Mobile learning and user experience

It’s hard to imagine living, working and playing before smart phones and tablets existed. Now, more than ever, we are on the go and we use these tools to perform simple and complex tasks, access information quickly and make social connections around the world.

The Smithsonian has seen the potential in mobile learning and has adapted the medium to reach audiences with apps that supplement the museum-going experience while also allowing those from afar to enjoy all that the Smithsonian has to offer.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to test and evaluate each of the apps and give recommendations based on my background in user experience (UX). Here are some basic principles of mobile interaction design to consider and apply to your next new or redesigned app.


People notice change. Anything that is different or out of the ordinary on the user interface is a distraction to the user, which can result in confusion and/or the inability to learn how to use the app as quickly. Make sure to keep major UI elements like navigation, layout, content styling, and interactive elements consistent from screen to screen.


Are the mobile interactions simple and consistent? Are they easy to remember the next time the user interacts with the app? Avoid unnecessary features and tasks and serve up manageable and well-organized content.


Do the touchable elements in the app invite interaction? Are there visual cues that make it obvious to the user what they are supposed to do and what will happen once they do it? In order to minimize user error, the interface must provide visual cues that enable the user to predict the outcome of their actions.


It’s important that the app set accurate expectations for what is supposed to happen when a user performs a specific task, as this helps minimize user error. This can be achieved by using established design patterns and interactions that are familiar to users. For more guidance on this subject, checkout these two articles on UX Booth that discuss mobile information architecture and mobile interaction design patterns.


Feedback is an important principle of interaction design as it sends information back to a user about what action has just been taken and the success of that action, allowing them to continue on with their task. There are various ways to signify feedback including using audio, visual, and tactile methods, as well as a combination of these.


As the largest museum complex in the world, the Smithsonian does a great job creating exhibits that can be enjoyed by a large, diverse audience with various needs. But do those accessibility standards translate to the mobile user experience? For each app think about the following disabilities and considerations:

  • Blindness: Are videos or complex graphics explained in text? Are images properly labels in the Alt Text tag? Is the content properly tagged so screen readers can interpret the reading order?
  • Partial or low vision: Is there proper contrast between colors? Can the user adjust the font size?
  • Color blindness:  Are you relying on color only to indicate interaction (ex: click on the blue button to ______)? Is there sufficient contrast between the background color and text color?
  • Hearing impaired: For apps with audio narration, are you also providing a written transcript for those who cant hear? Are you offering captions in videos?
  • Mobility disabilities: Are the buttons easy to reach with a thumb and target size large enough to hit with minimal errors?
  • Learning and Cognitive disorders: Is the layout simple and intuitive to use? Can the user turn off distracting audio or visual elements?


Your app is a living product. After it launches, listen to user comments/reviews and perform user testing. Find out what’s working and what’s not; then modify the app in response. This is a repetitive cycle that will help inform what the next version of the app should contain.

Elicia Potter has been providing award-winning user experience, interface design, and marketing communications solutions to organizations for over 10 years. She began her career as a Design Intern at the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central before moving on to design for a local communications firm. Currently, she serves as lead User Experience Designer at Network for Good, a DC nonprofit that provides online fundraising and engagement tools to other nonprofit and corporate partners. Her favorite Smithsonian museum exhibit is still, and will always be, the Dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History. 

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