Train Better by Forgetting What You Know

I recently conducted formal training session for some end users of a Drupal content management system (CMS) our team is building.  These end users were not web developers, not professional content strategists, and had no prior experience with a CMS.  But these “first-timers” represent one of the benefits of an enterprise Drupal CMS: that content owners in business units can gain direct access to update their web content, free from bottlenecks in the IT department.  

In the course of this training, I was reminded that this first-timer type of end user does not share my team’s experience, expectations, and assumptions about managing websites.  Why would they?  For them, this is entirely new.  

Training should be designed to meet first-timers where they are.  For many of us, that means forgetting what we know and spending extra time to explain something we take for granted.  In this post I discuss five topics that merit extra attention when training first-timers.

1. WYSIWYG rarely meets first-timer expectations

From my perspective, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) web text editors like CKEditor and TinyMCE have evolved over time, and can now offer an incredible user experience.  But to first-timers, a WYSIWYG editor will always be compared to the full functionality of Microsoft Word.  Even if the web text editor had perfect feature parity with Microsoft Word, these users have had years of training on Word and only a few minutes with this web text editor, causing inevitable frustration.  First-timers will all agree that a WYSIWYG editor is better than hand coding HTML, but they never worked with HTML before (and never expected to), so the improvement is meaningless.  In my experience, the key to this conversation is to not over-sell WYSIWYG and to be patient with first-timers as they cope with this change.

2. Caching requires a thorough explanation

For websites transitioning from static HTML pages to a CMS, caching may be a new concept.  Especially to non-technical users.  An important question from these users is: “when will my content change be visible to the public?”  For many enterprise Drupal sites, the difficult answer is: “it depends.”  Drupal, Varnish, and Content Delivery Network (CDN) caching layers are amazingly beneficial for high traffic sites, but they complicate the answer to this question.  When training first-timers, it is worth the extra time to explain how caching on their site works, why it is necessary, and when they can expect their content changes to be publicly visible.

3. Extraneous fields cause confusion

At the time first-timers are being trained, their Drupal site is probably quite new.  The critical bugs have been squashed, but there hasn’t been time to finish low priority clean-up tasks like hiding all irrelevant fields.  However, these extraneous fields cause a surprising amount of confusion for first-timers.  Understandably, the ability to selectively ignore fields is much more difficult for when everything about the system is unfamiliar.  Even if there hasn’t been time to do this type of clean-up, spending additional time to identify extraneous fields will help.

4. Content locking is a training necessity

First-timers will often follow training instructions quite literally.  The result may be, as was in my recent experience, that the entire class attempts to edit the same node at the same time.  First-timers may not be sympathetic about how the system reacts (or fails to react) in this moment.  To avoid this moment, use something like the Content Lock module (recently patched).  This feature is always useful, but especially helpful during formal training sessions.

5. Train with other people’s content

It would seem beneficial to train first-timers how to use the CMS by experimenting with their own content.  However, in my experience the focus of the session quickly shifts away from learning the CMS, and toward content cleanup or display issues.  First-timers understandably have a hard time focusing on CMS functionality when their own content is at center stage.  Instead, train first-timers using somebody else’s content, so that they can easily stay focused on learning how to use the CMS.

These five topics are by no means comprehensive, but hopefully my recent experience will help others improve their end user training sessions.  It takes effort to forget what you know, but your first-timers will thank you for it.

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