Monday, 20 December 2010

My thoughts on application trainings

During my career I have a number of times been asked to help out with design of different IT-application trainings. Both from a pure design perspective but also as a trainer. Below I will describe three typical scenarios that I have seen over and over again, I also provide some simple yet effective ways to solve these issues. The three scenarios are:

  • Content Overload
  • Authenticity
  • Follow the Leader

Content Overload
It's always hard to design application trainings as there are so many things that needs to be covered in a limited amount of time. There is a major risk that these types of trainings becomes extremely packed with information and little or no time for reflection, which all involved in learning knows is not a very good thing.
The learners are expected to be able to use every single functionality in the application. And that will probably lead to learners who don't really know how to use any functionality in the tool.

Content Overload Solution
I prefer to do a mapping of the different tasks that a user is supposed to perform in the tool. Once that is done I rank each task on complexity and occurrence, meaning how hard is the task and how often is the user supposed to perform the different tasks. I usually use a scale from 1 to 10. Once I have done this I focus on the tasks with the highest scores. The tasks with the lower scores I can deliver in another way, e-learning, Quick Reference Cards or as Context Sensitive Help in the application.

Authenticity
Then there is the problem with authenticity. That the material you practice on and show during the training should resemble what the learners usually work with. A typical example of where this goes wrong is from a training I attended quite some years ago on how to build data bases. The exercise we got was to build a recipe data base. I am not in the chef-business and will therefore never build any data bases with recipes. The fact is that it was so far from what I was working with at the time that I had to put a lot of my energy on mentally re-coding what we had done to make it fit into my work. This made me loose focus on what was really important which made the learning fall short.

Authenticity Solution
When you start designing the training, make sure that you don't only analyse the application, but also the business of the learners. Otherwise you will never be able to design proper exercises that is high on authenticity. Decide on some standard exercises but make the material the learners will work with adaptable so you can make it fit in with the business that the learners are working in. This is more difficult if you have a mixed crowd of learners. It can be really hard work required but it will be well worth it in terms of success for your learners. And who knows you might learn some things yourself about the businesses of your learners.

Follow the Leader
Another trap that is easy to fall into is where you ask the learners to follow you as you demonstrate how to perform the different tasks in the application. This is the worst kind of training I know. Another example from a couple of years ago is when I participated in a three day training (yes, three days from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon). What we did during these 24 hours of training was to sit behind our computers and follow along in what the trainer did. If that wasn't boring enough, the facilities we were doing this follow exercise in was a typical computer training room down in the basement somewhere also used as a storing room for the IT-support guys (who for some reason also often can be found in the basement). So the training method was bad, the facilities were bad, and don't get me started on the so called coffee. And the result was... you guessed it BAD. A couple of days after this training I got a phone call from a friend who had also attended the training and he asked me:
- Help me, I don't remember how to log in. How should I do that?
I think that says it all.

Follow the Leader Solution

Instead of asking the learners to follow you, give them tasks that they should work with together in small teams. Give them the end result and ask them to solve it together. Once they are done ask them to show what they have done for the other teams. You can also ask them to write a small step-by-step guide on how they solved the problem, which can be mailed out to all the learners.

This way they will be engaged in solving the problem and it resembles more an actual working situation. By doing it in groups the social element of learning is also taken care of. This is important since it will secure a better learning experience and they might also learn things from each other that maybe isn't in the scope of the training but might prove valuable anyhow.



To make it a little more fun I once introduced hints that they could buy from me. I gave them a stack of Monopoly money enough to buy three hints. So if they got stuck they could buy a hint from me. What happened was really funny to watch. All groups were in one point or another discussing if they should buy a hint from me. But no one wanted to be the first group to do it. So in the end, no group had bought any hints but they had all solved the tasks I had given to them.

So what was the point of this you might wonder? Well I can tell you that they were all mighty proud afterwards and they all left the room with a feeling that they had beaten me. And it is never bad to make the learners feel proud of what they have achieved.


One Time Event
Often IT-application trainings are designed in such a way that the learners go there, takes the training and is then left on their own. Since the learners come to the training unprepared you have to spend quite some time in the beginning to get everyone on the same level before you can start the actual training.

If they have questions afterwards they are left on their own with little or no possibility to find the solution. It might even come to that the learner decides to take the training once more to be able to get answers to the questions, and that is not a very good solution.

One Time Event Solution
Think of your training as a multi-step rocket. Instead of just have one big occasion where learning is supposed to take place you provide several smaller occasions. It could for example be that the learners first do an e-learning to prepare for the coming face-2-face training. And, if possible, instead of having a full day training. Break it up into two half days instead. This way the learners get a chance to reflect and questions will probably arise. And last make sure that you have some support for the users after the training. It could be a forum where they can discuss the application, leave suggestions for improval or simply ask questions. It could also be a telephone meeting where they can ask questions.

Final Word
I have written this piece well aware of all the negative things that is said about training these days. I fully agree that these traditional trainings in many cases are not the best solutions. But at the same time I am a realist and I am pretty sure that traditional trainings will be around for quite some time. And sometimes I think they actually are the best solution.

In the future I hope that people designing IT-applications will find ways to make them easier to use. Today I see that usability is left behind and as long as the applications fulfill technical needs and business needs everything is fine. If we look at applications used by millions of people each day they have no training available at all. How many of you have taken a training in using Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, Android phone, iPad and so on? No one? Well that is my point, by building easy to use applications the training need is close to nothing. And even though I work with Learning every day nothing would make me happier than if an application responsible came to me and said
-We won't need any training for this application, a three year old can use this without explanation.

/Mattias

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