How to Design Future-Proof Learning Content

As you design learning content—paying close attention to style choices, media placement, and editorial direction—it’s easy to wonder: how long will this piece of content last? Today’s culture is certainly not one of permanence, and your employees likely expect the latest and greatest technology the moment it hits the market. But if you change your content on a whim to please employees, you’ll be at odds with executives for spending resources and diminishing your content’s ROI.

How can you create learning content that delights employees, and carries your team into the future?

To start (and this might go without saying), we believe that it means planning for a future that prioritizes digital content. More specifically, mobile digital content. And we’re not the only ones: Gartner predicts that by 2017, half of employers will require employees to supply their own device for work purposes. In the coming years, getting your content onto your employees’ mobile devices will be one of the biggest design challenges.

Of course, the one thing we know is that there are a lot of things we don’t know. But, we can—and must!—make educated decisions on what strategies, and technologies, we can use today to set ourselves up for content success tomorrow. Below, the Marketing Communications team has included four design pillars that guide our choices today, and what we strongly believe will continue to hold true into the future.

1. Design for your audience.

No matter where the future might take us, design will always start with our audience. To craft the right design for your learners, you might first consider the context of where they’re accessing your content: are they out in the field or at their desk? What devices are they using? Do some research to figure our what your learners need; good design means problem-solving, or helping your learners access the content they need, when they need it.

Consider, too, what type of design your audience has responded well to in the past—don’t just design with the latest trends in mind. And if you have an opportunity to delight your audience, do so! From videos, to animated svgs, to scroll-based interactions, the future of design will likely be more media-rich than ever before. Of course, that comes with a caveat: don’t add so much interactivity that it distracts from your content. Anything that you design should help drive, not distract from, the content story.

2. Create re-flowable design.

Once you understand who your audience is, it’s important to meet them on the devices they’re on now and  those that they’ll use in the future. Make sure that your end goal is HTML and CSS- based content, which will ensure re-flowable design for every screen size. While designing for a lot of devices might seem like a daunting challenge, these two principles will help guide you toward device-agnostic design.

Start small.
Starting small ensures that your design offers a great experience on the smallest of screens. Once you nail down what your design should look like on the smallest screen—whether that’s today’s smartphone or tomorrow’s smartwatch—it’s easier to expand onto larger screens, such as tablets or desktops. On the flip side, trying to scale down your design gives your users a less-than-ideal experience (or just plain won’t work).

Think in patterns.
The easiest way for your design to scale up and down is to consider it as rearrangeable system of patterns. First, aggregate all of the pieces that you’ll need, such as links, images, interactive elements and content. Then, start thinking of how they should work together. What pieces are dependent upon each other, and what can easily be rearranged? For example, you may have a column of images on mobile that should be aligned horizontally on a tablet. The key is making sure that each device provides an optimal user experience, no matter the rearrangement.

Of course, throughout this process, it’s important to be flexible. Have conversations with your developer about what design works, and what doesn’t. Striking the right balance between aesthetics and functionality can sometimes require a little back and forth communication. Which brings us to…

3. Write clean code.

As designers build digital content for the future, an extensible and reliable code base will become increasingly important. So, what does that mean? Extensible code means that it should work for you (and your developers), not against you. By setting up modular and adaptable elements, as well as naming conventions, you’ll be able to quickly update your code as the needs of your design change.

Reliable code means working with languages that are supported now, and into the future. HTML5 and CSS3 are the modern languages of digital design, and browsers will continue to evolve with them in mind. Unlike PDFs, truly future-proof content should be written in the language of the web.

4. Iterate, improve, and repeat.

What’s the best way to ensure that your content stands the test of time? Keep improving. After you’ve completed a round of content design, pay attention to data and how your users interact with your content. Did the average time spent on a page drop after a re-design? Did an added interactive element see a spike in page views? Knowing what works, and what doesn’t, is the best way to inform your design moving forward.

In order to measure content, you’ll need the right tools. But that starts with creating content that has the ability to be measured. Building your content in the language of the web allows you to leverage Google Analytics or other built-in dashboards, whereas static formats, such as PDFs, won’t offer any insights. Think carefully about what data you need from your content now, and into the future, and which formats will help you access it.

The bottom line:

It’s important to create digital designs that engage your audience wherever they are today, tomorrow, or ten years from now. And while we’ll never completely be prepared for what devices or trends will hit the market next, here at Inkling, this much we know to be true: keep your audience in mind, design for reflow, keep that code clean, and let data be your guide. Oh, and have some fun too!

To learn more about the future of learning, read our free guide, “Cloud-Based Learning Technologies: The Executive’s Field Guide”.