The slow disappearance of training manuals

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Monica Keaveney mourns the slow disappearance of training manuals from more and more courses. She outlines the key reasons for using a manual and offers a few tips for designing one.

Call me old fashioned, but even with e-learning, webinars, forums, blogs and knowledge management systems, I’m still a fan of the training manual.

Many people don’t give manuals a chance. We are too busy to read up on a solution so that we spend half an hour trying to call someone in IT! Manuals are gradually disappearing. Perhaps it’s my own personal self-paced learning style, but I would rather have a manual leaving a course than umpteen handouts.

The importance of a good training manual

A good training manual allows participants to concentrate on understanding something. They can pay attention instead of frantically trying to write it down so they know how to do it again. As a trainer, I prefer to use the training manual as a guide throughout the course. As a result, the participant can take down any ‘notes to self’ at the relevant place.

Some trainers provide the training manual but urge participants not to refer to them during the course. That to me is code for saying: “The manual isn’t very good – don’t refer to it ever.” By giving learners a decent manual, you’re also giving them some choice about their training. They themselves can decide if and when they will use it.

A good manual takes time

Designing and writing up a good training manual takes time. Make sure you ask yourself what the purpose of the manual is and why you are writing it.

Training manuals should not be so thick that they scare people away. They should start by covering basic skills and later versions should cover the more advanced topics. It might be worth checking out existing manuals and material to get an idea of what style you should use (or avoid).

I generally write two manuals: one for the trainer and one for the learners. Both contain the same information but the trainer’s manual also includes notes on the inventory, delivery, assessment and evaluation of the training. The learner’s manual provides all the information and support on a particular course.

As with any form of communicating, you must start with a plan. A plan of who the manual is being written for. Is it for participants who are new to this topic, or for more advanced users?

Consider the following for each of your readers:

  • Day to day job
  • Work environment
  • Specific tasks
  • Educational level
  • Native language
  • Computer experience for IT manuals

Write out a plan with objectives. Decide what you want the manual to achieve, what topics you want to cover, how you want it to look, and so on.

Pay attention to how people use manuals

Nobody sits down and reads a manual from start to finish. People look for the topic they are having difficulty with. When they find it, they first scan the pictures, diagrams and headings to see if it’s what they need. Then they read it. Therefore, it’s vital to include plenty of diagrams and screenshots amid well laid out non-ambiguous text.

Manuals with technical terms are not read from start to finish either. If you have explained a term in chapter one, you may still need to briefly explain it again in later chapters. You should also refer learners to where they can find the detailed explanation.

In IT-related courses, include plenty of screenshots in manuals for beginner courses. Don’t assume that the reader will press ‘OK’ here or there to advance them to the next screen. You must include all screens to make it as user-friendly as possible.

The best manuals I have read will even tell you what to do in the event of a common error occurring. For more advanced manuals, use one screenshot and number each of the steps clearly.

Make sure to include a content page or index, if not both of them. Ask a colleague to proofread the manual as opposed to use it. Failing that read it yourself and then ‘use’ it as a person it was written for.

Finally, a good training manual can be a learning intervention all by itself. Therefore you should make it available on the company intranet where staff members can access it.

Monica Keaveney is a CEO at MONERE Development Services Ltd. and Co-Founder of The Savvy Teen Academy.

Anne Sexton

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