Features May/June 2024

Content Reuse from the Lenses of Reactive and Proactive Learning

Effective content reuse strategies can be used to support a wide range of instructional design products, from basic help to advanced training.

By Julie Badger, Member

Several years ago, I was faced with a complex issue that needed solving. My company had a documentation problem—multiple teams were writing documentation for different purposes, and customers weren’t reading the documentation that the Documentation team created. Instead:

  • Tech Support was writing one-off, step-by-step documentation to teach customers basic tasks in our software.
  • Training was writing procedural content for the training workbooks they used in their live, in-person learning.
  • Customer Success Managers were writing procedural and conceptual content for use during customer onboarding.
  • Documentation was creating content for the software manuals, tomes really, that shipped as PDFs with the software.

This was not working. Customers rarely knew where to find answers to basic questions and struggled to retain the information they found. Collectively, we were spending hundreds and hundreds of hours writing the same or similar content. Our support burden was extremely high, and we couldn’t hire support staff fast enough to meet the needs of our burgeoning customer base. Also, our content impression was rather embarrassing. Depending on the author, actual content given to customers contained inconsistent tone/voice/structure/styling. Documents were littered with misspellings, lacked punctuation, and were unprofessional.

As I analyzed the problem, I noted that our customers’ information needs typically fell into one of two buckets: proactive learning and reactive learning.

Reactive Learning

Reactive learning needs encompass three sets of information:

  • UI Help provides immediate assistance in context to ensure the user can continue working in the app. We defined the UI Help use case as follows:
    • I’m in the app right now, and I need to know what this field or form is and how do I use it.
  • Conceptual and Procedural Help gives readers a high-level view of a feature or concept with step-by-step instructions to complete basic tasks. The goal is to ensure the user can immediately scan the topic to complete a task and get on with their day. We defined the Conceptual/Procedural Help use case as follows:
    • I need to do XYZ as part of my job. How do I do this in your application right now so that I can get on with my day? I don’t have time to read 800-page manuals. I need to be able to “Google” it and find the answer to my question without having to call customer support.
  • Workflow Help serves a different purpose than Procedural Help. Workflow topics provide the “big picture” view of the system and procedures to complete a multi-part objective in the product. Workflow topics always start with a visual diagram of the tasks to complete a complex goal. The workflow diagram was hot-mapped to each of the procedures in the topic. Procedure sections were collapsed when a topic opened. The user could expand/collapse the procedures as they progressed toward the workflow goal. We defined the goal for workflow Help as follows:
    • I’m a customer and I need to be able to do XYZ in the system. What are the prerequisites? What is the workflow? What configuration settings are required? What are the procedures I need to complete to reach my goal?
Proactive Learning

Proactive learning needs include three sets of information:

  • Spot training provides quick refreshers on a specific subject or a specific task that customers need to complete. We use call logs and trending support issues to drive the Spot Training course priorities. When repeat issues arose, we wrote proactive micro-learning courses, called “On a Mission” to fill the gap and reduce call volume. The goal of Spot Training Help was to fill a knowledge gap, describe a specific procedure for a specific configuration, and reduce overall call volume. The use case for Spot Training was:
    • I’m trying to do XYZ in your application. I’ve done it before, but my memory is fuzzy. Where can I find bite-sized learning tools to refresh my memory or help me with a specific aspect or configuration of XYZ?
  • Fundamentals training was 101-level coursework aimed at serving the learning needs of new customers (new to the product or new to the module). The goal of this material was to provide a solid foundation of knowledge for customers so that on Day One, post-Go-Live, they could do their job using our software. The use case was:
    • I’m starting from scratch. I need to understand the basic concepts, workflows, and procedures I’ll complete using your application. I need video walkthroughs and simulations to help cement my knowledge. I need hands-on practice exercises that I can complete in the application at my own pace.
  • Advanced training was targeted at System Administrators and Power Users. It was 201-level coursework; we expected the user to have been working in the system for some time and to need to know all aspects of the software. The use case for this training was:
    • I’ve been working in the application for a while. We’re scaling up our operation and starting to use more complex features or workflows. I need to know how to configure the application and learn everything about the new features we’re deploying.

After we identified the different types of information needs, we were able to build a content strategy that could meet our customers’ needs and eliminate the creation of one-off content across departments. We did it in two phases:

  • Phase One: Build a Help Center
  • Phase Two: Build a Learning Center that reuses as much of the Help Center content as possible.
Phase One

We, largely, tossed the existing documentation. It provided only basic information about each UI element. It did not include conceptual information, procedures, or contextual information. The problem we faced was that we estimated that creating an initial release of a Help Center (i.e., an HTML5-based, online, searchable documentation portal) would take six months. Before we focused on building content in our new content tool, Flare, we beefed up the in-app help we included in our software application. Customers accessed this help by clicking a Help icon on any field or form, and descriptive text was displayed explaining the field or form and how to use it. Augmenting in-app Help provided cover giving us time to build the Help Center. We delivered the Help Center and used tools like Google Analytics to analyze user behavior, which topics were accessed the most, how long people were in the Help system, and other key indicators to help us better understand our customers’ content needs.

Phase Two

The Help Center content met our customers’ reactive learning needs. However, as the company continued to grow, our need for learning content also grew. Our lack of online training materials was limiting our ability to scale as a company. We needed a way to provide comprehensive training for new users, system administrators, and power users. We needed our training to be largely self-guided learning materials because our customers wanted to learn at their own pace. Additionally, keeping a bench of trainers who were willing to travel all over the country for 40+ weeks a year to do live on-site training was an impossibility.

We realized that we couldn’t wait nine months to deliver the Learning Center. We needed it live in six months. We had a set of searchable reactive learning content. We needed to reuse as much Help content as possible if we were going to hit our dates:

  • Overview Content: We reused our conceptual content from the Help Center in overview lessons. Also, in some cases, we used this same conceptual information from the Help Center as the basis for the script for overview videos.
  • Procedural Lessons: We used step-by-step procedural help, from the Help Center content, as the basis for procedural lessons in the Learning Center. Customers could follow and complete procedural tasks in our software application at their own pace following the procedural lesson displayed in the Learning Center. After completing the procedure, they would return to the Learning Center to complete the next lesson for a course, typically a skills assessment.
The Nuts and Bolts of Reuse

Content reuse accelerated our Learning Center course development. A large portion of the procedural materials existed. We just needed to repackage it and make it available in a different form in the Learning Center. Instructional designers met with technical writers to discuss which parts of a given topic they wanted to include as a procedural lesson or overview lesson on the Learning Center. In some cases, they also identified insights that they wanted to provide to customers, which would not be relevant in the Help. For example, curriculum objectives would not be relevant in a Help Center procedure but would be important for a lesson in the Learning Center. In Flare, the writers conditionalized content in the following manner:

  • LC: Content exclusively meant for use in a procedure lesson in the Learning Center.
  • HC: Content exclusively meant for use in the Help Center.
  • No conditions applied: Content that would be published in both the Help version of the procedure and the Learning Center version of the procedure.

In Flare, we created two style sheets, two Destinations, and two Targets. At build time:

  • Help Center (HC) Content: We configured Flare to apply the HC style sheet and other target HTML5 settings. Non-Help Center content was excluded from the build. Flare published the output to the HC location on the web server.
  • Learning Center (LC) Content: We configured Flare to apply the LC style sheet and other target HTML5 settings. Non-Learning Center content was excluded from the build. Flare published the output to the LC location on the web server.

Learning Center procedural lessons were published to the web server as HTML Files. To use the content, the instructional designers created a lesson in the LMS platform (Skilljar). They used an embed code to call the URL of the Learning Center-version of the HTML file that we created in Flare. When a customer was working on a course, we configured our Skilljar platform to display the HTML file that we created in Flare in a window within the Skilljar lesson frame for a seamless learning experience. It looked like the content existed in the Learning Center like all of the other video lessons and product simulations that were part of the learning module when in fact it was sourced from another location outside the Learning Center altogether.

In the Help Center, the procedural content looked like all of the other topics regardless of whether or not its content was reused in the Learning Center. A side benefit of having a Learning Center was that we were able to repurpose the video walkthroughs and simulations created for many Learning Center courses and include them in relevant Help topics. The content flowed in both directions creating a richer reactive and proactive learning experience for all customers.

Building Confident, Self-Sufficient Product Users

Fortunately, we were able to use customer satisfaction and support tickets to track the success of implementing the Help Center and Learning Center. The first year after the Help Center went live, we reduced the total number of training-related support tickets by 20%. The second year that the Help Center was live, we reduced training-related support tickets by another 30%. The Learning Center’s go-live had similar positive results. Having a structured customer onboarding learning plan shortened the onboarding phase significantly.

By thoroughly and thoughtfully planning our content model, we were able to create a predictable learning experience for our customers with a professional, familiar, and welcoming tone and voice. Ultimately, our small but mighty team built confident, self-sufficient users who were happy, healthy, referenceable customers. We succeeded by writing once and focusing on reuse for reactive and proactive learning.

Julie Badger has spent more than two decades in the software space. With a career focused on business software, she’s worked with multiple verticals including transportation, retail, legal, and healthcare. Her roles have spanned technical support, QA, documentation, training, and product management, but she always finds her way back to documentation and training. She enjoys building communities of confident, self-sufficient software users by providing them with the right content in the right format at the right place and time. When she’s not at work, Julie enjoys designing and creating custom handbags and geeking out in her very high-tech, well-stocked craft room.