Sarah's Blog Post-01

Creating Online Software Training

As an Instructional Designer, I’ve created online training modules for sales, safety, and new employee orientation, but most of my projects have been for IT systems training. Providing online, self-paced training for new software provides end users with the opportunity to see the system and maybe even interact with the system before they use it. Before I share my experiences and preferences for creating system training, I think it’s important to talk about the basic types of online system training.

Scenario A

Let’s say you received a training request from a fairly regular user of Microsoft Excel, who has been tasked with creating a pivot table, but he is only vaguely familiar with how they work. He only has a few days to put the table together, so he needs to figure it out quickly. For this type of situation, he needs a “just in time” solution. You find a couple quick 2-3 minute videos on YouTube that should suffice. Your organization has a subscription to, so you find a slightly longer but more detailed video, complete with file downloads to give the user hands on practice. Your team also creates quick videos, so you make a note about maybe creating a video on pivot tables in the future.

Scenario B

Now let’s say that your organization has adopted a new application for assigning and tracking work, which includes an instant messaging tool and a file sharing feature. Providing a training package that includes dozens of mini training videos that cover one feature per video may not be the best solution when you need to train an organization on an entire system with multiple features. Your end users could get tired of watching video after video of individual features, without ever getting the real feel for the entire application. In this situation, your users would probably benefit from an interactive training module that provides a walkthrough of the entire application, complete with hands-on activities.

As you can see, both types of training solutions serve a different purpose. We produce both types of videos here at NAU, but for today’s post I’m going to focus on the latter of the two. In-depth, online system training modules are challenging projects but I have always found them to be rewarding. Hopefully these tips will make your next big system training project not seem as daunting.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I’m not going to say “practice makes perfect” because it doesn’t. My high school soccer coach taught me that. Practice is the best way to get familiar with the system and make sure that you have access to everything you need. One of the challenges of creating software training is that you need to interact with the system just like an end user would. To accomplish this, your customer needs to provide you with the appropriate accounts or sandbox environments so you can access everything.

When you practice a set of steps the same way as your end users, not only are you providing the best learning experience for your users, but you are also helping to ensure that the process is sound. Follow the steps (hopefully) provided by your customer to make sure that nothing has changed and that everything still functions as expected. Practice is also critical when you’re creating a full motion recording, or screencapture. Smooth mouse movements will keep your videos looking clean and professional.

Size Your Browser Window

The recording window on most training software applications isn’t a normal size you’d use when cruising Pinterest. The recording window is usually much smaller. Size your browser window when you begin recording and make everything line up. Pay attention to the behavior of the application when you resize the window. Did your browser zoom in or out when you changed the dimensions? Is it responsive? Do all the fields shift and resize appropriately? This information could be very useful for your customer.

Once it’s sized right, don’t move that browser window. At least with Adobe Captivate, the recording window will pop in the same place the next time you record screens. Depending on how you’ve got your browsers set up, when you close your browser it might even open in the same place at the same dimensions. This doesn’t always work, so I wouldn’t rely on it.

Each time I go to record screens, I’ll take one screenshot and then end my recording. I’ll bounce between that new screen and any existing screens to make sure things are lined up in the same way. If it’s not right, I’ll delete that new slide then try again until it’s seamless. It looks unprofessional to have the screens shifting back and forth by a few pixels when you’re clicking through a process.

Create an Outline… and Use It

When you’re creating a module that is mostly screenshots, it can be easy to lose track of where you are in the process. All the screenshots begin to blend together. For this reason, I like to create an outline that aligns with the customer’s process. Then I will create a slide break between sections, at least for while I’m building the module. I may not keep those section breaks in the published version, but they definitely help when I’m building things.

Take Extra Screenshots

I typically use Adobe Captivate for software simulation training, but I’m sure most training applications also have similar features. As I record the process, I try to take two pictures of each screen. This task does a couple things. It saves an extra image to the built-in library and it also gives you two screenshots to pick from when you put everything together. Sometimes the systems displays javascript processing messages in the bottom corner that you don’t want to include in your training. Sometimes the cursor is focused on an area of the screen, but you don’t want anything highlighted so you can use that screenshot in multiple places in your module. Hang on to those duplicate screenshots so you don’t kick yourself later.

Usability Testing

When I have a kick-off meeting with customers, I make a point to tell them that when we create system training, we often find bugs or odd behaviors in the software simply because we spend a lot of time staring at the same screen. Instructional Designers often become unofficial usability testers, which is a great side effect service we provide. I tell customers about this unofficial service up front, so that they aren’t caught off guard when we point out issues. Trust me, they want the system to be the best it can be, so they will appreciate knowing about issues.

You May Become a SME

Just like with usability testing, becoming a SME on the software you’re training is a definite possibility you should be aware of. I understand that becoming a SME may not be the benefit or side effect everyone seeks, but it certainly won’t hurt you in the long run. Your knowledge of the system could open new doors for you later on in your career.

Do you have any tips for creating only system training? I’m always looking for new ideas, so please share them in the comments below!

After receiving a Master’s Degree from NAU in Literacy, Technology, and Professional Writing, Sarah returned to her home town of Omaha, Nebraska where she gathered almost 10 years of experience in Instructional Design. Sarah loves utilizing technology to create training, whether to teach people how to use a computer system, improve their sales numbers, or incorporate a new process into their daily routine. Her background in English and Technical Writing helps keep her focused on writing and editing to provide clear and concise content for training. When the opportunity opened up with the Learning & Professional Development team, Sarah and her family (which consists of a bicycle-obsessed husband, two energetic daughters, and an annoying German Shepherd) jumped at the chance to move back to Flagstaff where they can ride bikes, hike, camp, ride bikes some more, and generally enjoy the outdoors without humidity or mosquitoes.

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