guru games use spaced repetition and feedback loops to distribute content to learners. We also incorporate spaced repetition into the custom blended learning curriculums we create for BLP clients.

Mobile Learning Increases Adoption

For any learning solution to be successful, its needs to be readily available on learners’ device of choice. Unless you work in a call center environment or somewhere that phone use is prohibited, mobile is your best bet. Most of us habitually check our smart phones throughout the day, perhaps beginning and ending each day with screen time. By delivering game-based learning in short bursts on a mobile device, you make it easy for learners to take part.

How Knowledge Guru Brings Game-Based Learning and Microlearning to Mobile Devices

Knowledge Guru games are broken into short topics that are playable in just a few minutes a day on mobile or desktop. As learners play, Administrators can turn on auto-reminders through email or push notifications that remind learners to come back and play. Learning objectives are progressively reinforced as players return over time.

5 Mobile Learning Must-Haves for 2016


Mobile learning has come a long way over the last several years. Some organizations have truly embraced mobile as a training delivery method, learning as they go how to create an impactful mobile strategy. Other organizations are still on the sidelines trying to decide if mobile learning makes sense for their workforce. Maybe it will be enough to just make those old eLearning courses work on a tablet?

While enterprise mobile learning adoption continues to speed up, it is still far from ubiquitous. According to the ATD 2015 State of the Industry Report, 1.5% of training hours were completed via a mobile delivery method in 2014, up from 1.2% in 2013. A third of organizations had a mobile learning program of some sort in place by the end of 2014. Mobile is used as a reinforcement tool and placed within a blended learning curriculum rather than becoming a primary delivery method.

Within the commercial organizations we work with, mobile learning adoption has moved at a much faster pace. Sales reps are often the most mobile members of the workforce, and their direct connection to revenue necessitates investment in the best tools and technologies for sales enablement.

Customer training is also a big driver for the move to mobile. Organizations are realizing just how important it is to meet their customers where they are and provide learning at the point of need. These organizations know that if they don’t provide the education… someone else will.

The five “must-haves” below are for organizations that are either just beginning to adopt mobile learning or are making plans to increase existing programs. These are simply the basics that your mobile learning solutions should include for them to be successful.

1. Make Sign-On Simple

Single sign-on is an ideal solution, but not always practical when a solution is only being piloted. At the very least, make sure that your mobile app does not force users to log back in everytime they open the app.

Once users enter the app, the learning content should never be more than a tap or two away.

2. Get a Handle On Permissions Management

One challenge with mobile content delivery is restricting access. How will you control who can see what information? Make sure your mobile learning solution allows you to easily control what learning content an individual user or group of users sees.

3. Make it Mobile-First

We explored the “mobile-first” concept in another article. Simply put, do not take the user interface of a desktop-oriented learning experience and “optimize” it for mobile. The result will be clunky and hard to navigate on the small screen. It is best to design a mobile interface from the ground up based on the user experience. Focus groups and extensive testing are a “must”.

4. Plan for All Devices

Your employees want access to learning on their smartphones… but they use a desktop or laptop, too. Perhaps a tablet is also in the mix. Make sure your mobile experience is available on these devices. If it is game-based, then progress, scoring and/or leaderboards should sync across all devices.

5. Use it to Drive Retention

A mobile delivery format is the perfect way to help learners retain content. Use instructional strategies such as spaced learning and repetition in combination with short play sessions and automated reminders to sustain learning over time. Game elements can foster a spirit of healthy competition and motivate repeat play.

See Mobile Learning in Action With Knowledge Guru

Two of the apps in our award-winning Knowledge Guru learning platform are available on smartphones. You can learn all about the apps here.