Tutorials: when bailing out means they’re good

I’m not a fan of “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  The basic idea works; sometimes good enough is just right.  So why the skepticism?  Like that tiresome definition of insanity (which some people repeat as if casting a spell), the perfect/good nostrum can substitute sloganeering for thought.

Sometimes the humdrum and the mediocre are the enemy of the good.

Which leads somehow to two seemingly unrelated conversations: my wife asking if you can save an Excel chart as a JPG, and a colleague and I exchanging tweets about tutorials and about “fun” in training.  “Seemingly” because the connection between the two is: accomplishment.

Excel chart as JIT graphic

My wife’s request had a clear focus: one of her coworkers, with basic Excel skills, wanted to use a chart as an image on a web page.  So I read into that “don’t get too complicated.”  I fiddled around with menus and right-clicks, but didn’t see anything obvious.

Googling “save excel chart as JPG” got lots of hits.  I learned there’s File / Save as Web Page.  That saves your spreadsheet as whatever.xls.  It also creates a folder, whatever_files, in which you’ll find the chart as image001.gif.  No, not a JPG, but good enough for the outcome.

“Fun” — the tutorial

In the Middle Ages, when I first learned PowerPoint, Microsoft had a clever tutorial–Christopher Columbus’s pitch for funding.  Whatever  umbrage you or Ed Tufte might take with PPT, I recall the tutorial clearly showing how to achieve certain effects: bullets, images, titles, and so forth. So I stuck with the tutorial, and quickly learned how to do things I wanted to do.

Calvin Coolidge, honorary Sioux (Lakota) chief, circa 1927Which to me is a lot more important than “fun” stuck onto training like a clown nose onto a marble bust.

Or, say, an Indian war bonnet stuck onto the head of “the greatest man ever to come out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont” (as Clarence Darrow said of Calvin Coolidge).

There’s nothing (in theory) wrong with  clown noses, but context does matter.

More on “fun” in another post.  Let’s stick with what makes a good tutorial.

CTQ: a point of view

In Six Sigma parlance, critical-to-quality elements (CTQs) are things important to a process so you can produce what’s important to the customer.  If you want high customer satisfaction with your service contract, a one CTQ might be “scheduling that suits the customer.”  Meaning your time window should not be the size of a barn door.

One CTQ that I see for a tutorial is: can people get stuff done quickly?  Or is the tutorial so full of overview and first-of-all and before-you-begin that it feels like one of those half-day mandatory snoozefests for the corporate initiative fo the month?

My wife’s coworker already had some context: she knew Excel basics, and she knew about JPGs.  All that was necessary for her to do what she wanted boiled down to:

  • Here’s how to turn an Excel chart into a GIF.
  • Here’s how to find the GIF.
  • You can use a GIF like you’d use a JPG.

When I first encountered PowerPoint, I didn’t have that context.  I hadn’t used presentation software before.  A rich tutorial made sense, and the design of the tutorial kept newcomer me engaged…

Until I hit the point where I felt I knew enough.  Then, I dropped out: I stopped the tutorial and got on with what I wanted to do: build a presentation.

Yes, this goes against a prescriptionist streak that you find in many trainers and instructional designers (including me).  We’re dying to tell you more, to share our hard-won–or at least much-valued–experience.  We mean well, but we can get a bit… smothery.

It’s important for both the designer and the learner to say, “That’s okay.”  I think drop-out-to-do may well be a key characteristic of successful demos or tutorials.  They show that someone feels she’s learned enough to try things on her own.

And trying things on your own is strength training for your neurons.  When things go well, it’s endorphin time.  When they don’t, you’ll put up with a certain amount of frustration and expend a certain amount of effort if you can still accomplish something that matters.

Thus the argument for well-built tutorials (or other detailed support): a reliable resource.  Unlike the typical software “knowledge base” that’s much more base than knowledge.

Photo of Calvin Coolidge from Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “Tutorials: when bailing out means they’re good

  1. Good stuff, Dave. I agree. What do they say about something worth doing?

    I’m trying to work out some skills on demand models at the moment. I’m starting to see a three dimensional quality come together that plots on an axis of behavioral, cognitive, and constructive. Where this plots depends on what the user needs.

    Just to do? To understand the model? To be able to synthesize an alternate variant based on similar patterns?

    Part of what you describe above seems to be ‘drop out when you have enough of a model that you can figure it out.’ I find most times all I’m looking for is a model / pattern that I can use to help align my mental model or align with what I already know – then it’s hyperspace jump to success.

    I’m also seeing task support fall across two major categories – Orientation Direct Task Support – where there’s an overlap, Venn diagram style. There’s a relationship to the 3D space plot above – though I’m not sure it’s a simple relationship:)

    BTW, my recommendation for saving an excel doc as an image:

    1. ALT-Print Screen to save the target spreadsheet area to the clipboard.

    2. Open MS Paint.

    3. Paste it.

    4. Crop it to the area of focus.

    5. Save it.

    Or grab a keen screencap utility like SnagIt or MWSnap (a freebie.)

  2. Steve,

    One quote I’ve always liked is, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” (My take there is “as opposed to not having been done at all.”)

    I’m a pushover for dimensions like the ones you mention in your model. Back in 1993, Peggy Ertmer and Timonthy Newby compared behaviorist, cogntitivist, and constructivist appraoches to instructional design in this article (PDF) in Performance and Improvement Quarterly. They chose seven questions (like “how does learning occur?” “How does transfer occur?” “How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?”) and discussed them from each model.

    Your hyperspace jump to success is critical–and as I read your comment, I thought it’s perhaps an element of training or learning that’s often neglected. Especially in organizations, my bias is that there’s a strong…um, bias…toward the body-of-knowledge point of view and the dosage theory of transfer.

    In reality, those are not totally horrible for a beginner, if the beginner body-of-knowledge is constrained and if the apprentice-level skills (if you will) are mostly straightforward and procedural.

    In other words: yeah, I can give you basic competency in using the reservation system with largely traditional approaches.

    You’ve got me thinking now, enough that I might have to think in a post. Thanks for commenting.

    (by the way, your MS Paint approach is fine, too. We ruled out grabbers, mostly because the individual in question didn’t have one.)

  3. One of the reasons that Monopoly doesn’t often survive as a pastime into adulthood is that victory in the game is protracted and decisive.

    And, I must say, this is the way I feel about many ‘well-built tutorials’. A drop-out-to-do option should definitely be a default option. A hyperspace option would be even better. (I like the metonymy of neuron vs endorphin too.)

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say on fun. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of months. Some recent thoughts are the latest post on my blog.

    My tip for an Excel doc to .jpg is just to use Evernote. But then I think everybody should use Evernote.

  4. Simon, those Monopoly victories always seemed to me more protracted than anything else. For some, I imagine that’s the charm: working you way through some overall plan, responding to the developments of the individual game. Not me, though.

    I’m still mulling over the notion of fun. It’s connected to humor, which is what you don’t have once you dissect a joke.

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