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Is it possible to create engaging software training?

Software training may limit your ability to get people up and moving, but some unique instructional design choices can still make it very engaging.

Over the past several weeks I’ve exchanged messages with several blog subscribers who were looking for some ideas on how to create more engaging software training.

I’ve worked on a handful of software training courses and the answer is yes*.

There is an asterisk to my answer, because you may need to calibrate how you define “engaging” and what “engaging” looks like.  

What is “engagement”?

For the purpose of this blog post, to make sure we’re all using this word in the same way, I’ll define “engagement” as demonstrable signs that the learners are paying attention and contributing to the learning experience. It may not be how you‘d define engagement, and that’s fine. For the next five minutes as you read this post, however, that’s how the word “engagement” will be used.

I just handed over a training program to a client that involved learners reconstructing a core product out of Play-Doh so that they truly understood the placement of each component of the product, and so that they could talk accurately to customers about how their product is made.

engaging training using play-doh

It was a perfect example of this definition of “engagement” – the learners were demonstrably involved in the learning, and by building something and then sharing how and why they chose to build their replica in the way they did, they were contributing to the learning experience.

Play-Doh, or other get-out-of-your-seat-and-engage-with-other-participants instructional strategies, generally won’t work in a software training session. “Engagement” in an instructor-led software training environment will often need to take place at the learners’ seats.

What instructional strategies could lead to more engaging software training?

1. Pre-work

A while back I shared some thoughts on why software training should begin with pre-work. The point here is that most software users are not new to computers and navigating web browsers. Send new users some instructions on how to create their own accounts and maybe even have them click around to see what they can find and come to the training room with some initial questions.

This technique is helpful for learners as they can start to get a feel for the program and it “primes” them by having them begin to think of questions they may want to ask during your instructor-led session.

2. Gallery Walk

I’ve met very few people who like to sit for extended periods, especially when they have Fitbits or Apple Watches that buzz ten minutes before the top of the hour to tell them they need to get up and take 250 more steps.

With software training, your learners may be stuck behind a computer all day, unless…

A gallery walk is an activity in which you post images or key concepts on flipcharts or printouts around the room and instruct your learners to walk around the room, find each “exhibit” that you’ve posted, and share their reactions or impressions of each of the images or key concepts they’ve explored, as if they were art critics in a gallery.

You may wish to post key features or benefits of the software or perhaps a variety of use cases that your learners can discuss. An instructional strategy like this could get people up, moving, discussing and primed to jump into the actual software.

3. Scavenger Hunt

In theory, well-designed software should have some intuitive elements – the search function, logical organization of information. Challenging your learners to find specific information – either as part of the pre-work or after you’ve finished some instruction – can get your learners poking around. An activity like this also helps you gauge how comfortable your learners are with the with the system.

4. Case Studies

Giving your learners an opportunity to rest their eyes by not having to stare at their screens all day can be a welcome change of pace. Developing a series of short case studies about how your software system can be used, how it’s solved a problem in another industry or for another customer, and having your learners discuss transferable lessons for their specific cases can help them to truly understand the big picture impact of why and how they should be using this new software.

5. Simulations

Spending as little instruction time as is necessary on software features (often the learners care less about the millions of features within the software, they just want to know how to use the system) and navigation (which is important, but job aids and flowcharts may be more helpful than spending hours’ worth of classroom instruction on navigation) is key to engagement.

As soon as the learners have a basic grasp of the key concepts and navigation of the software, it’s time to give them practice scenarios to see if they can actually use the software. Give them data to input or sample scenarios in which they’d need to find information quickly, and then measure whether or not they can accurately use the system before sending them out into the real world.

6. Post-work

Most software systems represent enormous opportunities to both the organization and the individual employee… as long as they’re used correctly. Including a requirement that learners enter 10 live customers into the new database with 100% accuracy or that learners help 10 live customers with the information they find in the new system, before they’re “signed off” as having completed the training may be an essential final piece to a training program designed to ensure adoption and accurate usage.

Many vendors offer training that comes with the implementation of their software, but unfortunately, much of that training is put together by their sales team or even their programmers – most of whom do not have a background in instructional design or adult learning. If your goals include engaging your learners as you prepare them to adopt a new software package or IT system, a little creativity can go a long way in terms of learner adoption and learner satisfaction.

Need some help putting together engaging software training? Drop me a line, let’s brainstorm!

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