In a past life, I was the help desk coordinator at a small college. While my department’s primary responsibility was IT support, we all did a little bit of everything. One day we would be crawling under the floor with network cables in our teeth, and the next we would be teaching end users about a new piece of hardware or how to use the latest software.

Unless an organization has a dedicated training department (and not many small organizations do), IT support and development is required to train users on new products and services. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to explain highly technical material to novice computer users. Role-playing is one method that I have used to keep end users interested and to liven up my instruction. This article explains how I used this training technique to simplify highly technical information for novice computer users. By implementing this trick, you’ll not only liven up your training sessions but also generate good vibes among your end users that will improve your IT department’s overall image.

Just how does a modem work anyway?
A group of novice computer users once asked me to explain how a modem worked and why they needed one. I launched into the usual dull-as-dishwater reply and noticed everyone’s eyes glazing over. I immediately stopped my spiel and got the users on their feet.

A human modem
To illustrate how a modem works, I assigned various members of the group roles related to each part of the process. I gave one person a copy of the ASCII character set and a guide to binary code. He was then nominated to be the central processing unit (CPU). I gave another a dry-erase marker and nominated her to be the visual display unit (VDU or monitor). A third was assigned the role of the modem. The CPU gave a string of binary information to the modem, who vocally squeaked it: high-pitched for 1 and low-pitched for 0.

The user who was assigned the role of the receiving modem recorded the squeaks, and the user playing the part of the receiving system CPU decoded them, using another copy of the ASCII character set. The decoded information was then passed to the VDU person, who wrote the message on the whiteboard. During the exercise, we checked protocols, did stop bits, repeated bad packets—the whole nine yards. A simple message like “Hello” took ages to send. We established a transfer rate of 2 bps! It was simple and fun, and the users understood the material.

I have also used this trick to demonstrate hard disks. For example, when the hard disk user ran out of paper, the role-players offered an upgrade (more paper), housekeeping (erase something), or compression (write smaller).

Wrapping up
If users enjoy their training, they will remember it. If you feel your users would be receptive to this kind of instruction, then go for it; you have nothing to lose but your stuffy image. Too often support technicians are thought of as indifferent, unsocial individuals, who would rather spend time with a machine than a live person. Using a lively training technique such as role-playing can help reverse this image. In fact, when done well, end-user training can remove negative perceptions of support techs, improve an IT department’s overall image, and foster a positive relationship between the IT department and the end user.
What approach do you take when you are assigned to teach a training session for a group of less technically savvy users? How do you make potentially dry material interesting? We want to know. Post a comment or send us a note and give us your best training trick!