Technical training: What do they need to DO?

Here’s a common question:

All employees have to know how to use our software. Why isn’t that a good enough goal for instructional design? Why should I go through action mapping?

My answer: If you don’t identify what people actually do with the software and design your training around that, you could create an information dump that helps no one and can’t justify its own existence.

Identify what they need to do, not what they need to know

People use software to do things. If you know what those things are, you can design easily updated job aids or online help for the most common tasks. Then your elearning, if it’s necessary at all, can use realistic scenarios to give learners a safe place to practice using the job aids.

For lots more on this and a before-and-after example of software training, see the Technical training section of the Elearning Blueprint, which is public and free.

Photo: (c) iStockPhoto


  1. TuppyMagic says:

    Timely post for me. We are starting to think about what learning resources, support and communication we need to put in place to move 8000 users from office 2003 to 2010 and only last week I had a conversation with a member of my team about the “what are people using the software for now and what will they need to be able to do when we make the switch?” I feel a information gathering period about to commence!

    • Ken Robinson says:

      As someone who is beginning graduate study in instructional design, but been in the education field for about 5 years, I see the importance of what was said in this post. Our district has instituted a new computer based program to track grades, attendance, etc… which has been cumbersome to learn and not user-friendly at all. It’s as though the program was designed WITHOUT the user in mind and the training aspect has been about the same. I will definietly use my personal experience as a guide when I’m in a position to help an organization design and institute such a change. If it’s not practical and easily understood/implementable organizationally, IT’S A WASTE.

  2. Sergey says:

    You are absolutely right (as always) but I’d like to take your idea further. I think that the very idea of training people to use any software is so 20th century. By ‘training’ I mean watching a course (no matter how interactive) while not using the software.

    People only use software to perform a task. When they try to do it, they will either succeed (if GUI is well designed and intuitively clear) or fail, in which case they will search help for a specific solution to a specific problem. This help should be available to them in a form of an indexed and searchable knowledge base complete with short specific task-oriented media-rich tutorials. Building that knowledge base / support system is important. Building training is not.

    Also, that system should be seamlessly integrated into the software. “Ooh, what’s that button do? I’ll click the little [?] sign next to it and read about it. With links to screencasts and what not.” — this would be the ideal situation. Not pressing F1, then trying to formulate a search query, then trying to sift through results, then trying to find that one piece of information you were looking for. Seamless integration of information on advanced features. Anything basic should be clear and intuitive. And everything should be basic, in fact.

    Whenever someone says “we need an online course for our corporate software”, they should go to the software engineers and GUI designers, not to training people. I have made a lot of online training courses for all kinds of corporate software in banks, insurance companies, hotels. All of these were designed by a committee comprising programmers and managers. No designers or actual users were involved, never. As a result, they were impossible to figure out intuitively. Worse than that, sequences of tasks were so unpredictable that a whole part of the course had to be dedicated to the system architecture, just to enable people to grasp what’s going on and then move on to specifics. Interfaces should be designed properly – and ‘properly’ stands for ‘I don’t need an online course in this’.

    Whoever needed a course to use an iPhone? Use Gmail? Shop at eBay? Play World of Warcraft? All of these things are really complex, more complex than most of the software people use in offices.

    Okay, that’s enough =) Sorry for such a long outcry but I know that many people feel the way I do =)


  3. Cathy Moore says:

    Tuppy, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’re asking good questions, and good luck with your project.

  4. Cathy Moore says:

    Sergey, I couldn’t agree more. “Training” should be the last resort for software users, and even then it should involve actually using the software.

    It’s alarming to think of the amount of money being wasted by poor software design and the almost inevitable decision that “training” is therefore necessary.

    On one project, I was supposed to design an online course about some byzantine software, which I obediently did. But I think my most valuable contribution during those weeks of work was the two hours I spent putting together a quick-reference PDF showing how to do the most common tasks — something it had never occurred to the client to do. They had no reference materials at all, because they had assumed a “course” was the only solution.

  5. Sergey says:

    Okay, since we’re sharing stories here…

    My partner once was tasked with building a course for a software, because people were making a lot of mistakes when inputting written contracts into the program. After doing some TNA, we discovered that the problem was actually not due to the mistakes as such but because the written contracts had to be entered by hand twice – once in the branch offices into Software A, and then in the head office into Software B. The resulting discrepancies between the two databases resulted in confusion, billing errors etc.

    Of course his first suggestion was to merge the two databases so that each written contract is entered only once. And of course, he ended up building the training anyway :) The system still persists.

  6. jlab says:

    Thanks for such a great post! Really informative, though I do how you handle technical training that has a customer service component. For example, I’m working on a training on how to use softward to assist customers with account inquiries. So while there are actions you do within the system, you also use the system to gain knowledge and share that knowledge with a customer. So there are things you have know, but the only action is accurately informing a customer of the information. I struggle with how to integrate the two components as the company moves from a classroom based training to a self study (to accomodate learner needs in flexible scheduling). Any thoughts?

  7. Cathy Moore says:

    Jlab, thanks for your question. It sounds like a scenarios might help you. For example, in one activity, a fictional customer could call with a common question, and the learner would need to use the software (or a simulation of the software) to find the right information and correctly explain it to the customer.

  8. Thanks Cathy for another great post and for making the Elearning Blue Print available to everyone. I went through this last year and I’ve since recommended it to numerous people. Thanks again :-)

  9. Jennifer says:

    @Jilab – I worked in this scenario for many years. There are really three components that you need to cover:

    1 Can they do it? – can they answer the question the customer asks or do the task asked of them (Skill)
    2 Do they know why they need to do that particular way? – eg. they have to read out a caveat clasuer for compliance purposes (theory)
    3 Can they still do it in a non-perfect scenario? – eg. they get a client who asks a standard question using different language, or where an account hasn’t been set up correctly can they identify this? (cognitivie skills)

    My tips are:

    1 Survey staff a range of staff with different tenure (3 months experience, 6 months experience, 12 months and 18 months or more). Ask them how often they have to do each task currently covered in your class based training (such as answer questions, update an account etc).

    2 Everything that they need to know on a daily or weekly basis is your first priority and where you should concentrate your efforts. This is where scenarios an online activities should be focussed. Anything that they need to do monthly – should have as second priority. Do not train the rest – it should be in an ontime support function.

    3 Seasonal tasks can be done as an online refresher with all staff

    4 Break your training up so that they do some online stuff, do some onjob stuff, then do some more online stuff. It will help then link everything back together and they will feel more supported.

    5 If you don’t have online support – look to using software like Mediawiki rather than building this as elearning modules. Ontime learning is much easier to keep updated.

    6 The online module can just provide them with instructions on where to locate information, to download practical activities so that they can practice their database skills (hopefully you have a training database which replicates the live database) – eg. get them to add clients, edit client accounts, update address details, etc. .

    For example, instead of asking ‘what is the current price of unit X’ – you might ask them to ‘copy’n'post the url for the online support page that shows the current unit price’.


  10. Henke says:

    @Jennifer: You’re really giving Cathy a competition on being the most brilliant girl in the room! :-)

  11. aggie says:

    Technical writers have been trying to create documentation (online help, procedure manuals, you name it) this way for decades. Most of the time, the “client,” i.e. the developers and their project managers, will not accept it. They want the information presented in a way that makes sense to *them,* regardless of how little it reflects the needs of the end user. Thank you, Cathy, for adding your voice to the discussion.

  12. bryce says:

    Thanks for the informative post Cathy.

    As in information systems student I’ve had to create several workflow models based on current business processes and we’ve paired that model with a training course and some quick references. We also detailed some use-case scenarios so that we knew what we needed to train people on. We didn’t use an instructional designer, and maybe we should have, but most of the staff seemed to do fairly well.

  13. Mary Ann Jock says:

    I know this is an old post, but it struck a note with me as a new student to the ID world. In my studies we have been looking at cognitive learning theories and this made me think of the “Stage Theory model” Craik and Lockhart (1972). The idea that when the need for accessing the information and the methods used to teach it are closely related, the learner will more easily retain more information. If a person is motivated to learn one component they will take the time to learn it. If you make them sit through a lot of information they do not need right now, they may not retain it for when they do, but if you create “mini-lessons” on different aspects and have them available to the learner as they may need it, they will not only feel more secure in working indepentantly, but will retain and use the information they learn more efficienctly.

  14. As a trainer and training course designer it is always nice to look at alternative methods of training design and see what is going on in the industry. Thanks David


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