Education

Tips for writing effective training material for beginners

You may think that because you're an expert, it will be easy for you to write training materials for your low-level user base. But it can be tough to think like a beginner. Use these tips to create appropriate instructions for newbies.

Sometimes tech pros are just too good at their jobs to write effective training material for lower-level users. If you write about something you know very well, you're quite likely to rely on your memory, which means you may write good material, but the tiny details that newbies need may be missing.

Here are some points to ponder before you begin writing your next batch of training materials. These tips will help you avoid some common errors.

The problem with memory
To illustrate the problem with writing from memory, try this experiment: Imagine you're explaining the simple task of adding a standard modem to Windows 98. Write down the steps for installing it as you would explain it to a novice computer user. Done that?

Now turn to your PC and follow your steps and work through them. Did you leave anything out? The most commonly omitted stage is to click Add, followed by missing one of the Next buttons. That's no problem for you; you know where to click and where to enter details in a dialog box.

But this isn't about you. Writing good training materials is about empowering your users who may know nothing about the application or hardware. If presented with an option that they can't find in the instructions, it causes them to worry that they may have gone wrong.

Access for beginners
One of the most effective training packages I ever wrote was for a college. The workbook that lecturers were using to teach beginner-level Microsoft Access assumed a lot of prior knowledge and confused people with its terms and language. The course outline was quite straightforward: Create a table, enter some information in it, format some fields for numbers, make other fields required entries, sort and filter, change the contents of some fields, and print a few example pages.

I had never used Access myself, so it was with some trepidation that I set about reproducing the conditions that would cover all of the requirements of the course. As it happened, I was thinking about booking a holiday at the time. As usual, money was tight and I was looking for cheap hotels near the sea where I could take my dog. If you think this is beginning to sound like an Access query, you're right.

So, to create the training materials, I first went through the screens for creating the table, noting each step as it occurred. I invented a range of hotels and hostelries based on my personal experiences and gave them fictitious names.

I took screenshots at every critical phase so that an inexperienced student could confirm what they should be seeing on the screen. I gave the materials a test run on a group of students and asked them to be honest with their feedback. When I had addressed all of their issues in the text, I allowed the materials to be used on a full class of students. I am pleased to say that all of them passed their exam.

Make sure you know the target market
I ascribe the success of the material to the fact that it was written from the point of view of a beginner, which was the target audience. The most important rule of writing anything is to make sure that it is written for the correct target audience.

If you're writing for network administrators, you shouldn't need to tell them to switch on the monitor. But with complete beginners, you can't assume anything. You have to cover every option and give enough information to confirm that they're on the right track.

That's why screen shots are such good aids. Getting students to perform an operation and subsequently showing them a screenshot of what they should be seeing is the best way to build confidence. If the user's screen doesn't reflect the screen shot, the user doesn't know to call you over and check his or her work.

Ask for feedback
Any training document is—or should be—a living document. It will never be finished. When you have included every piece of information that you think is necessary, ask for feedback from a sample group. They will always find any anomalies and will be able to suggest information to be added, removed, or reworded.

However, be sure not to ask "experts" to test it for you. They will be looking for something to use at their level and may well muddy the water further by making suggestions on the way they would do it.

As you're editing, be sure you keep track of which version of the document is the most current. Make changes in the title or add a time and date stamp to the document so that you can tell which version is being used at any given time. Further, when writing training material, keep a log of changes made to each version.

When all the changes have been made, ask your sample group to run through the documentation again. They'll catch any last minute flaws or new problems created during the editing process. When the training material is complete, be sure to thank those who tested it for you. They deserve some credit for helping you create good, useable copy.
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