Why (re)training matters

Badass: making users awesomeI read a rather wonderful book recently, called ‘Badass: making users awesome’. I confess that I originally bought it thinking it would help us design a better product through a better user experience. However, I was wrong – but pleasantly so…

I dont want to review the book here – Virginia DeBoult does an excellent job here. I would though like to focus on one particular subject of the book which I was reminded of yesterday during a demo for a help tool product, called WalkMe (see earlier post). I am referring to what Kathy Sierra refers to as the ‘Suck Threshold’ which determines whether an individual will commit to mastering a product or may lose faith and considering dropping it for another.

Why Upgrades often fail

The illustration below highlights an increasingly familiar situation for me, and I am sure I am not alone. It describes how that initial period of excitement and wonderment for a new piece of technology can go horribly wrong. In this example it is the ‘Upgrade’ moment.

illustrating the 'Suck' threshold in user ability
illustrating the ‘Suck’ threshold in user ability

We assume that an ‘Upgrade’ is just that. A step up, an improvement, a fix for all those previously niggley problems. Sadly, my experiences from recent Windows and Apple upgrades proves that this can be far from the case. As somebody recently pointed out: dont upgrade too early as they want sufficient people to test the initial upgrade before releasing further ‘fixes’. To the company this may seem like a sensible approach. However, to the end user it not only undermines the brand reputation but also impacts on each individual’s confidence to with the product.

Train, train and re-train

One aspect missing from ‘Upgrades’, and I am including version changes and major fixes, is the impact on customer ability (knowledge, orientation, confidence). We assume technology users increase their knowledge of a product over time and through prolonged use. Initial training, or ‘on-boarding’, is sufficient to get them through the basic orientation stage, but assumes users to work the rest out for themselves.

To achieve mastery in any skill requires time for training, repetitive practice and reflection. Too often we take the lose sight of the fact that training should work in tandem with practice and reflection. Take any martial art or religion,  and you will find that continuous (and life-long) training is a central component of personal development.

So what does this have to do with technology and upgrades ? As a consultant for a educational software company, I recognise that the expectation from the supplier side and from the user side is that training should be minimal because the product must be intuitive to all users. It is understandable from the consumer side because training is costly and time-consuming. Precedents from companies such as Apple and Microsoft indicate that the user will find out what they need to know for themselves, and importantly, that brand reputation will dominate user choice. This is reflected in the title to the illustration, that users stick with terrible technology because they dont want to return to the ‘suck zone’ or being a beginner again. What they are failing to notice though is that as competition increases, any apathy in this areas will be punished.

Designing new, adaptive training 

The answer is to design better adaptive training methods which will reorientate, reenergise, and reskill current users of technologies. This can be achieved in three ways:

1. Promote retraining opportunties

Users should not expect to only require initial training, but expect to be trained again at staged intervals in the future. Yes, the product should be easy and intuitive to use. But, to become expert users requires not only the ability to master the controls, but an ability to master the ‘why’, the ‘how’ and the ‘when’. Correct application of the product to different problems and circumstances provides true mastery of a tool, not simply the ability to use it.

Training should be designed for ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ levels, delivered as face-to-face or online self-directed courses.

2. Use the community of users

A great way to motivate yourself is to observe what your peers are doing. Establishing a community of practice for your product users improves communication of a product and those ‘fearful’ upgrades and version changes, increases networking opportunities between users at all levels, and allows for the sharing of examples throughout your customer base.

Simple tricks for promoting community sharing include: online hangouts, twitter tweetchats, regional meetings, coffee mornings.

3. Integrate timely, tailored, smart help systems

I started by mentioned the demo from WalkMe for their clever help system. This form of help can provide rich support to different types of users, and different levels of users, through simple, embedded help prompts. They can offer timely support for users by adding new information (or modifying old notes) whenever change has occurred to prevent that critical downturn in user ability (and comfort).

How I now approach training differently

My approach to training has changed substantially in the past few months, and the catalyst was from reading Kathy Sierra’s book. I had previously assumed that initial training, with an clever, intuitive product, and active community network would be sufficient to nurture growth and development from our active users. However, these approaches often only reach the most active users and not the many others who are either not invited, not aware or haven’t the time.

My solution is to consider having a multi-focused suite of training methods; these will hopefully reach more people, more often, and with more impact than before. They include:

  1. Initial orientation training (onsite or online);
  2. Bi-annual retraining for key institutional stakeholders (training the trainers);
  3. Company community events: webinars, regional user groups, tweetchats;
  4. Localised ‘show and tell’ events for institutional users;
  5. Annual retraining for institutional support teams;
  6. More active production of customer case studies, and connecting users;
  7. Encourage the creation of student champions;
  8. Introduction of new self-directed training resources;
  9. Better embedded help resources in the product.

Cleary, this could be incredibly time consuming across a wide ranging of customers, and all approaches will not be possible for everyone. However, with the production of online training courses to follow shortly, our active community group and regular onsite meetings to customers, I strongly hope that this new focus will improve the ongoing confidence and abilities of many more of our current (Badass!) users.