Dieter Rams & Principles of Good Instructional Design

With the advent and proliferation of mobile devices and the ubiquity of wireless connectivity, academic, corporate, and governmental institutions are scrambling to distill the torrent of possibilities into something useful, reliable, and of course consistent.

Consistency lends itself well to analytics. Analytics, of course, leads directly to evaluation. And evaluation to ROI. Ultimately, that’s what everybody wants to know:

Is it worth it?

But let’s not get the cart before the horse. If we want to begin with the end in mind, then it has to start with a plan. If there is to be any consistency, then the process needs to be – with great intent – designed. And so, here are the 6 Principles of Design for Mobile Learning:

  1. Simple & Intuitive UI
  2. Integrate interactive multi-media
  3. Build short, modular lessons & activities
  4. Design content that is engaging & entertaining
  5. Design content that is contextual, relevant, and valuable.
  6. Design content for just-in-time delivery

It has become increasingly apparent that if you are going to be an educator or trainer worth your salt these days you need to have a background in design. You may not need to know how to code, but you should know a bad UI or UX when you see one. (If you don’t know what those terms mean, then you definitely need to enroll in a course somewhere).

I can’t help but think of Dieter Rams and the 10 Principles for Good Design and the overlap that occurs.

Good design is innovative:

Students get bored easily. When it comes to learning, the element of surprise has a dramatic impact on the learner’s ability to encode the new information. Does your environment, and do your methods and tools connote innovation or stagnation? Can your learners be part of the innovation?

Good design makes a product useful:

The phrase – “we hold these thruths to be self-evident” comes to mind on this one: if your learners do not think the content is useful, they will not see the value – and without perceived value very little can be learned.

I would push it a step further and suggest that this applies to your “containers” as well. If the methods and tools are not useful in the learner’s day/schedule/routine they will not see the value. This challenges the Instructional Designer to not just use mobile devices to be able to say “we use mLearning”, but to design their implementation so that it becomes useful to the learner in how they actually learn.

Good design is aesthetic:

If your presentation and delivery method of the content lacks aesthetic, it lacks usefulness.

“The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being.”

No one enjoys interacting with design that is not beautiful. If it’s not appealing – the learners won’t spend time; and time is crucial to patterning and encoding.

Good design makes a product understandable:

The content needs to be contextualized, and relevant to convey value. The right amount of tension between prior knowledge and that which they are about to discover will enable your learners to truly download and install the desired Knowledge/Skills/Attitudes (KSA).

Good design is unobtrusive:

Although we want to surprise our learners, we don’t want to negatively shock them. How mobile technology is incorporated needs to feel organic and “make sense” given the context. The devices need to be seen as tools that are not obtrusive and therefore leave room for the user’s self-expression.

Good design is honest:

The modules, the objectives, the apps, they do not promise more than they will deliver. There is no let down for the learner, but the expectations are set accurately, and good design ensures those expectations are met.

Good design is long-lasting:

Your digital pedagogy should stand the test of time. It will be refined, but at its core it lends itself in such a way that it escapes what’s “fashionable”.

Good design is thorough down to the last detail:


“Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.”

Good design is environmentally-friendly:

This one is huge! In it’s original context this principle refers to ecology and being “green”. But note the language:

“[Good]… Design… conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product”

A well designed mLearning experience (our ‘product’ in this case) facilitates a better environment for learning by not bringing any extra noise or pollution to wherever the learner may already be!

Good design is as little as possible:

Keep it simple.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Learners can only take in so much. Although the technology allows them to “check-in” anywhere and engage the content whenever it’s convenient – that does not alleviate the responsibility to intelligently curate the material.

And so by using something old, something borrowed, something new, we have a truly holistic marriage of the Principles of Good Design… for Mobile Learning. Only when the Instructional Designer abides by these Terms and Conditions can any sort of consistency be achieved. Only then can analysis take place so that we can evaluate and conclude:

When I saw her barge into class before the bell to show her friend something on her iPad she’d learned for our course the night before, eyes-wide with wonder I knew: it was worth it. – Said Any Teacher, Anywhere.


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