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Instructional Design

I've been delivering training courses since 1992 and within the first two or three months of training I also started creating training materials, associated slides, and tutorials. In doing so, I've likely managed to deliver hundreds of courses to thousands of people. Technical communications course attendees often need to create training materials, tutorials, and online support content on what they've just learned.

Participants frequently ask: How do you create the courses you teach? The answer usually includes some or all of the following:

  • Know your audience
  • Know your materials, or be able to work with subject matter experts on knowledge transfer
  • Use what you know from similar courses delivered in the past
  • Talk to other instructors
  • Follow established guidelines
  • Learn the little tips and tricks that keep a trainer going
  • Get the input of a good technical communicator to help develop the course and the content
  • Have a good idea on how to train

Know your audience is the mantra for most writers. In the context of providing training materials, you need to identify who your final audience is (for example: the trainer or the student?) and know as much as you can about their skill levels, knowledge of the products, and abilities. Until you know who you write for, what they want, and what they bring to the table, you can't design with total clarity. You can write great content. You can write concise content. But you can't write for your audience until you identify who your content consumer is.

To write well, you must also know the product or you should have an expert who knows the product. This isn't knowing how to teach, this is knowing the technology you write about. It's knowing the software. It's being able to install and configure the work environment. You need to be able to understand the workflow that your audience follows. Whether you write about installing software, how to change a car tire, the procedure to shut down a reactor core, emergency landing procedures for a plane, how to cap an oil well, or how to deliver news at a press conference, the hands-on skills that allow an expert to do the task need to be completely understood. This is where I say you need to know the product. You don't have to be the one who does the task as an expert, but you need to be able to watch and document what your expert does. Even if that expert is you.

Reuse of existing course content sounds easy. Take an existing course and build on it to develop a new one. However, a lot of little pitfalls can creep in. One of the most common is the expectation that "it was done right the last time", where your assumption is that the content is good to begin with. Another big issue is the assumption that content was organized correctly, that the tool or product being documented and taught are largely the same, or even that the trainer delivering a course, or the audience reading the materials remain the same. Again, know your audience. And even that may change from release to release. Imagine writing how to download information from your website and consider why it's a bad idea to reuse information from 1996 in the modern day of high-speed internet, and a ubiquitous browsing environment. It's very unlikely you need to tell most users how to hook up a modem, how to connect to the web via dial-up, or how to use an FTP file command from a DOS prompt. All that existing content may have been perfectly written, organized, and modelled. And it's useless in the context of reuse as content today.

Talk to others who teach the same or similar courses. It's amazing how many good tips on how to create a great tutorial, how to provide value to a student, or how to make an online content easier to understand, can be collected just by communicating with the people who deliver what you write. This again goes back to the audience. In some cases, it is a person using a stand-alone tutorial, but this can also include the instuctor who uses your manuals to teach a classroom. See what works for them and what does not. Ask for feedback on how students perform in a standalone environment when a tutorial is handed to them. See how the same students react when there is guidance from the instructor. Then adapt your content accordingly.

Follow your guidelines and have a style guide that dictates things to think about. Do you use images? Tables and hyperlinks? Are there a lot of labels reading "Result" or "Next Steps" or "Prerequisite" in your content to orient the reader? Or does it clutter the documentation with hundreds of manually maintained images that add no value? Review the style guide regularly to see if it still fits. Today we deliver video, PDFs, and online help. If your guidelines are still based on the rules of a traditional print delivery, you may need to update it to better serve your audience. And there we have "audience" again.

Expect the trainer to know how to teach, but provide the tools. That means providing notes for the trainer and including sample files for students. If you have a set of standalone tutorials, or web content, then consider additional support that helps deliver information a professional trainer may normally provide. This could include video tutorials, guided audio to navigate the user, clear illustrations showing each part of a process, or a multitude of information types that a classroom trainer can deliver with a few quick points made during a traditional class. All the tools you can give the trainer (or additional information you provide to the self-study participant) will make a difference in the quality of the design.

The value of technical communications in making a course a success, in making tutorials clear and easy to follow, or in providing online content can't be overstated. Without this element, it can (and does) happen that the instructor is left with an incomplete set of materials to teach from. Trainers are not always professional writers. The best writers don't always have a background as a Certified Technical Trainer. Take the best skills of the best resources available to you. We know why a technical communications team should have access to people like editors, illustrators, publishers, and more. In the same way, we need to make sure that anyone involved in delivering training (in class, via tutorials, or as part of an online program) knows the value of the technical communicators in this mix.

Lastly, to most effectively create content that helps people to learn, we need to know how people learn. There are entire programs in universities geared towards this, but the simplest way to state it is that that people generally learn best by performing tasks. Therefore, it is crucial that content be task driven. The tasks should be real-world focused and standard (something they're likely to do again and again). Make it consistent, make it real, make it matter. Regardless of what anyone has said in the past, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes consistency. If you want it to be perfect, then it has to start with perfect practice. To write instructions that deliver a perfect workflow, you need to write perfect instructions. This means the writer needs to know how to train. You don't have to be able to get up in front of 12 or 20 or 100 people, but you should understand how people learn and then apply this to what you write.

The good news: this is all easy to learn. When factoring in the things that go into developing a good course, it comes down to the audience, the knowledge of what you are writing about, the ability to work with subject matter experts, and open communications between all people involved in the project. With the right ingredients, your course can be the one people talk about.

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