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Documentation and e-Learning (Part 1) They’re One and the Same

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By Dave Powell, Documentation Manager, SyberWorks, Inc.

Documentation is as important a part of any product or service as hardware or software. But how many of us also think of documentation as online training? It is, you know. And better documentation might result if its authors remembered this.

Take SyberWorks’ own Web Author manual. When I arrived several years ago, it needed work. It contained chapters written in Word by different authors, who described the different Web Author controls in varying levels of detail. It was (in tech-writing lingo) a “very sparse functional reference.” So I decided to write a new manual from scratch.

Web Author Conversion

For those who don’t know, SyberWorks Web Author is a tool that allows even non-programmers to create interactive online courseware from Microsoft Word source documents. This first image is part of the Word source file for a Sudoku lesson, and the second image shows the corresponding interactive lesson page. Heck, I can even use Web Author to create courses, which (in my eyes) makes it pretty darned kewl!

And I decided that the new manual would be much more useful to new users if it walked them step by step through the complete process of creating, testing, editing, customizing, and finally converting Web Author courses to run on the SyberWorks Training Center LMS/LCMS system.

It was quite a project. I had to create my own first course through Web Author, and at the same time, capture and illustrate the entire process. The end result was a 12-chapter, 400-page “tutorial.”

But why am I even discussing this in an e-Learning article? Well, the new manual was designed from the beginning to take a training approach. And its PDF is online for our customers to download. So technically, it is online training…in PDF form. And, in a very real sense, it also prequalifies its readers for the course-development role. For while Web Author is easy to use, any course-development tool requires close attention to a lot of details. And if a user can’t focus on doing what my manual tells them to do (using source files that we even give them), then they probably won't cut it as a real course developer!

Click here for a demonstration of the PDF navigation described below.

BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE. I used the industry-standard documentation tool Adobe FrameMaker, which allowed me to turn the book’s Table-of-Contents and Index references into hot-links. So in the resulting online PDF, readers need only click a PDF bookmark, Table of Contents item, or Index listing, to go directly to pertinent material in the manual. This makes the PDF a powerful online reference as well. (And I’m now researching ways to also use the manual’s PDF as a Help file.)

So while user manuals and their PDFs are definitely not new media, writing them from the start as training is still rather rare (based on other documentation I’ve seen). But other companies are doing it. Cisco Systems, for one, asks students who are preparing for its online CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE technical-certification exams to do so by studying its training-oriented documentation (found at www.cisco.com/univercd).

PDF navigation

And back here at SyberWorks, my own little Web Author manual has become the de facto tool for teaching our new customer-support people about the program. It’s an internal e-Learning tool that the company didn’t have before. So a properly constructed piece of documentation can serve the training needs of both external customers and internal staff.

Sadly, many firms have outsourced their product documentation to overseas OEMs, with not always stunning results. I’d like to argue that in an age of ever-increasing product complexity, more documentation (printed and online) should be written with end-user training as a goal…and perhaps even be reviewed by e-Learning professionals who are skilled in the art of teaching. And come to think of it, many e-Learning materials might similarly benefit from a documentarian’s eye for writing, presentation, and organization!

About the Author:

Dave Powell is Documentation Manager for SyberWorks Inc., a privately-held supplier of e-Learning software and training. For the past 15 years, he has written award-winning marketing collateral and user documentation for hardware/software companies like PictureTel, 3Com, Philips Medical Systems, Polaroid, and SyberWorks. Prior to that, he edited and wrote for publications like Computerworld, Infosecurity News, Networking Management, Digital Design, LightWave, Popular Computing, Harvard Business Review, and Leaders. (During that time, he also served as an author and Editorial Advisor for Sesame Street.)

About SyberWorks

SyberWorks, Inc. is a leader in providing Learning Management Systems and custom e-Learning Solutions for Fortune 1000 corporations, higher education, and other organizations. Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, the company serves the multi-billion-dollar e-Learning market. Since 1995, SyberWorks has developed and delivered unique and economical solutions for creating, managing, measuring, and improving e-Learning programs at companies and organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other countries.

SyberWorks, Inc.
411 Waverley Oaks Road
Building 3, Suite 319
Waltham, MA 02452

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