The scene opens in an office with several workers in an open desk workstation configuration. They’re talking to one another about different frustrations they’re experiencing with their respective computer systems. One of the workers wonders aloud what could be taking the computer guy so long to arrive since the support call was placed quite a while ago. Then, with an obnoxious comment extolling his vastly superior knowledge of technology, the computer technician bursts into the room and ridicules the users as he fixes their problems. You probably recognize this as the set-up of the Nick Burns skits on Saturday Night Live. If you’re not familiar with them, then give them a watch. They’re good for a chuckle, and you might find that they reflect your own frustrations far more than you would admit to management.

Information technology is both ubiquitous and invisible. We’re adept at creating systems and applications that are relatively easy to maintain. Changes and upgrades are generally small enough to avoid major disruptions to users’ productivity. If a system is running well, then its users largely operate on intuition and muscle memory, rendering the system itself invisible as the users navigate it on autopilot. Productivity without disruption. We like this.

When anything interrupts this flow, the calls come in. Some may be the result of issues with hardware or software glitches that are beyond the control of the end user. There are those problems sprinkled in here that cause us to marvel at their bizarre nature. We are awestruck at how someone could wander so far into the woods. These stories have immense entertainment value and make us big hits at parties; all of those IT parties where we regale our colleagues with tales of situations so baffling that we had to just sit back and applaud the creativity on display. No, wait, that was a concept I had for a social life simulator.

As it turns out, training could address the largest number of problems reported by end users. The enormous benefits of and critical need for training in any organization are beyond a serious challenge, yet so many of us find ourselves in environments that have little to no implementation of regular or effective training. Some of this is certainly budgetary. Many companies are loath to expend resources on a layer of operation that is normally invisible and has experts on hand to address problems when they do arise. Despite this, we can incorporate some measures that will empower end users and lessen the number of Nick Burns moments you experience.

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It’s the Culture, Not the Budget

We tend to focus our understanding and efforts on the unique internal cultures of our businesses, but understanding the impacts of the broader social culture on our user bases will inform how we should approach user education opportunities. This is a factor that is beyond the control of the business, which also means allocating budget resources won’t go far in addressing it. Fortunately, the success of user education efforts doesn’t require that. Throughout most any organization, users belong to a wide range of age groups. The technological revolution happened at a shockingly rapid pace on the cultural time scale, leaving many of these users blindsided by it. Difficulty responding to this shift is often thought to be constrained to certain age groups, but this is not the case. There are users in the younger age ranges who struggle to do much beyond turn a computer on and cannot fathom the popularity of video game systems. There are also older users who would volunteer for cybernetic implants just for the experience. Being an old school arcade and Atari 2600 man myself, I can appreciate the zeal of the latter.

Knowing the cultural impacts on your user base is a critical first step to implementing an effective user education initiative. This doesn’t mean you have to bring in a sociology professor as a consultant, though. We’re all too familiar with what happens when we assume, and it’s easy for us to assume a certain level of technical expertise across our user bases. Information systems are second nature to us and to many of our colleagues. We’re immersed in that experience, so it’s jolting when we interact with a user who is neither familiar nor entirely comfortable with the system they use every day. Effective user education entails understanding why that’s the case, which will vary by user. It doesn’t take dollars to do this; it takes time. Making the most of that time is where the investment happens, and it won’t be long before that investment starts paying dividends.


It’s in the Moment, Not on the Schedule

One of the biggest issues many people have with scheduled training is the interruption it creates in the work day. We’ve all been there at some point. You’re engaged in some project work and suddenly a calendar reminder pops up, breaking your flow and reminding you that you have five minutes to get a coffee refill, haul it to the meeting room, and settle in. I assume you’re topping off your coffee because you’ll probably need it. Plus, it will give you something to sip on between expressions of frustration at the interruption to your workday.

Rather than enforce such breaks, an organization should take advantage of those that come up in the natural course of the day. When users experience a problem, this creates a natural break and forces them to address the problem before they can continue. This type of interruption sets up perfectly for a user education opportunity. Of course, this situation is frustrating for the user, but it is not completely unexpected since no system works perfectly all the time. Additionally, this is a teaching moment for a problem that is immediately relevant to the user. They are face-to-face with the value of the solution, and they are much more motivated to absorb and retain the knowledge.

Users have emailed or called me and asked for a quick reminder of a solution I have helped them apply. This told me that they remembered that they could solve the problem themselves, and a quick bulleted list of steps would give them the final piece they needed to address the issue fully on their own next time. That is a successful user education experience, and it happens when we take advantage of those moments as they arise. No additional costs are incurred, the user learns something new, and you avoid a Nick Burns nerd rage.

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It’s Relational, Not Transactional

It would be nice to have a system in place that automates the bulk of user-reported problems. Imagine just pulling up the interface, entering the problem, clicking a button, and receiving a solution. This actually is not too far from how IT professionals handle the problems we are typically asked to solve. We have standard solutions that we are able to call up whether in documentation or by memory. The problem gets reported and resolved. End of transaction.

Most users do not operate this way with regard to information technology systems, and in fairness to them, they are generally right to not do so. Their job functions require them to master other skills, and they have their own sets of standard solutions that they implement as needed. They rely on our expertise when their flow is interrupted. Although our field encourages us to develop our ability to quantify incidents and experiences, it is crucial to approach user interactions as much more than simple entries in a log file.

Think back to your best learning experiences in school. I wager that the classes in which you learned the most or the times when you had a breakthrough in understanding a complex concept also involved an instructor who took the time to personalize those experiences with you. They met you where you were and guided you along instead of adopting a “spray and pray” approach consisting of disseminating data and hoping it sunk in. When you take the time to understand the user’s level of familiarity and comfort with the system presenting the problem, you can personalize the solution for them, even if it’s a standard one you have implemented dozens of times. That experience will give them a stake in the success of the solution and impress upon them the personal value this knowledge has on their daily job function. It will also likely garner some kind words and kudos, and every IT department could use some good press.


It’s Yoga, Not Powerlifting

In my experience, the most effective user education happens on an individual basis when the user’s flow has been interrupted and they are confronted with a problem they must solve. The experience demonstrates the value of having this knowledge on hand, and they’re motivated to retain the knowledge of that solution. Since this happens daily in any organization, it’s a good way to implement a broader embrace of user education. No two user interactions will be the same, even if they encounter similar problems. The name of the game is flexibility and finesse rather than a one-size-fits-all use of brute force.

Regardless of your current comfort level with this kind of interpersonal interaction, you can invest in yourself to develop this skill set like you would any other. You are already used to having to be able to switch gears, perform problem analysis, and communicate information. This approach to user education synergizes those extant abilities and applies them in a particular way. There will always be those people about whom Epictetus spoke: “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” We’re also going to have our share of those Nick Burns moments. But finding ways to stretch yourself and increase your range of motion will also increase your strength across that entire range.

Take advantage of these user education opportunities as they present themselves. Develop and maintain the mental flexibility needed to determine what the moment demands. Hone the strength needed to apply what is needed with your own unique finesse and style. And be sure to jot down the details of those outlandish incidents for when those IT parties become a thing.

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