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Designing Software Training when Software's in Flux

Updated: May 22, 2023

There is a brand new software release and it's your job to create the instructor-led training materials. The problem is the software is under development, functionality is volatile, the requirements documents are nonexistent and communication with SME is limited. Impossible? This guide will help you tackle it with five-star results.

How to Do It and Avoid the Pitfalls

Let's face it, most learning development managers would pack up their desk and contact a professional recruiter before taking on a project like this. The odds are heavily stacked against success. The thought of drowning in all the work, rework, late nights and other pitfalls trying to make the training a success sends shivers. But, you can do it with five-star results.

Before you get started, take a deep breath and take solace in the fact that it's not about how many hours you put in, how hard you work or how flexible and reactionary you are to changes. Rather, it's about using a methodical approach to analyze, design, develop and deliver great training. Success is within reach if you follow these simple guidelines.

  • Align the right team

  • Determine your processes and procedures

  • Identify the needs of your entire audience

  • Get stakeholder approval

  • Develop in chunks

Align the Right Team

Failure to align the right team can result in a severe disconnect in the expectations for the training and to the desired learning outcomes. The right team consists of key stakeholders, subject matter experts (SMEs) and instructional designers who are savvy in determining the scope, project schedule and direction based on input from the stakeholders and subject matter experts.

Bribe Subject Matter Experts

Building relationships with the right SMEs is paramount when developing instructor-led training for software that is still under development. SME bait (a.k.a. baked goods and other bribes of a similar nature) is a good way start building rapport. At a minimum, bribing with baked goods ensures that people won't run and hide when they see you coming. When people can connect or relate to your plight, it is human nature for them to want to help. One way to help SMEs (and in this case, software developers) relate to your predicament is to show them a diagram of your instructional design process. More than likely they will be amazed at how closely the instructional design and systems design processes relate. Other things you can do to help turn the dire situation of limited time with SMEs are to educate them about the importance and value of the training and be conscious of their time. Build a schedule that both of you can live with, and prepare your questions ahead of time. You can even give your questions to the SMEs ahead of time, to reduce the "face time" you spend with them.

Identify a Point of Contact

If for entertainment reasons you would enjoy watching your team run amuck, do not assign a point of contact. The havoc that follows might be worth the price of admission. On the other hand, if derangement is not the state you were going for, select a point of contact from the business side. This is the "go to" person for your developers. This person should be able to find the answer to technical questions, coordinate and reconcile reviews and validate or approve changes to the materials. Make certain that the point of contact is committed to the responsibilities that come with this role. Getting answers to questions, reconciling reviews and making project decisions in a timely manner are essential to success and can take a fair amount of their time.

Determine Your Processes and Procedures

Write a will to avoid probate and estate taxes before throwing yourself out of a third story window, or keep the project under control by using solid processes and procedures. Set up processes for project communications, analysis, design and development. Set up procedures for reviews, change requests and versioning. Think of your processes and procedures as the rules of engagement for the project, and make sure every person involved knows and follows the rules.

Allow Room for Flexibility

Recognize upfront that since the software is not complete, you may have to be flexible. Build into your processes and procedures the ability to develop out of sequence. This way you can work on the parts of the software that are ready instead of developing and then changing due to modifications in functionality.

Fine Tune Your Templates

Waiting to perfect your templates until after you begin development can result in scrapping what you have and starting over with a new template. While you're waiting for the software to become somewhat stable, make formatting and usage decisions about your templates. Then fine tune your templates to conform to your design before you begin development.

Adult Identify the Needs of Your Entire Audience

You've heard it've got to walk before you can run. The saying is also true when developing instructor-led training materials. To avoid the pitfalls of a poor design and ultimately poor training, you must first complete a thorough analysis. Start the analysis by identifying the needs of your entire audience. For instructor-led training courses, the audience extends past the learner and includes the instructor. When analyzing your learner and instructor audience, consider prior knowledge, motivations and abilities for both groups of people.

Gain a Clear Picture of the Desired Learning Outcomes

Armed with knowledge about your audience, it's time to clarify what your audience should learn. Continue your analysis by determining the skills and attitudes you want your learners to acquire. To do this, first find out what customer problem(s) the new software product solves and the functionality it will have. Then, research the most important tasks learners need to perform to use the software effectively. Be sure to discover the level of competency required to define success. With this information, you should be able to compose well written learning objectives. Your objectives should be specific and describe a measureable behavior, the conditions necessary to perform the behavior and the desired level of competency. Make sure to get stakeholder approval for the objectives you write.

Determine the Instructional Strategy

Now that you have well written objectives and stakeholder approval, it's time decide how to teach the skills and attitudes you want learners to perform. Use your objectives to determine and create the best ways to present, practice and assess the material, but keep in mind that the more learners interact with the material the better they learn.

Determine the Strategy for the Instructor Guide

During the analysis, spend time finding out about the instructor's prior knowledge, motivations and abilities. Then, put that information to use and decide how much information and support the instructor will need to effectively teach the material. Design the instructor guide to include this information in an easy-to-find format.

Get Stakeholder Approval

During the analysis, design and development phases in the project, be sure to get stakeholder approval. This is so important because it ensures that everyone is on the same page. Stakeholders know what they are getting and you know what you're developing. The next page includes a checklist of guidelines to help focus your stakeholders review efforts during the different phases of the project.

Develop in Chunks

Okay, now that you have stakeholder approval, you're ready to start development. When software is still in the development stages, the most effective approach to developing training materials is to break down your efforts into smaller chunks. Developing in smaller chunks allows you to be more flexible because you can work as parts of the software become complete or more stable. Chunking may also create opportunities for you to reuse content in a different context.

Store Content Chunks in a Central Repository

Keep your project organized, manageable and accessible by storing your content in a central repository available to all team members. By keeping content in one place, it's easier to assemble all of your learning chunks into a course when you're finished.

Polish the Graphics for Your Materials Last

Don't worry about getting polished screen shots early on. It's a waste of time and you'll end up redoing this work. Instead, wait until the end of the software development lifecycle when most of the bugs are fixed and the functionality and interface are mostly stable.

Wrapping It Up...

If you're ever tasked with developing training for software that is under development don't pack up your desk and contact a professional recruiter. Instead, follow these simple guidelines and deliver great training.

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