7 Tips on Training Software

In my experience, training someone to use software is one of the more difficult types of training to create effectively. It is so easy to be boring, use technical jargon, extend the training too long, or fall into the dreaded “trying to be funny but come across as terribly cheesy” trap.

Throughout my career I’ve trained, or been trained, on software scores of times. While learning software I’ve fallen asleep, walked away with a commitment to figure it out on my own later, and been wow’ed by an 8-hour training session. As an instructor I’ve lost classes in the first five minutes, fallen asleep (yes, I put myself to sleep once,) and made significant impacts on the work lives of my class.

So, what is it that makes software training move from the dull drudgery of cleaning grout with a toothbrush, to the exciting adrenaline rush of flying in the backseat of a fighter jet?

Nothing. It’s software training.

But you can certainly make it better than cleaning grout. Here are some tips to help you on your next project:

  1. Tell them Why. Adults want to know why this training applies to them, so be up front with that. Don’t use boiler plate statements about how this software will make their daily jobs easier either. Be specific. For example, instead of saying “by the end of this training you’ll understand how to use Microsoft Outlook more efficiently” say this: “by the end of this training you’ll be capable of creating folders and rules to help you manage your email more efficiently, and be able to use Outlook like a pro. This will give you more time in your day not dealing with the email monster.”
  2. Be Practical. Like all other training, getting adults to engage works best when they understand and see how they can apply the training to their lives immediately. Software’s ultimate purpose is to make our lives easier; to perform some task that otherwise would be significantly more difficult for us. The best way to grab a learner’s attention and keep them engaged throughout the training is to constantly solve their problems. Give a lot of practical tips that shortcut longer processes, make tasks easier, or help users understand complicated actions easier. You can even purposefully plan to space these tips out so you have built-in engagement bumps throughout the lesson.
  3. Keep it Short! Especially when giving web-based training, but also when teaching in-person, keep training segments short. How ‘short’ is defined can be rather subjective, so let’s look at the principle behind it. The average adult attention span when engaged in a learning activity they feel is important is about 12 minutes. This drops off exponentially if you haven’t performed #1-2 correctly. YouTube recommends no videos over 4 minutes in length due to the significant viewership drop-off they see when videos are longer. Those videos would fall into the ‘entertainment’ category most of the time, which is why the attention span is shorter. The social media attention span for adults is one second shorter than that of a goldfish. When you look at the length of your training, keep those things in mind. For long sessions, create natural break points and split them up.
  4. Speed-up Unimportant Boring Stuff. No one wants to see you type your user name and password into a system. People perform that action dozens of times per day. They get it. If you’re doing a web-based recording, use an editor to speed the video up in that spot. If you’re teaching live, tell them “After you log in…” They all get it. Do the same for anything else in this category. Treat the learners like understand the basics unless you have a reason to assume otherwise. It only takes a few minor ‘time wasters’ to lose engagement for the whole training.
  5. Avoid the Cheese. I’m not talking about cheddar here. Common cheese you see in software training falls into these categories: silly names of example people, unrealistic or unbelievable examples, funny graphics that aren’t, and trying to drop in an unrelated joke as an attention grabber. They don’t generally work. Keep it practical, realistic, believable, and to the point.
  6. Get a Good Voice. If you have narration in your web- or video-based training, nothing is more valuable than a good voice. An example I recently cited was Corbin Anderson in his Camtasia 9 Essentials course on Lynda.com. This guy has a great voice and he kept me engaged for all 8 hours of the training. You can find voice talent relatively cheap if you hunt around, but a good voice is usually worth the price. I’ve even found in-house talent that rocked the project I needed narration for, so start there to save yourself some money.
  7. Beta, beta, edit. Any new training should be tested, then analyzed, then edited, then tested again. Don’t make the rookie mistake of recording and releasing, never to look at it again. If you’re training clients on the use of your software, find a few trusted voices that will give you honest feedback of new material, then get new stuff in front of them first so you can make changes before the whole world sees it.

There you go – 7 quick tips to help you train software better. It’s never too late to go back and fix old projects if you’ve realized that’s necessary. Good luck!


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