A computer, not a way of life

90% of Caesar’s sales force had never used personal computers before the Legion project began, though most supervisors had used dumb terminals to access Caesar mainframes. So the training team needed to help people use their new tool confidently: they’d do 80% of their work on their new Apple laptops.

Just as software training isn’t, hardware training isn’t. The sales reps’ goal was to get their real jobs done, and they had to use computers to do it.

Two crucial questions:

  • What does someone really need to do to operate the computer?
  • How soon can he do something he sees as worthwhile?

Most sales reps worked on their own, not out of an office, so they needed to connect the parts, turn the computer on, and turn it off. They needed to recognize parts of the screen (menus, icons, windows, cursor). They needed basic mouse / trackball skills (move, click, double-click, drag).

What they didn’t need was a history of computer, a lecture on binary code, or technical explanations of how big a megabyte is. Nothing in their job depended on those. Many reps were eager to learn about computers, but that really meant eager to learn to do something with computers.

Equipment set-up, discovery style

Caesar’s plan was to bring groups of sales reps to a central location where they’d get their new laptops and immediately start learning to use them. We decided that the first half-hour of the course would be: unpack your computer, find these parts, and put ’em together.

Noisy, messy, and effective. The woman who found her power cord first showed her neighbors where it was in the carton. The guy who studied the battery-charger told other people where its power cord went. Everyone filled out the company forms showing they’d gotten their equipment.

“You’re in control.”

Our objective for the computer-basics portion of the training was to have the sales reps able to recognize certain parts of the screen and to carry out certain actions. From an affective point of view, we wanted these novices to begin feeling that they were in charge of their machines, rather than vice-versa.

We knew that some skills would require additional practice later in the training, so we worked to convey just enough information so that the sales reps could move on to using email — a new concept, but the primary way they’d receive information from the company. Using email would mean lots of practice in entering and editing text, so during setup we didn’t emphasis those skills.

The instructor as tour guideThe instructor’s main role — one she made explicit at the start — was a sort of tour guide. She knew the route, she eased the way, she encouraged people to explore. “Here’s what we’re going to do next. You’ll have time to do X. I’ll answer any questions.” Then she’d get them back on the bus and head for the next stop.

In this first part of the training, the instructors guided the reps through a relaxed, hands-on introduction to the computer desktop. Names and locations for the desktop itself, for icons, for the application menu. Cursor, single-click, double-click, close box, resize box, title bar, scroll bars.

The workbook included step-by-step guides, so people could move ahead. The “tour guide” told people that if they got stuck, they could try to figure their way out, or she’d help them when the group caught up.

Whenever possible, we applied generic computer skills with some practical task, like controlling mouse movements:

  • Open the Apple menu.
    (Skills: locate the menu, click to display its contents.)
  • Choose Control Panel.
    (Click and drag to highlight, then release.)
  • Double-click the Mouse icon.
    (Find the icon, scroll if necessary, double-click.)
  • Set the mouse tracking you prefer.
    (Use of radio buttons; control over mouse speed.)
  • Set the double-click speed you prefer.
    (More radio buttons; control over mouse.)
  • Close the Mouse window.
    (Locate close box; manipulate windows.)
  • Close the Control panel.
    (Locate close box; manipulate windows.)

If we couldn’t find a practical task — meaning one that delivered some benefit to the sales reps — then we’d offer a brief, simple rationale (“You’re entering the property tag number so the electronic inventory software can find it”).

More often, we’d defer a skill until it connected directly with work. We could have had the sales reps enter phone information during the set-up process, but the phone number became relevant only when they were ready to practice transmitting data.

Some other principles we tried to follow:

  • Don’t confuse me with optionsDon’t confuse me with options. Newcomers constantly battle information overload. A person who’s just learning to use a computer doesn’t need to hear that you use a menu command, a shortcut key, or a mouse action to accomplish the same result. For almost all actions, we chose the menu method. Not every action has a shortcut, while the menu’s always there. If students asked about shortcuts or mouse actions, the instructor confirmed that the shortcut would work and showed where to find a list of them. And the instructors wouldn’t correct someone who chose to use a shortcut — the focus was on the result, not the path. But for consistency, the instructors and the materials showed the menu method.
  • Avoid technophilia. Which is the on-the-job skill: knowing that something is called a radio button, or clicking a radio button to choose an option? We showed how to choose an option, mentioning in passing that programmers call the little circle a radio button. But we never asked later what it was called, because when you’re a sales rep using the Legion system, it’s not what you call something, it’s what that thing does.
  • Three times twenty is more than sixty. Moving knowledge from short-term to long-term memory requires practice. We looked for opportunities to introduce a concept or skill in the computer-basics module, then elaborate or reinforce it in a subsequent topic. Dragging a window by its title bar, shutting it by locating and clicking the close box — these things in context provide their own feedback loop and free the “generic computer skill” from the prison of the abstract. As a bonus, the computer-basics module gets shorter, and people move on to things that look more like the work they want to do.

The sales reps spent close to two hours setting up their laptops and learning just enough to move on to learn their first application. When it came to the new laptops, most were excited and many were nervous, but all of them would agree that the computer was a tool, not a way of life. They were ready to get to work — which is the next topic in this series.

Tour guide photo by Matthew Bradley, used here under a Creative Commons license.

Traffic sign photo by Eden and Josh, used here under a Creative Commons license.