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Responsive Design Tips for eLearning Courses

Nowadays the world seems to be all a-clamor over the idea of “responsive design” for eLearning. Yet, there still is a lot of confusion over what it is and how to implement it. Recently, I was privileged to lead a couple of sessions on that very topic at the eLearning Guild’s FocusOn Learning conference in San Diego. The topic was quite well-received and I figured that more people would be interested in hearing about it.

Laying the Foundation

To begin, we need to lay the foundation for this discussion. When talking about “responsive design” (for our purposes), I mean to design a course that responds to the technology platform currently in use. A course whose displayed content changes based on the device or screen size could be said to be “responsive” in this instance. Unfortunately, the term “responsive design” is a bit like the term “the cloud”—it can be fairly nebulous in definition and understanding.

Responsive design is a bit different than what I call “resizable design.” In resizable design, the objects on the screen just resize and change position based on the screen size. This is usually handled by the design tool and behind-the-scenes algorithms and programming. Responsive design, on the other hand, is a design in which the developer controls which elements appear on the screen based on certain sizes or breakpoints. In terms of tools, Storyline 3 & 360 use resizable design, while Captivate and Lectora use responsive design.

Overcoming Objections

So, now that we’ve laid a foundation for this discussion, you’re ready to present the idea of responsive courseware to your team. But, as with all such presentations, you should be ready to address any objections they may have. That being said, let’s look at some of the most common objections (in my experience) to responsive design.

Screen Size: Many who are wary of responsive are so because they worry about the screens being too small to make the content usable or interactive. Designing with the primary device or screen size in mind is a good way to allay these fears.

Development Time and Cost: I have often heard the concern “it will take twice (or 3 times) as long to develop our courses in a responsive format, and that time comes with a monetary value as well.” With today’s tools and technology, responsive design doesn’t really take a whole lot longer than non-responsive design.

Ramp Up Time: This concern is valid at the outset, but again, thanks to the advances in modern technology and the plethora of training courses and support forums, the most common eLearning tools make this learning curve much less pronounced than it used to be.

The 3-Step Process

When moving into the world of responsive courseware, I recommend you follow the same 3-step process you’d use in any eLearning project: Plan, Design and Develop. It seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how often in my career I’ve seen Instructional Designers just try to “wing it” when it comes to Responsive eLearning. They figure they have already done that process once, now all they’re doing is just converting it over to a responsive model. Except it’s not that simple. Let’s look at the 3 steps as they apply to Responsive eLearning:


It doesn’t matter whether you use the ADDIE model, SAM, Agile Development or any other model or methodology. What matters is that you pick the one that is right for you and your process. Each of them has their own pros and cons. Choose what works for you and go with it. But you have to have a plan. In addition, you need to think about and follow these steps (in whatever order):

  • Determine what devices/screen sizes you will be targeting
  • Create a style guide that includes fonts, colors, and formatting information.
  • Gather your resources (images, audio clips, video vignettes, fonts, graphics, etc)
  • Decide on the tool you’re going to use to create your course
  • Create a timeline


Good design is critical to any high-quality eLearning course. It’s even more so when you factor in responsiveness, because you now have to think about more than one screen size and layout. Consider the following when designing:

  • Use a Storyboard. There are lots of great storyboard templates out there that you can use. In fact we have one right in our Free Library.
  • Break down your course into chunks or modules. A good rule of thumb is one concept per module.
  • Create your Audio Script.
  • Wireframe your interactions.


Development is where you take the ideas and concepts to their final stages. There are some steps you can follow that will expedite the design process (in addition to the ones already mentioned in the previous two steps):

  • Utilize Master Slides. Often overlooked, Master Slides can be a powerful tool to speed up your development.
  • Know your tool’s responsive development capability.
  • Make sure your library of fonts, graphics, buttons and icons is ready to go.
  • Follow the storyboard
  • Utilize a template to get yourself a good portion of the way towards completion. Again, we have a myriad of templates in our Free Library for your use.

Once you’ve followed that 3-step process you should be well on your way towards good responsive design.

Implementing responsive eLearning can seem daunting at first glance, but if you take advantage of the tools and technologies available, I think you’ll find it’s not as bad as it first seemed.

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