RE: encouraging learning by experimentation?

Subject: RE: encouraging learning by experimentation?
From: Sean Hower <hokumhome -at- freehomepage -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 6 Dec 2002 08:17:11 -0800 (PST)

Lois Patterson wrote
However, many very expensive CRM and ERP systems
are never adopted by the user base, precisely because
people are too afraid and intimidated to actually use
them. The implementations, costing tens of millions,
are failures. Maybe one solution in these instances is
to have a test system that users can experiment with
in order to become popular with the system.
We do this through training. SOP is to create a training database that gives our clients an opportunity to test, experiment and fail. After training is done, they switch to a live database. But none of that has anything to do with documentation. It's all done through the project managers and trainers. It's not in the docs.

Geoff Hart wrote
<<Obviously experimentation is not appropriate for nuclear plant workers
or some such thing.>>
Obviously you're not a fan of the Simpsons. <g>

Tom Murrell wrote
(I swear that some readers have to check that the Cautions are true. "Caution: Coffee HOT just after it is poured into cup!"
'YEOW!!!' Lesson learned(?) <g>)
Guilty. I now know what an infinite loop does...... <grin />

I think experimentation is the best way to learn. It gives a person a chance to really get their hands into something. But that's just my learning style. In my current job, our tutorials are of the cut-and-dry variety that demonstrate (or tries to demonstrate) how to do things in the application because we are assuming, and I think safely so, that our users don't want to learn the product, they want to get their jobs done.

I have written tutorials for another job that did encourage experimentation. That was for a 3d graphics program though, a completely different beasty from what I'm working with now. In that case, we assumed the user would want to learn the product. I took every opportunity to encourage experimenting with a feature, tinkering with settings in particular, in the hopes that the user would gain an intuitive understanding of how things work (such as the difference between a specular refraction of 1 vs 1.5). I tried to demonstrate such differences through screen captures in the reference material.

The only time I've run across docs or tutorials that purposefully included making mistakes was when I was going through the JavaScript tutorials on Web Monkey (if I recall correctly). But in that case, I was learning a programming language (yes I know it's not really a programming language, so don't be pedantic), and making mistakes was a great way to demonstrate how things worked.

As always, what you do will depend on:

1. What you're documenting
2. Your users
3. Their goals
4. Time

In some cases, giving an opportunity to experiment is a good thing, at other times opportunities for experimenting are a bad thing, whether it be because the user just doesn't care enough to learn yet another feature to get their job done or because experimenting can be costly. (dramatic examples of us all getting fried by radiation aside)

"And in the morning, I'm makin waffles." ~ Donkey
Sean Hower - tech writer

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