Explaining How Things Work: How To Do It And Why It Matters

When you can't stop working...

I went to my local airport to go on a business trip. I noticed some elderly ladies in Departures struggling to use the self-check-in machine.

My user training instincts kicked in. Using my own passport as an example, I showed them how to check in and get their boarding passes. I stood by helping them get theirs in the same way that I take my employers'' customers through our product''s workflow.

The shoe was on the other foot a few years later. I bought a new washing machine. The manual was in every language except English. Using the product name on the invoice, I found a video review of that washing machine on YouTube where someone demonstrated how to use it. Within 5 minutes, I was operating the washing machine.

Today, technology is everywhere. We use computers in the office, various appliances at home, ATMs, ticket machines, and gas pumps in the street, and smartphones in our pockets.

Explaining how something works has become an essential leadership skill. Customer service staff explain how technology works to solve their customers' problems. Sales representatives do the same to persuade customers to buy or use their products. Managers help their colleagues and train their subordinates on how to use various applications.

Demonstrating and training people how to use unfamiliar applications is part of most change management projects.

It All Starts With A Process

Man explains something to a coworker

Explaining how something works always starts with a process. There are two variants.

The Instructional Variant (training someone to use a system): the emphasis is on showing your audience how to get a specific result out of that system. I showed the ladies how to get their boarding passes printed and issued by the machine.

The Promotional Variant (selling someone a system): the emphasis is on showing how the system provides a business outcome. If I were selling automated check-in machines for airports, I would show my audience the benefits of these machines: passengers can check themselves in so the airline needs fewer check-in agents.

The Instructional Variant

Woman reads a manual

Imagine we are writing a user guide for a wheelbarrow.

Any act of instruction begins with a learning aim. When planning a training event, this is best summarized in a 'œcan do' statement.

'œBy the end of this training session, the user can load, unload and maneuver a wheelbarrow.'

This is how we would describe the main process from start to finish.

'œPut the load into the wheelbarrow''s bucket. Take hold of the handles and lift them up with the entire weight of the bucket resting on the wheel. Walk forward, pushing the wheelbarrow to your destination. On arrival, lift the handles above your head. The load will fall out of the bucket.'

Often, there are variations of the main operating processes.

'œWhere the load is a single, solid object, lift it and place it carefully into the bucket. On arrival, lift the load out of the wheelbarrow to prevent damage or injury.'

Here is a care instruction: 'œOil the wheel''s axle to ensure that it will turn easily.'

Here is a safety instruction: 'œBend your knees when lifting the handles and keep your back straight when pushing the wheelbarrow.'

Identify these divisions clearly using headings, captions, etc. with the main process coming first.

Also, be sure to include any prerequisites to operate the solution, such as installing drivers, inputting data, or integrating it with other applications.

The Promotional Variant

Woman gives a presentation during a business meeting

Here is how we demonstrate a wheelbarrow to a building firm''s buyer.

'œThis wheelbarrow is designed to enable your staff to move heavy loads without injury or exhaustion. Minimal training is required to operate this equipment."

"Place the load in the bucket. Lift the handles until the weight rests on the wheels. Push the vehicle forward to your destination. Lift the handles to empty the bucket."

"We have moved this heavy load from one place to the other quickly, quietly, without injury or carbon emissions.'

This description includes the main process and states the product''s benefits.

Do It Yourself 1: How Good Are The Processes You Work With?

Man on computer

Think of some of the processes you deal with personally. They might be online instructions to submit an insurance claim or request a service. How easy are these instructions to understand? Where is the problem? How straightforward is the language? Was each step described clearly? Were all the prerequisites given?

Do It Yourself 2: How Good Are Your Processes?

Man explains something to a colleague

Now think of the processes you are responsible for. When you train a new colleague how to use an application or device, how well does she understand it? Are you sure you told her everything? Did you tell her each step in the correct order?

Try writing that process down. Writing is a great way to separate an idea from yourself and look at it as an independent object. What do you need to start the process? What does it produce? What is it for? Have you included all the steps? Are there any parts that you don''t feel you really understand?

You might be in for a surprise!

I''d love to know how you got on. Feel free to connect with me and tell me about it!