Archive for March 10th, 2007

Companies are like bad marriages

From Creating Passionate Users: Too Many Companies are like Bad Marriages.

I really needed a good laugh. Thank you Kathy Sierra.

That’s true if you ever purchase software and then have to swim through help files to find what you need the help files are not organized or written in a way that’s easy for a user to search for the pieces of information that they need.  But this brings me to a point that’s been bugging me for the past three years: Designing great help and educational materials takes time and early and active participation from the training group!!!

I might also point out as well that products should be designed so that little or no training is necessary, and this is where the Human Factors Engineers or (HFEs) come in.  It may sound strange that a training developer is openly advocating a practice that could literally put herself out of a job, but I do so understanding that there will always be a need for good training and good documentation. At least if we’re designing better products my work will be directed to areas where it’s much needed.

Kathy Sierra points out that “World Class Training Materials” have three characteristics:

  1. User-friendly
    Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.
  2. Based on sound learning principles
    i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.
  3. Motivational
    Keeps users willing to push forward to higher “levels”

All three characteristics take time to build and design. Though if a training organization starts building usability practices and training it’s folks to identify when training interventions are not user-friendly and correcting them accordingly then you’ve probably got #1 nailed down.  #2 requires careful analysis and definition of the performance goals of the project or product. This requires more than just content experts throwing their design over a cubicle wall.   The project developers and designers must tie the design directly to the initial requirements (including user performance requirements), and training and the Human Factors Engineer should have direct exposure to the design as it’s being built.  The training developer can provide insight to the designers when it appears that the process or tasks will be difficult to learn. The HFE can let them know when the interface is a real pain in the butt for the user (and help them correct the design so IT IS NOT).

However, when you work for a company where engineering and design take the front seat…the Training and HFE roles are seen as an ancillary parts of the product development process. Consequently, it’s often hard to integrate Training and HFE activities into the process.  It gets even worse if you have to develop tools or products on a short time cycle.  The HFE has no time to provide input to the design of the tool or interface and the training developer must crank out sub-standard training materials because they don’t have enough time.

I believe that true incorporation of Training and Human Factors Engineering is a big change in behavior for some engineering companies.  It takes both a cultural change in understanding the value and how to apply both functions and areas of expertise correctly. It also takes leaders at the top who get the value and actively champion the best utilization of both groups instead of just paying them lip service.  I’ve seen our activities treated as ‘support’ functions and take a backseat to the others.  I’ve also seen HFE expertise and function as a whole being misunderstood and under-utilized. Yes, it’s true that you can’t have a product without a design, but how can you make it work if you haven’t assessed how the users are going to adopt it or have a plan for making it possible for them to do so?  There’s an ugly answer to this question and it sounds like this: “It doesn’t matter because the users don’t have a choice. They have to learn how to use the tool no matter how hard it is to use or learn.” But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the price that we must pay if we want to develop products quickly and without good usability practices and standards in place. The users will be frustrated, but tough termites, they simply have to deal with it. 

Some people may argue with me and say spending too much time on usability design and training will cost too much time and money.  On the training side, I believe that if at least three conditions are met this becomes easier:

  • Acceptance of Training: Leadership from the top down accepts, understands and champions the value of training and knows what it means if training is being involved correctly. Training partners design engineers, project team, etc. also understand and accept the role of training.
  • Business Process in Place: Training has a standard business process and practice in place (note business process is flexible – not a rigid procedure as for manufacturing) for developing training and have them incorporated the overall product design and development cycle.
  • Organized use of Learning Assets: Training organization has a well organized series of adaptable re-usable learning objects designed (there’s a great deal of efficiency gained). 

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