What if you had to build 175 demonstrations and 50 practice exercises to instruct a global user community on how to use a new application – in eight weeks? To add to the complexity of the initiative, the new application is under development during much of the time that content writing and demonstration building is taking place. In addition, there are 20 different courses, 10 subject matter experts (SMEs) from four separate business units, and an audio narration requirement.
What would you do and how would you do it?
The short answer is to work closely with SMEs on a few big picture tasks in advance of building the demonstrations while, at the same time, having them identify all the details of the building blocks – every step of the way.
The content and demonstrations for this project were part of an overall effort to create 20 Web-delivered training courses with a total seat time of over 13 hours of training, for a global audience. If you are ever under this type of challenge, in this column I provide some best practices and useful tips based on our experience of rapidly developing content and turning it into detailed and engaging demonstrations.
The importance of curriculum and outlines
As you can imagine, we were about to face a tremendous amount of information. Before we could jump into creating demonstration assets of the various application functionalities, our assignment required us to drive the development of supporting content. This initial task continued with guiding our client through the relevant processes using best practices, and keeping the team focused.
To prepare for a job like this, it’s important to start with client approval of the curricula and outlines. This was a critical factor in getting the effort started successfully. Use a tool such as Visio to create the curriculum diagrams, and identify the proper sequence of courses and assessments for each user community.
Outlines – a tried-and-true, back-to-basics approach – are a means of documenting which demonstrations belong in which lessons, and in what courses. If an LMS will host the courses, the outline is an ideal place to include manifest data such as course descriptions and learning objectives. Once you finalize the outlines, – including the number and placement of practice exercises, one last round of client questioning should focus on identifying which demonstration will be the base for each practice exercise.
Finally, if the lesson and topic names will appear in your user interface (for example, as top-level menu items and in drop-down menus), carefully consider word selection and character length when developing the outlines. Explain to the client that, when they approve the outlines, they are actually approving part of the user interface at the same time. Finally, require SME approval for both curriculums and outlines. This is an effective means of ensuring client involvement and ownership.
Content writing tips
When the client approves the curricula and outlines, there are five tips to consider as you provide guidance to the SMEs who will develop the content. Since the goal is to create demonstrations on using the various features and functionality of the new application, the writing style should be conducive to creating step-by-step procedures. Just like the curricula and outlines, complete these tasks and finalize these decisions before building the demonstrations.
- Conduct a writing workshop with your SMEs. In addition to creating a script template and distributing supporting documentation and guidelines, conduct a custom training workshop. Here you will get the SMEs together as a group and model the process, from creating sentences that deliver clear step-by-step instructions, to entering the text into the screen capture tool (we used Adobe Captivate), to previewing the finished demonstration. Provide explanations. For example, “Use simple words and small sentences, especially for a global audience.” Interact with the group (in other words, allow time for Q&A), and provide feedback. Ask for a writing sample from each SME. Share the writing samples among the group and ask for peer feedback. Point out the good and the bad, and provide direction with supporting examples. Be sure to discuss the importance of double-spacing the text. You will need the extra space for note taking when building the demonstrations.
- Determine a naming standard and then assign a unique name to each demonstration. For example, use m01_l03_t02 for module 01 lesson 03 topic 02. Communicate these names to your SMEs so you can easily identify the content once they submit it to you. Use the same naming standard as the team transforms the content from raw form (the script), to audio, to finished demonstration (for example, m01_l03_t02.doc, m01_l03_t02.mp3, m01_l03_t02.cp).
- Establish content style standards and guidelines. Assign one person on your team to review all content and tackle common issues. For example, determine proper spelling, resolve case questions, identify glossary items, and create a pronunciation guide.
- Meet regularly with SMEs to review and track writing progress. Small groups are better and encourage sharing to the extent possible. Of course, give careful consideration for and be sensitive to the corporate culture and company politics.
- Require dry runs to verify content. Get commitments from SMEs to complete dry runs of all content before demonstration building. It’s an opportunity for them to maintain ownership, gain additional hands-on experience with the new application, and ensure that the system is working as planned. If it’s not, better to discover it beforehand so issues can be resolved before demonstration buidling begins.
Advice for iterative development
Demonstration development can begin once the client approves the content. This is when you bring your development team together and use a screen capture tool to create the demonstrations. Your onsite development team consists of yourself, your SMEs and one or two editors. Here are three strategies to help with resource planning.
- You will work with one SME at a time, so circulate or post a calendar and require SME sign-up (appointments). Be sure to explain to the SMEs that you will need an additional hour of their time within 24 hours of each time slot so they can review and sign-off on finished demonstrations.
- Explain to the SMEs that they must successfully complete dry-runs of each demonstration prior to their appointments.
- Prior to each appointment, ensure you receive a list of demonstrations from each SME. In other words, you need this list in advance. This is their work plan for the appointment. Again, this is a means of ensuring continued SME ownership.
Ask SMEs to bring a hardcopy of the content (scripts) with them to their appointments. While working side-by-side, with you in the “driver’s seat,” follow each script and capture the appropriate steps with the screen capture tool. Immediately afterwards, review each frame with your SME and ask questions about the new application, making notes on the hardcopy, including which frame goes with each step of the script.
Save the file on the network, pass the hardcopy to a team member (we call them editors), and get started on the next demonstration. Since edits usually take twice as long as the initial screen captures, plan for one to two editors per demo. Edits consist of text entry of script information, formatting, highlighting, and adjusting mouse movements and timing.
At the end of each day, review each demonstration completed by the editors, finalize all edits, publish the finished demonstration, and print the step-by-step procedure from the screen capture tool. If the demonstration is for a practice exercise (as denoted in the outlines), mark this on the printout. The printouts come into play during SME reviews and serve three purposes.
- Final comments. Instruct SMEs to make hand written notes on the printouts for any final changes that should be made to the demonstrations.
- Practice exercise details. For each practice exercise, ask SMEs to circle which “clickable” step to focus on.
- Final SME sign-off. Ask SMEs to sign each printout after they complete their review of it, and explain that their signature denotes approval. As such, these printouts become formal project documents and sign-off indicates that audio recording can begin (the step-by-step procedures doubled as our audio scripts).
With SME reviews occurring within 24 hours, audio scripts are ready as early as one day into development. To help meet the quickly-approaching deadline, it is critical to plan to have an offsite development team handle audio integration and final configuration of the demonstrations. This team can begin their processes as soon as the client approves the first demonstrations.
Both your onsite and offsite development teams should have a working understanding of your screen capture tool. For the first six weeks of demonstration building, plan to complete an average of seven to ten demonstrations a day. The final two weeks can be used to create the practice exercises (about 15 to 20 per day), assessment questions, and to follow-up any loose ends. Your success will be the result of your project management abilities, preparedness, technical writing skills, and stamina. Good luck!