It’s Not a Training Issue

By Jim Ross

Published: December 6, 2010

“It’s almost always better to solve usability problems than to train people to work around them.”

Arrgh! I cried internally as the stakeholders on a recent project dismissed yet another usability problem with, “That’s a training issue.” Unfortunately, that was their solution for most of the problems we’d discovered.

To these stakeholders, it seemed easier to change users’ behavior than to change the design of their notoriously problematic, difficult to modify, internal enterprise application—and actually solve its problems. The application’s design problems seemed so insurmountable to them that training looked like an attractive alternative to improving its user interface. Since the application’s users were employees of their company, it was easy for stakeholders to take the position that they’d just have to adapt.

What’s the best way to respond to people who think training is a solution for usability problems? Is training ever an acceptable alternative to redesign? This column will explore these questions, then explain why it’s almost always better to solve usability problems than to train people to work around them.

Why Do People Say, “It’s a Training Issue?”

One oft-cited benefit of usability is that it decreases or eliminates the need for training. So it’s very odd to hear people take the opposite viewpoint, claiming that training eliminates the need for usability. Why do we hear people make this excuse so often?

A Blame-the-User Attitude

“The belief that it’s okay to ask users to change their behavior comes from an attitude that blames users for the problems they have using software.”

The belief that it’s okay to ask users to change their behavior comes from an attitude that blames users for the problems they have using software. “The people on the team who designed and developed the application know how to use it, so why can’t users figure it out?” “All complex applications take some time to learn, don’t they? Once we show people the correct way to do things, that will solve all their problems, right?”

According to this attitude, software just is what it is, and people have to adapt to it. This point of view supposes that, once training shows users the right way to perform tasks using an application’s user interface and the users practice those steps, eventually, they’ll get used to working in the way the application requires them to do things.

This is an easy position for stakeholders to take regarding enterprise applications. A company’s employees have little choice about using these applications, so it’s easy for IT to tell them to “suck it up” or “tough it out.” Sadly, some employees internalize this viewpoint and blame themselves for the problems they have using these applications.

A Vested Interest in Training

“It’s a training issue” is usually just an excuse stakeholders make to avoid fixing an application’s usability problems. Many usability problems are difficult to fix, so require a lot of usability testing, redesign, and development. Thus, each usability problem stakeholders can successfully characterize as a training issue lightens the load of the development team. Plus, increasing the need for training adds to the importance and value of the training team. So both teams seemingly benefit.

Why Isn’t It a Training Issue?

“The[se] arguments … are some of the best ways of convincing stakeholders that training is not the best solution to usability problems.”

It’s frustrating when someone says, “it’s a training issue,” but it’s not always easy to immediately fire back with a convincing argument to the contrary. The arguments I’ll cover next are some of the best ways of convincing stakeholders that training is not the best solution to usability problems. Of course, many of these arguments will sound extremely obvious to UX professionals, but if they were obvious to everyone, we would’t have this problem.

If You Fix the Usability Problems, You Won’t Need Training

Usable applications are easier to learn and require little or no training. Yes, most complex applications do require some training, but when applications are usable, training is easier, quicker, and more effective, and users retain what they learn better. It’s best to make a user interface as intuitive and easy to learn as possible, minimizing the need for training. Then, any training that is necessary can focus on the more demanding aspects of an application’s use, reducing the burden of what your training must help users to learn and retain.

Training Doesn’t Solve Inefficiencies of Use

“Training … can’t surmount problems of a poorly designed user interface that force users to perform their tasks inefficiently and perhaps even require entire steps that shouldn’t be necessary.”

While training can help people remember the steps in a task, it can’t surmount problems of a poorly designed user interface that force users to perform their tasks inefficiently and perhaps even require entire steps that shouldn’t be necessary. People can learn how to use an inefficient application through training and practice, but no matter how well they learn how to cope with its inefficiencies, they will still have to go through inefficient steps every time they perform their tasks. Imagine how much better it would be to have a well-designed application that instead helps people perform their tasks efficiently.

Training Doesn’t Improve User Satisfaction

Although training can help people learn an application, that doesn’t mean users will be satisfied with an inefficient, problematic system. No matter how well users learn to use it, they are not likely to be satisfied with an application that does not help them perform their tasks effectively and efficiently. Creating an efficient, usable application can increase users’ productivity and improve their satisfaction. This adds to job satisfaction for employees and decreases employee turnover.

Training Isn’t Cheap

“[You] need to fix usability problems only once, while training is a continuous process….”

Sometimes stakeholders see training as a less expensive alternative to redesign and development efforts. However, what they overlook is that they would need to fix usability problems only once, while training is a continuous process, as trained users leave the organization and new people who replace them have to learn how to use the application and work around its problems. So, if you don’t fix usability problems, you’ll make that continuous training more challenging and time-consuming for users and trainers alike.

Training costs can be significant. You must hire and train the trainers themselves, create training materials, plan lessons, and schedule training sessions. Lost employee time and productivity is another significant cost. New employees initially spend time in training, instead of gaining experience doing their jobs, and their productivity suffers until their training is complete. These costs can really add up. Then, once employees are fully trained, they’ll be experts at performing inefficient, time-consuming workarounds, instead of experts at using an application that helps them effectively perform their tasks.

It’s Difficult to Change the Behavior of People Who Have Learned to Cope with Inefficiencies

Once you train people to perform tasks in an inefficient manner, it can be difficult for them to change their behavior. This makes it even more difficult to make improvements to an application at a later date. It’s better for employees to start with a well-designed application, so they can learn the most efficient ways of performing tasks.

Training Doesn’t Always Happen

“Unfortunately, the reality is that training sometimes does not happen, so users must cope with those unsolved usability problems on their own.”

It’s easy for people on a development team to dismiss a usability problem as a training issue, but what if the training on which they’re relying doesn’t actually happen? And, even if employees do receive training in an application, will the people planning the training cover new problem areas in their lessons when the development team adds new features? Unfortunately, the reality is that training sometimes does not happen, so users must cope with those unsolved usability problems on their own. In the rush to get through a development cycle and meet a deadline, training is often the last consideration and can get cut when money is tight. Plus, organizations sometimes launch applications before training materials are ready, so employees must learn a problematic user interface without any help.

Not Everyone Receives Training

Even when training does occur, some people miss the training sessions, for various reasons. They may not be available; they may not have time to attend; or they may not be able to travel to the location at which the training occurs. Often training programs stop some time after an application’s initial launch. New employees who start later on must learn the application on their own and cope with the unfixed usability problems.

Training Quality Can Be Poor

“Both hands-on experience and repeated practice are necessary. Unfortunately, training often occurs in classrooms that do not provide the equipment that is necessary for hands-on practice with an application.”

It’s difficult to train people to use software. For people to learn and retain the information, both hands-on experience and repeated practice are necessary. Unfortunately, training often occurs in classrooms that do not provide the equipment that is necessary for hands-on practice with an application. Tasks may look easy when instructors perform them during a training session, but it’s a completely different story when people later attempt to perform the same tasks on their own.

To save money, many companies depend on Web-based training rather than classroom training. This is certainly more convenient for people, and some find it easier to learn at their own pace. However, if employees must pursue training on their own, many never get around to taking the courses. Classroom training forces people to block-out time in their schedule, while Web-based training tempts people to wait for a less busy time that never comes.

Training Is Not Useful for Infrequent Tasks

Repeated practice is necessary to retain information. But people use some applications so infrequently that they can’t remember what they did last time—regardless of how much training they’ve received. It is important that infrequently used applications be immediately intuitive and have a high degree of memorability rather than for their successful use to rely on training.

It’s Just a Communication Issue

Sometimes, you’ll hear stakeholders make the even lazier excuse, “It’s just a communication issue.” They’re not going to fix usability problems. They’re not even going to commit to providing training. Instead, supposing that people just need to know the right way to do things, they’re going to tell them the right way, then assume they’ll be fine. Their assumption is that people will receive the communication, pay attention to it, remember it, then practice the prescribed behavior next time they perform a task. This rationalization is a very effective way of avoiding additional development and training costs, but it does not solve usability issues or help employees to be effective.

Is It Ever a Training Issue?

“Training should never be a substitute for designing a usable application.”

Training should never be a substitute for designing a usable application. Of course, not all user interfaces can be—or should be—simple enough for users to immediately use them successfully without any training. To design usable applications—especially when designing very complex applications that do require training—we must have an in-depth understanding of users and the tasks they perform. After an initial training period, a well-designed application helps users perform their tasks in an efficient and effective manner, and the organization that created the application reaps the rewards of their design and development investment.

5 Comments

Thanks for a great article on the evils of training. I’m in absolute agreement.

That said, if I may play devil’s advocate, some things—like landing an airplane or playing an instrument or laying out a clear user interface—are by necessity difficult and require practice and training. Trying to make them simpler through over automation won’t help. If you make a musical instrument you can master in a few minutes, it’s likely to make pretty uninspired music—a point Martin Kaltenbrunner originally made. But clearly there is no point—apart from project sloth—in making them unnecessarily hard. I guess I’m left with paraphrasing what Einstein said, “User interfaces should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Excellent article, as always.

How do you compete with opposition from the experienced users of the software?

From their point of view, the software works well for their problem domain. Any advances to improve its usability may appear to be a threat to them.

Then they’d have to relearn it; perhaps putting them at a disadvantage with new users.

Very good article! Also, from my point of view, unfortunately a true story. This attitude is common practice, especially in larger companies that have an extensive training department, supporting the rollout of a series of software releases. Training is good and necessary, but after weeks, people put away their training material and the curve of oblivion is starting to rise again…

So training can never be a substitute for profound usability engineering activities. Or could you imagine that your next product would benefit from the following slogan? “Just out! You will need only 80 hours of intensive training to learn how to use our brand new thing.”

From an instructional designer responsible for creating training, thank you, thank you, thank you. The best systems are so intuitive that they don’t require training.

And you’re correct, training is a very expensive intervention. Fixing the actual problem is usually cheaper, if you consider the longevity of the system, creating and maintaining the training, and training and retraining people. Come up with numbers and compare the costs—training will rarely win. Add in the costs of task completion on the job—for a well-working system versus a system with flaws, and the cost is even higher. Fixing a system by addressing the root problem becomes a no-brainer.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Yes, complex interfaces such as airplane cockpits, automobiles, and musical instruments require training and practice to learn. However, a lot of human factors work has gone into the design of aircraft and automobile controls to get them to the point where they work well for their intended uses and allow people to perform their tasks safely and effectively. It is worth the training that is required to learn to use these systems.

Musical instruments are an interesting point. Yes, they are difficult to learn, but at least they have a consistent interface. If you learn how to play a Fender guitar, you can pick up a Gibson—or any other brand—and start playing right away, because the interface is the same. You can’t always say the same thing with software.

Joshua brings up a good point about experienced users being resistant to changes to a user interface, even when those changes are logical and more efficient. Experienced users are often at the point where they have spent considerable time learning extensive workarounds to deal with poorly designed systems. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to relearn everything. That’s another argument for designing a usable, efficient, and effective application in the first place, before people have spent a lot of time learning elaborate, inefficient workarounds.

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