Minimizing Challenges Of Learning From Smaller Screens

Minimizing Challenges of Learning from Smaller Screens
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Summary: Research describes significant constraints for consuming content and performing tasks on a smaller screen, and we must be aware of them when designing mobile information and learning content. Fortunately, research also offers actionable and easy-to-implement tactics for making content on a smaller screen easier to use and understand.

Why Is Learning From Smaller Screens More Challenging?

Last month, I described what research shows as major constraints for consuming content, performing tasks, and learning from smaller screens: screen size, interruptions, connectivity loss, split attention, higher interaction cost, and increased cognitive load. I’ll briefly recap these challenges in the table below.

Challenge Description
Screen size Because we see far less content at a time on smaller screens than on a desktop computer, we use more memory to remember and refer to what is currently off-screen. Research shows that this issue is especially problematic for more difficult or complex reading.
Interruptions Being mobile often means more interruptions by people, noise, and happenings around us. This leads to loss of focus and comprehension.
Connectivity loss Each click, scroll, or new page is subject to network connectivity. Connectivity changes, like other interruptions, damage attention and comprehension.
Split attention Smaller screens often require us to manage multiple sources of information that may not be currently on-screen. Performance suffers under these conditions.
Interaction cost Smaller screens, by their nature, require more searching, clicking, navigating, and waiting. Higher interaction costs are tiring and frustrating.
Increased cognitive load We tend to use more mental effort on devices with smaller screens due to the challenges described above. The more mental effort we use because of device limitations, the less that is available for processing and learning.


These challenges are significant, and we need to keep them in mind when analyzing the likelihood of success with mobile content strategies. The good news is that research also shows we can ease these challenges, even if we can’t eliminate them.

Reducing The Challenges

In this section, I describe evidence-based approaches to reducing the challenges to learning and performance using smaller screen devices.

Screen Size

On a large monitor, we see more content on the screen at once, but on smaller screens, we see less. Some content is typically off-screen and requires scrolling to get to. The Nielsen Norman group tells us that designing for a smaller screen requires prioritizing content and features so we can offer only what is critical so more critical content can appear at a time.

Large monitors have enough space for both content and User Interface elements (buttons, navigation, menus) but smaller screens don’t have nearly as much space. Like with content, we should prioritize what is necessary and eliminate unnecessary elements in order to make learning from smaller screens as efficient as possible.

On most mobile devices, only a single window is shown at a time. It makes sense, then, to design so that tasks can be completed on a single page or at the very least, a single app. Asking people to get information from another app or information source increases the effort needed and introduces frustration.

Another small screen frustration is typing and clicking. Virtual keyboards are small and limited, and crowded keys on mobile keyboards often make a large amount of typing difficult (one reason for shortcuts people take when texting). Clicking on a touchscreen is subject to misses and rework. Some design implications:

  • Minimize the need for typing.
  • Make buttons and other targets large enough to be successfully hit.
  • Don’t crowd buttons and other targets so people can successfully hit the target.

In instructional content built for mobile, we should design to minimize the need to type. For example, instead of asking people to type an answer, we may ask people to select from the provided choices. Harder design upfront and easier use downstream. We also need to design large-enough targets so people can select their desired choice without unintentionally clicking another. (Each wrong click involves frustrating clicks, waiting, and do-overs.)

Interruptions/Connectivity Loss

Research shows that when people are mobile, interruptions are common and to be expected. As a result, design for smaller screens should concentrate on findability, conciseness, and essentials. We should design so people get needed information and tasks with fewer clicks and less wait because attention on mobile is likely to be fragmented and unpredictable.

Because of expected connectivity challenges (loss of connectivity, changes in network state, changes in speed), we need to design lightweight screens that don’t take a long time to load. And minimize the number of clicks because each click introduces wait time.

Designing for interruptibility also means helping people get back to where they were and what they were doing before they were interrupted. When possible, we should make it easy to easily return to interrupted content and tasks.

If someone is using a mobile performance support application to provide information to a prospective customer, for example, we will want to make sure that if the connection is interrupted, they won’t need to spend precious time finding that information again if they have to switch to a different connection.

Split Attention

Split attention means needing to use the same sense (typically, vision) to process multiple sources of information at the same time. A common example of this in learning materials is the need to process a still or moving image while reading descriptive or explanatory text.

Mayer explains that the limitations of working memory make it hard for us to mentally integrate related words and pictures that are separated in space or time. Most of us have seen a text explanation on one page of a book or magazine and the diagram being discussed on another. To understand, we must hold the discussion in working memory to make sense of the diagram or vice versa. Hard! (And faulty.) Another example is instructions on one PowerPoint slide, followed by the activity.

We can reduce split attention by integrating visual information in space and time. For example, we should integrate labels into a diagram rather than using a legend. We can use auditory (audio) explanations (when possible) to describe images, especially if the images are complex. And, we should integrate instructions within an activity.

Because of smaller screens, there are many possibilities for split attention. It especially occurs when content refers to images, pages, or links that are not currently seen. Content on an unseen part of the screen is essentially the same as being somewhere else. We need to rethink design, so information used together is located together in space and time.

Interaction Cost

Interaction cost is the mental and physical effort to use the device for desired purposes. It includes scrolling, clicking links, waiting for pages to load, closing pop-up windows, and so forth. People find these interaction costs frustrating and they increase mental effort needlessly, leaving less available for learning, understanding, and performing. When waiting, we are easily distracted.

We should design to minimize and eliminate as much scrolling, clicking, waiting, and closing as possible. This will make learning from smaller screens much more immersive.

Increased Cognitive Load

Cognitive load using mobile devices increases with all these challenges, which reduces the ability to learn and perform. An additional must-do tactic for reducing cognitive load for smaller screens is to increase the readability of the content. Singh’s research shows it's harder to understand complicated information on smaller screens. I’ve written before on the need for readability in instructional materials, and readability is extra important on smaller screens.

Smaller screens reduce comprehension because the need to call on (far less than perfect) memory for information previously read/seen to make sense of what is currently being read/seen. Scrolling and clicking introduce more problems, including time lags and interrupted attention.

Tactics I teach to improve comprehension that research shows are extra important when writing for mobile include:

  • Write specifically for clarity and comprehension (simpler and more familiar words, concise writing, conversational language, shorter sentences).
  • Test readability and fix it so content is easier to understand.

My Write and Organize for Deeper Learning book describes 28 specific tactics for writing and organizing instructional content for comprehension.

Small screen challenges presented in the previous article and ways to reduce them presented in this article offer us a glimpse into the challenges of designing to work with and not against memory.  Smaller screens make learning more difficult and overcoming these challenges much more critical.


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