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Hold the Phone (training)—5 Questions to Ask First

By Edmond ManningSenior Instructional Strategist

ManningEdmond.pngRegularly, I see clients get excited about the possibility of using phones for training without considering their organization’s true readiness to jump into this technology. They just want it. They mask their quiet enthusiasm behind very serious professionalism, believing themselves quite reasonable when they say, “We’ve got to get IT in on this right now. We need their buy-in.”

Quite frankly, that’s a waste of IT’s time.


Once you start discussing the situation with IT, you begin working through solutions. All IT problems have solutions—expensive or cheap, short-term or long-term—there are solutions available. Discussing with IT as your first step bypasses powerful decision-making you ought to consider prior to any solution-oriented conversations.

In fact, there are five questions to consider regarding training on a phone before initiating a single conversation with IT.

  1. Does your organization have a history of embracing new technology for existing business practices?

  2. Is your organization willing to pay for mobile (i.e. phone) learning?

  3. Does your organization embrace innovative training practices?

  4. What will your security/regulatory group say regarding phone training?

  5. Whose phone will training reside on: the employee’s personal device or a corporate device?

1. Does your organization have a history of embracing new technology for existing business practices?

I deliberately used the words “existing business practices.” A 2012 study conducted by Lorrie Lykins (et al., 2012) revealed the biggest barrier to mobile implementation was budget (46%). The second biggest reason was “Difficult to integrate into legacy learning systems.” Think through past implementations and gather some data on rollout: How willing was the organization to embrace whatever technology came with the rollout? How willing were the recipients? For a risk this big, you must be completely honest with yourself about what you discover. Don’t lie to yourself—or your stakeholders if you’re an Instructional Designer—because you’re excited to try designing training on a phone. Know your organization before you start proposing a new technology add.

2. Is your organization willing to pay for mobile learning?


Organizations want training for the iPhone® (or Android™) to be “the same” as e-learning on other mobile devices, like laptops, notebooks™ or iPads®—just using a smaller screen. When folks in the training department try to convince them tablets and phone are apples and oranges, they nod and say, “Of course, of course…” but do they really get it? Do they really understand how much of a unique cost training on the phone can be?

Developing training on a phone requires a very different mindset from traditional e-learning. It requires a different perspective on interface design, a unique relationship with words and instructions, and, of course, instructional interactivity. All this translates into more budget. When your stakeholders nod and say, “Of course, of course,” your follow-up comment or question should be, “Great. Now let’s talk money and time to develop and maintain.”

I recently hired a skilled professional to repaint my guest bedroom. He painted three of the walls purple (what was I thinking?) and the fourth wall was painted with an innovative substance that turned the entire wall into an enormous whiteboard. (Aside: I cannot tell you how pleasing this is to a list-making ID nerd to be able to write on every inch of a wall.)

The man I hired wanted to charge me more money for painting the fourth wall. I argued he was painting a normal room and this was just one wall. Why should it cost more?

He countered that the whiteboard wall paint required more setup on his time, a greater skill level in mixing the key ingredients. He had to paint more slowly to make sure nothing went wrong. The whiteboard wall paint is very expensive, requiring him to implement a completely different process. Any mistake on his part would result in something he could not afford to replace. His margin of error needed to be miniscule.

To me, it just seemed like the fourth wall. I didn’t want to see it as different because to acknowledge that meant paying more. I simply needed four walls painted. I had two options: refuse to see the reality of the situation and not get what I wanted, or pay the increased price.

Can your stakeholders recognize that phone learning is different? Are they willing to pay for those differences?

3. Does your organization embrace innovative training practices?

Look at your existing e-learning. How innovative is it? I’m not talking about technology, I’m talking about the design itself. Does your organization mostly churn out page-turners? Do you follow the e-learning fox trot: Read, read, quizquiz. Read, read, quizquiz?

If your organization currently resists decision-based e-learning in favor of content-heavy reading, what makes you think this philosophy will instantly shift because learners can hold the training in the palm of their hands? Will your training stakeholders suddenly be free from the “this has got to be explained” aspect? They better, because a different design philosophy is required for phones.

Go look at any 30 to 50 apps available on either the Android™ or iTunes® store. You don’t have to buy them—look at the screenshots they make available for free. Explore how much reading is required. Look at the interactivity and the kind of decision-making users can do.

In a situation like this, I would brainstorm with stakeholders how to design a single topic’s instructional interactivity for the phone interface. The stakeholders contributions to content and process won’t be much value. That’s not the point. I want them to see how impossible it is to assume instructional interactivity and decision-making translate easily from other mobile devices to phone. I want them to see how few words can accompany each page. I want them to struggle with me so they understand the very real limitations.

4. What will your security/regulatory group say regarding phone training?

I remember having two meetings with a client regarding mobile learning specifically on phones. We discussed the design process, the kinds of interface required, some really in-depth conversations regarding implementation. (They had involved IT early.)

Between the second and third meetings, they got back to us and said glumly, “We’re not moving forward on this.”

They explained how they took their exciting initiative to their organization’s internal Regulatory group—complete with a detailed PowerPoint® explaining extra security measures to be taken—and the Regulatory group members collectively shook their heads and said, “No. Just…no.”

No further discussion.

The training group had already gone through the time-consuming process of selecting a vendor and outlining their first three projects. They achieved IT’s reluctant blessing and worked out technology solutions. But nobody had thought to consult the internal Regulatory group.

  • Do you train on content your Regulatory group considers “high risk?”
  • Would your training materials offer a competitive advantage if recovered by an unscrupulous party?
  • Would your training show data—any data—that might be client-related, employee-related, causing your company to get sued if made public?

Count on two or three employees (possibly twelve) employees losing their phones. This isn’t a possible worst-case scenario; it’s a fact. People lose their phones all the time (even after being lectured sternly by their boss to “not lose this phone.”) Plus, corporate espionage is very real. So when Regulatory is not smiling with enthusiasm regarding your exciting mobile training proposal, keep in mind they see the lost/stolen phone scenario as a future reality, not a distant possibility.

What if you compromise? Regarding Regulatory’s concerns with your software training, you counter with:  “Fine, we won’t show real screenshots.” Regulatory doesn’t want you using real customers. “Fine, we’ll use fake names.” Regulatory wants the SSN# fields to be blacked out and not show any numbers on the off-chance you accidentally type out a real one.


Software training without screenshots? Using silly customer names? Get real. It’s true, you might have to make some accommodations to appease an internal Regulatory group, but at some point, your training loses its effectiveness when you bend over backwards to exclude everything that really ought to be included.

Long before you talk to your IT group, take someone from Regulatory to lunch and float the idea. Have a conversation. Let that person fill you in on some of the pros and cons.

One of the first questions that Regulatory person will ask you is, “Will employees have this training on their own phones or a company phone?” Ooooo – good question!

5. Whose phone will training reside on: employees’ personal devices or a corporate device?

You might think this is a good time to involve IT. It’s not. You don’t need IT to answer this question. You can figure it out for yourself. A few considerations:

If training is accessible or downloaded to your employees’ personal phones, there exist roughly 111 mobile phone brands. True, some are ones you’ve never heard of and your IT simply won’t support, so let’s generously remove eighty (80) brands from this list, leaving thirty-one (31) unique brands. If they are feeling charitable, IT might support four (4) brands. And we haven’t begun to talk about the unique makes and models, software versions, and updates. Soooo….yeah. That’s a lot for them to support.

When training exists on a learner’s personal phone, who is in charge of updating the software so the training runs? Who is in charge of making sure the learners have downloaded the latest version of the training? Can you demand employees complete downloads if they’re using their own personal phone?

This is much easier to control if Corporate purchases phones for everybody. Financially, do you see that happening? Do you really think your employees will carry two mobile phones? Maybe. Which phone do you think they’ll do a better job of protecting?

I’m sure I sound like I’m against phone training. I’m not. (Although I do have a bias that if you’re designing training for the phone, why are you not simply developing an app instead of training?) Truth is, I’ve seen good use of training on the phone, so I know it’s do-able.

The answers to these five questions are either impossible or workable. If they’re impossible and you know it already, stop the process of considering training on your mobile devices. If you read these daunting questions and think to yourself, “We could find a way…” well, maybe it’s time to consider phone training.


CLICK TO TWEET: Hold the Phone (training)—5 Questions to Ask First #aiblog   



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About Author

Edmond Manning
Edmond Manning

Edmond Manning, senior instructional designer for Allen Interactions, has more than 20 years designing interactive e-learning experiences on instructional topics including: software simulation, medical ethics, supervisory skills, and selling/presentation skills, and gosh, a whole bunch of others. He has helped mentor and grow e-learning departments, worked as a business consultant, independent contractor, and instructed the ATD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program for more than a decade. Edmond has a master's degree from Northern Illinois University in instructional technology.

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