When I was laid off my first job less than a year out of college, I spent about 5 months unemployed. It's hard to imagine now...at the time, if I'd had the benefit of today's Internet (or economy), or a clue about what it was that I really wanted to do with my life, that period of unemployment might have gone differently. As it was, I became more and more desperate to get back into work similar to what I had been doing. And finally, I was offered my first project as an independent contractor.
In the US, the IRS has rules about whether a worker is classified as an employee or an independent contractor. As far as the IRS is concerned, there are only two types of work - as an employee and as an independent contractor. Ant's descriptions of the differences between developing eLearning for a bigger company internally, or working for an agency don't matter to the IRS; they are both considered employees. Companies don't withhold (and pay on the worker's behalf) any of the following for an independent contractor: income taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes and unemployment taxes. From a practical perspective (in the US), if you aren't considered a W-2 employee, then you are an independent contractor and must pay self-employment taxes. End of story.
As I set out to write this blog post, I mostly considered my own experiences, and not just those where I paid self-employment taxes. I've been an employee at small, medium, and large companies. I worked at a company where my department created content for the larger organization, and I've been an employee at an agency that created content for clients. One agency where I was an employee typecast me as the FrameMaker expert at the expense of my happiness with the job. And one agency where I came on board as an independent contractor to write storyboards gave me the opportunity to get started in eLearning because I'd learned Authorware on my own time and my own dime. My projects as an independent contractor include working for a big company, working for a small company and working for an agency. And I've been a freelancer for the last 13 years, for every size of company and agency.
Yes, I'm of an age where I am encouraged to euphemize my experience as "extensive."
When considering my insight on the differences between working as an independent contractor and working as a freelancer, I realized that it wasn't so much as they are two different types of experiences, but that they represent an entire spectrum of ways of working.
So instead of pointing out the differences, I'll bring up several points of consideration for anyone thinking of leaving the safety of a regular paycheck for the benefits of the great unknown world of self-employment.
A final point of consideration is career development. A few years ago, I thought about going back to school for a master's degree and decided ultimately that my clients usually didn't care if I had an advanced degree. Instead, I've obtained certifications and I read extensively in my field to stay informed. I learned early on that I'm the only person in charge of my professional development, and the type of work I say "yes" to can reflect that, as well as providing opportunities to stretch my skills. If you are thinking of striking out on your own, make sure you plan for time in your schedule to keep improving.
There's no shortage of advice for aspiring freelancers, but it's not for everyone. Here's an article I read recently that can help you set your expectations.
He starts by building his premise of why smart companies profit at making customers smarter. He says, "In the current world of software, where every day is part of your renewal cycle, you won't succeed unless your customers succeed at gaining value from your product." He goes on to describe the difference between growing and scaling as you strive to help more and more customers succeed.
In the second chapter, Adam defines a typical customer journey and how customer education supports each stage in that journey. If you ask the question "Why do customers churn before you've recouped the cost of acquiring them?" this chapter answers, "One reason might be because you've been thinking about [customers] in terms of your success - how do I keep this customer longer - and not in terms of their success."
It's a subtle but important difference that I somehow understood when I first started in this field - before I even knew it was an actual field. Without a great resource like Adam's book, I approached my work knowing that it was important to teach end users how to be better at their jobs and not just which button to press. And now, I'm so grateful to have this guidebook and the vocabulary to explain what that means.
With chapters on The Customer Education Technology Stack, Better Content Bootcamp, Meet Your Metrics, and From Here to Eternity, there is valuable content in this guide for helping you get started or improve from wherever your company's customer education efforts stand today.
If you've been reading my blog since the beginning, you'll recognize Adam because, duh, if you know what customer education is, you've probably heard of him. But also, he generously contributed some guest blogs as I was getting this resource going and you can find those here (Lessons from the Optiverse, and How Optimizely Climbed the Customer Education Curve (part one and part two).
And you can find the book here. Find a copy and read it today!
Imagine that you're trying out a new technical product. You're excited about the possibilities of how this product can solve a problem for you. You know that there will be a learning curve, but you hope that will be less of a pain point than the problem you are trying to solve.
But when you get into the product, you quickly get overwhelmed by a busy interface and too much noise on how to use it. It's so complex that it loses that shiny excitement you felt at first. You end up never really even getting started.
I'm fascinated with using SUI for various customer education content, and have previously written about SUI images and animated GIFs. But where does SUI fit into video?
The above example is a recording I grabbed (with Snagit) while my latest Camtasia upgrade installed. The "video" is similar to an animated GIF, but it's a little longer and shows more than one task, though in a more conceptual, rather than in a step-by-step way.
I've been thinking about SUI for a while and wanted to find ways that I could incorporate it into my content. But the trick is that while grabbing a screen recording is fairly easy, a more simplified version is actually more time consuming to plan and produce. I wanted to see how SUI could have a place in my videos and still remain affordable.
I know there are a number of benefits to using SUI in video that might justify the higher cost for development anyway. The SUI helps focus the viewer's attention on the simplified contents and reduces cognitive load. This means the viewer is more likely to remember important aspects of the video later. (Though I'm not aware of any studies that have specifically asked this question - yet.)
Another benefit of using SUI in video is that sometimes it's just not practical to screen record an example. It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes it really is simpler to simulate the environment and the exact pieces of content that you want to illustrate than to try to get an environment perfectly prepared for a screen recording. And in some cases, you may only get one shot at a recording.
Using a SUI approach reduces the stress of having to get the recording right with only one take. And you can use SUI elements to cover up personal or localized details. In the example below, some of the details are in Swedish, but since those details aren't important to explaining this concept, I just masked them.
This example brings me to pointing out a difference between SUI images and video. Sometimes, the motion is a really important ingredient for explaining a concept.
The use of SUI in videos seems to be limited to small snippets of a larger video, like in this example, or with micro-videos of less than a minute long.
I talked with Matthew Pierce, Learning & Video Ambassador for TechSmith. He's got a number of suggestions when planning to use SUI in video. First of all, you have to approach the building process for a SUI video differently. It's more like creating an animation, rather than a screen recording. You'll want a good storyboard showing the basics of what you want to include, perhaps with some instructions on how to approach the movement of each individual piece of the visuals. It might be helpful to do an actual recording to help you understand everything that's happening in the procedure you want to illustrate, and reverse-engineer to the storyboard to help with building the animations.
On the other hand, you want to keep the animations as simple as possible and limit the number of things shown at one time. Remember the goals of reducing the viewer's cognitive load (to help them better remember) and making the video more immune to future UI changes. It's not a time to get fancy and show off all of the cool things you can do in Camtasia.
Matt says that at TechSmith, they use art from UX designers, make some images based on UI designs and graphics provided, and have some basic interface elements available as Snagit Stamps. (It sounds like they have quite a library of images to reuse in different ways). There may be 15-20 image pieces for a simple Camtasia animation.
We talked a bit about a problem I'd come across in my early attempts to "cover up" in Camtasia screen recordings. In a basic recording, you get the screen and cursor both - they are somewhat separate, in that you can control the opacity, scale and some other features separately, but they aren't truly different layers. So you can end up with an annotation (whether text or shape) masking the cursor movement. Matt says that at TechSmith, they solve this problem by using a separate cursor image, which is animated to look like it's pointing and clicking. Another benefit to taking the few extra steps of animating a cursor is that you don't have any of those inevitable mouse wobbles that I don't always notice when I'm recording, but that become super obvious when I'm editing.
Let me know in the comments if you have any of your own applications, benefits or tips for using SUI in video.
For more on Snagit: https://www.techsmith.com/screen-capture.html
For more on Camtasia: https://www.techsmith.com/video-editor.html
We've been training customers since we've had products that required training, but recently, the idea of onboarding training has been getting more and more attention. So today, I'm providing a summary of the webinar hosted by Skilljar and presented by Adam Avramescu and Linda Schwaber-Cohen from January 2019 called "New Formula for Customer Onboarding."
With the rise of subscription-based businesses, companies need to make sure their products are effectively adopted by their customers. Customer onboarding is such a critical investment, because if customers don't adopt the product, they don't renew and can end up costing more to acquire and support than the revenue they generated.
Adam and Linda started the webinar with a few observations about what some companies are doing wrong when it comes to onboarding.
For example, you wouldn't want to give end users and administrative users the same kind of training. Either the end users will be overwhelmed with too much detail about setting things up, or your admins will not be getting enough training for their jobs.
The second mistake is equating account onboarding and user onboarding. Yes, there are tasks that need to be done when you obtain a new account. But these are not the same as the more frequent new user onboarding every time a new person joins a team that uses your product.
The third mistake Adam and Linda discussed is that onboarding should be owned by one team. The truth is that onboarding is a journey for the customer, and you'll have team members supporting different parts of that journey from marketing, sales, and customer success.
Of course, your onboarding strategy won't be perfect overnight. Adam and Linda recommend defining which onboarding archetypes you have in your company, and which are the highest priority for optimizing. They also recommend shadowing a customer onboarding to see if you are using the wrong approach or the wrong archetype. Get started with the most impactful thing and lay the foundation for measuring your success.
For those who didn't get a chance to view the webinar live, you can access the recording here. If you get the chance, it's an hour well-spent if you are thinking about improving your customer onboarding strategy.
Let me know if you need help building content for your on-demand onboarding strategy.
In the last post, I discussed simplified user interface (SUI) images as a potential solution to one of the biggest challenges that technical communicators face - keeping content up-to-date in the face of frequent product updates. While I've seen some examples of SUI in images, I've noticed far more examples that take it a step further by adding action as animated GIFs.
Here's an example from the Tips & Tricks in-product help for Dropbox Paper. The in-product help provides structure and context for the task being demonstrated (I realize the GIF doesn't make as much sense here), and there is just a small amount of text with this moving image that explains how to assign a to-do.
I'm fascinated by the SUI GIF for the same reasons I love SUI static images. According to TechSmith, "a simplified user interface graphic can often sustain multiple software versions...before needing further updates. The simplified design is more forgiving to minor interface changes and additions, as it is already an abstract representation of the interface."
A 10-15 second "video" or GIF takes this benefit a step further by illustrating the basics of a single task. From a user perspective, it's much easier to see how to do a task in a glance rather than reading an article or even watching a video with narration and annotations. In other words, with a reduced cognitive load for learning the new task, the user gets some quick success.
Though I recently completed TechSmith's Camtasia 2018 Certification, I've been making screencast tutorial videos since 2011. When I started seeing these GIF images, I knew they could be valuable for my clients. I've started seeing these appearing not only in help centers and in-product guides, but also in nurturing email campaigns when trying out a new tool.
Process for SUI GIF Creation
Even though a GIF may only last 10 seconds, it takes quite a bit of planning, as well as some extra time to create and produce if you want to make a quality image that communicates a task well with professional production quality.
In order to get clear on the process for developing something like this in Camtasia, I borrowed a sample from Unito, which is a tool that I'm testing for automating Trello cards from one board to another (that's not all it does). Reverse-engineering to build this image from one I already had is a little different from building a GIF from scratch, but it will serve the purpose for defining the process.
Here's the overall process for designing and developing an animated GIF:
We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. In documentation and customer education, a clear image can make or break how well end users understand the accompanying text.
The problem in customer education for technical products is that frequent product updates can render some or all of your educational images out-of-date.
I've been fascinated for some time with one solution to this problem: the simplified user interface (SUI). Here's an example from Outlook's "Coming Soon" in-product guidance.
So what's the big deal? The SUI image takes a bit more time to prepare than a screen shot.
But that extra time pays off big with two main benefits.
For example, in the following image, I was able to easily and quickly simulate the Outlook environment by using a real Outlook environment and then masking the information for the purposes of this educational content.
And honestly, this is a quick and dirty example that's not nearly as visually appealing as the above Outlook example.
If you are localizing your educational content, you already know how complex that can make your project. Using SUI images means you could potentially use the same images across content in multiple languages.
The good news is that Snagit 2019 by TechSmith has a new feature that automatically simplifies your image. Just grab your screen shot and Snagit does almost everything else.
Here's a demonstration using that same "real" screen shot from Outlook.
Ok, maybe the image is still not perfect in under 5 seconds. But those colored rectangles can be styled or removed individually, and it's easy to add your own if you can't find the right balance using the Auto Simplify feature. (Tip - use the Detail slider to change how Snagit interprets what needs to be simplified in the image.)
With just a little more time and customization, here's that same image.
It might not look as awesome as you could do by mocking it up in Photoshop, but it gets the point across quickly and without any advanced graphics skills.
To learn more about why and how to use Simplified User Interface images in your content strategy, you can read this article from TechSmith, one of many they have on using SUI.
The Checklist Manifesto
Author Atul Gawande is a surgeon, among other things (including staff writer for The New Yorker), but the book reads more like an adventure novel than your typical productivity advice. He tells stories not only from from his efforts with the World Health Organization's Safe Surgery Saves Lives program, but also from other areas - everything from constructing skyscrapers, to natural disaster response, to high-end restaurant operations, and of course, aviation.
The author makes the case that checklists are important to get things right, even for complex problems (maybe even especially for complex problems). Checklists reduce your cognitive load for the - as Dr. Gawande calls it - "stupid stuff", so that you have your full mental capacity for the task or problem at hand.
Content development can be time-consuming. While every bit of content that I create is different, I know that there are repeatable tasks. If I don't have to spend time remembering or identifying those tasks, I can spend that mental energy on creating more content and more effective learning.
My checklists for creating a tutorial video or converting a PowerPoint to eLearning in Storyline won't save lives (probably), but they do save time. They don't quite follow guidelines from The Checklist Manifesto, but here they are for your consideration and use.
When I find myself repeating general tasks for one or more projects, I write down the steps and store them in my task manager as a template so it's easy to find the next time I need to do the same thing.
Please share if you have suggestions for improvement. Our collective knowledge makes us all better and more efficient.
Video Tutorial Checklist
I developed this checklist for creating short (2-3 minute) how-to videos focused on a specific procedure. But it can serve as a template for other types of tutorials.
You can find a slightly different, expanded and actionable version of this checklist on the Nozbe.how site, which was a winner of the Nozbe.how template contest in the Business category in 2017.
PowerPoint to Storyline Conversion Checklist
I developed this checklist for a specific project in which related PowerPoint decks are being placed online for self-paced training. It's not a difficult process, but can be frustrating if you don't pay attention to details.
I don't have details to share on this one, but am happy to explain if you'd like to use it for your own projects.
Camtasia Certification™ Process
For certification, you have the option to go through 10 separate courses and their quizzes - all related to various aspects of screencasting. You can also skip all that and just take the certification test without going through the courses.
I opted for the video courses - just in case I might pick up a few new tricks. The courses include some 15 hours of video content. Thank goodness for watching at double-speed. The narrator does get a bit long-winded at times, and not being a beginner, I didn't need to dwell on every explanation. Overall, the certification courses were very helpful and on point (and I did learn a few new tricks).
The course author's process is much like my own. We'll take a quick look at each of the courses, which walk through the process of creating a screencast.
Preparing to Create Screencasts
No matter which tool you use for screen recordings, you'll want to prepare accordingly - not only with a script and storyboard, but by making sure the environment you plan to record is ready. Turn off notifications and clear your computer desktop of clutter.
Recording Audio and Narration
While Camtasia does offer voice narration tools, like the course author, I find it more efficient to do the bulk of my narration recording outside Camtasia in Audacity. Camtasia's audio editing tools are passable. The one thing in this area that I learned the hard way is that Camtasia does better with WAV files rather than MP3 (as of mid 2018).
Recording Your Screencasts
When you start a new recording in Camtasia, you have the option to control what you capture with this toolbar. You set your area, as well as controlling whether to include the webcam and audio. I find it much more straightforward to leave the camera and audio off (unless you need to record system audio). But recording audio as you go through the recording process has its merits for some situations.
There are some handy menu settings you can use before you start recording, including:
One of the tricks I picked up in the certification course is this option "Restore cursor location after pause". It means that if you pause the recording, move your mouse in the process of whatever you do during the pause, Camtasia will restore the mouse position when you resume recording. I wish I'd known about this time-saving trick sooner!
Once you finish recording, the editing environment allows you to use a number of tools to edit the recording - along with other types of media - into a final video. This course/part of the process focuses on cutting and trimming the screen recordings and/or audio or other media. The timeline helps you understand when a particular item begins to show and when it ends. This course also explains how to manipulate items on the canvas.
This course of the certification process is the longest at 3 hours 12 minutes. Part of the reason is that the author chose a really long sample video (about 10 minutes) for the example and practice. Maybe for version 2.0 of the course, they'll use a shorter example.
Visual effects include things like annotations, scale, opacity, rotation and position of your media.
There are six different types of annotation tools. Between the captions, lines and shapes, you are only limited by your imagination (and time you want to spend) to create everything from a speech bubble to a scene with multiple moving shapes - such as a truck driving across the screen. Note that you won't get sophisticated animation possibilities like you could in an animation tool, but annotations are great for conveying conceptual information and adding visual interest. The blur, highlight, and sketch motion tools are great for enhancing screen recordings. And you can easily show that you are pressing a key in your video by adding keystroke callouts. Just select the type and press the keys you want to show.
This course is super short - these items are generally used in conjunction with editing and animating items in the video.
Animating and Moving Elements
We could play with these tools all day, especially the transitions, behaviors and animations. Suffice to say, there are lots of possibilities. What's important to remember is that you can do more than one change with each animation and you can layer multiple behaviors on objects or text to achieve a different effect. Plan some time to design your animations, because this can get time-consuming, depending on what you want to accomplish.
No matter how great the audio is from an external source, you may find the need to add an extra pause or otherwise manipulate the audio. It's a super-short course in the certification process.
Captioning Your Videos
I haven't done much with captioning yet (but I probably should). Now I know exactly how to add closed captions or create an SRT file to upload for YouTube.
Effects, Quizzes and Interactivity
Transitions and cursor effects offer more options for editing and enhancing your videos.
I've avoided quizzes and interactivity in videos until now. Many of my clients host their videos on You Tube (where these features aren't available), but when the video is hosted on a website, adding interactive elements like quizzes, a table of contents, and interactive hotspots are really great ways to add engagement.
Producing and Hosting Your Videos
The last course in the process is of course discussing the options for sharing your videos.
Now, you've completed all of the courses, and passed each of their quizzes with at least 80% (it's easy to retake a quiz - I did have to retake one because I'm no longer a Mac user and I skimmed over that part). You can now request your certification, which doesn't take long. And you can get the correct settings to use to add it to your LinkedIn Profile.
Camtasia for Customer Education
Camtasia is my tool of choice for creating screencasting videos, although sometimes I use it in conjunction with other tools. And screencasting videos are my favorite form of customer education. They are short, practical, and thanks to Camtasia's updated tools, full of possibilities.
If you'd like to watch my sample video from which the opening image for this post was derived, you can find it here: http://bit.ly/2xKGu24. I'm not the world's best narrator, but it gets the job done.
The Camtasia Certification courses are only available if you have a Camtasia 2018 maintenance plan. Find out more at TechSmith's site. You can take courses in their new TechSmith Academy (that don't lead to certification) for free.
Captivate has always been an option for recording your screen and automatically generating different types of eLearning based on those recordings. But did you know that it also records video demos?
As a freelancer, I often have some flexibility and discretion on which tool I use to do a project. I have used Camtasia for screen recording videos since 2011. I've also created videos with Captivate for some projects, when certain aspects of a project suggest that it would be a more efficient tool for the job. But I hadn't ever tried the video demo functionality until recently.
Let's take a look at the different demonstration and simulation options before detailing the video demo option.
Before you record a demonstration or simulation, you can set Global Preferences to customize your recording and resulting slides.
In addition to these global preferences, you can set the style of objects to use for text, success shapes and captions, failure shapes and captions, hint shapes and captions, highlight boxes, text entry boxes, rollover areas, and smart shapes. These work in conjunction with your Object Style Manager to set the type, font style, size, color and other aspects of the items that will be generated in addition to individual screen shots. Use these options to save lots of time in getting the project to look how you want it to look.
Captivate makes it simple enough to start recording with just a few clicks, so even beginners can get a successful recording right away. However, as a robust tool, there are many nuances and steps to finessing a recording process that we're not going to cover in this blog post.
The Video Demo option in Captivate records a smooth motion video rather than individual slides like it does for demonstrations and simulations.
Unlike some aspects of Captivate, there's not much need for addressing complicated settings before you start recording. You choose the working folder location and whether or not to record mouse movements. In the recording window, you select the size and whether to snap to the application window, region or a custom size. You also choose whether to include panning, audio, and the webcam. (So you don't have to be talented enough to record yourself and the screen at one time after all.)
But Captivate doesn't exactly record what you do in real time, which provides some interesting options for modification.
For the separate recording from the webcam, you can resize and re-position it, but you can't crop it. If set up before you start recording, you can pick a different background, though I found it didn't do a great job of cutting me out from my office surroundings. Maybe if I had a backdrop with greater contrast or a green screen, that would look better.
When you end your recording, it plays automatically, with a tiny button labeled Edit to access the editing features. You can also process and upload the video to YouTube directly from here if you don't need to edit it.
However, in addition to the editing options listed above, you can add text, shapes, highlight boxes, images, animation and characters to the video. You'll publish it to your computer with options for controlling the video quality (like frames per second). You'll end up with an MP4 file that you can use just like any other MP4 file. Or you can import the CPVC (Captivate Video Composition) project directly to a slide, working it into a bigger eLearning project.
The Interactive Video options to use overlays and return to a position in the video from elsewhere via bookmarks (such as for quiz remediation) introduce some great possibilities for learning. These are new as of Captivate 2019, but that's a topic for another day.
Have you ever been kicked out of a good story by a small detail?
But sometimes I find myself in a book that fails to make the world of that story believable. It might be too many grammatical errors or something that is inconsistent. I might keep reading if the plot or characters are interesting enough, or I might give up on it if I think the quality of the writing gets in the way of the story. Either way, my experience as a reader does not match what I was looking for when I picked up that book.
When creating eLearning, you are building a world for learning. Teaching software or system skills via eLearning can be a great way to teach users how or what to do with that tool to get the outcome they need - solving the problem that led to using that tool in the first place. It’s a great way to provide practice for specific skills in a safe or guided way.
But as the eLearning designer and developer, you have to be meticulous in recreating that tool’s environment for the eLearning to have a hope in being effective. And to do that, you need to capture the right screen shots in the right way.
First, let me say that if you have access to Captivate and/or Storyline, you have options to make screen recording easy in preparation for developing eLearning. However, there are pros and cons to automatically generating these simulations, which we'll save for a discussion for another day.
What about when you need to capture images directly because you aren't using the simulation features of the authoring tools, or you have Subject Matter Experts helping you set up scenarios and capture the right screens directly?
I'd like to share a process for capturing screen images to ensure consistent results that help build your software eLearning world.
What size are your screens? What size will your eLearning project be? You need to answer these questions before you get started. Ideally, you would determine a consistent size for the images before you begin authoring your eLearning.
You want to make sure the size and zoom are the same in every screen in the same activity. The aspect ratio is an important part of this equation. For example, if the eLearning is using a 16:9 ratio (or standard HD widescreen to match most displays these days), you might want your images to be 1920 pixels x 1080 pixels or something smaller with the same ratio of height to width.
As a developer, I know this and I know how to set up my screens to make it work right, using tools I have available (i.e., usually either Camtasia or Captivate). But on a recent project working with SMEs who didn't have those tools, we learned that it can be quite challenging to standardize the size of the window when different SMEs are capturing screens for different scenarios.
When I capture my laptop monitor with screens maximized to fill the whole space, the images are a 16:9 ratio, which look great even when scaled down and fill the HD widescreen project without any adjustments. However, my external monitor is off from that slightly, so maximizing the window does not get the screen size results I want.
So you may have to do some creative problem solving to find the best size for your screens and eLearning project. What is most important, is that once you find the right size, to use the exact same settings when capturing screens within each task. If it's slightly different from one lesson to another - your learners will most likely not notice. It's that one click to the next change that needs to be precisely the same size, zoom and aspect ratio.
Think Like a Technical Writer
Before you start capturing screens, make sure you know what you need to capture. Think like a technical writer to try to identify every different iteration of the screen, working through all of the minutiae for the task you want the learners to practice. It may be best to capture all of the screens for one lesson or task in one capturing session to minimize the risk that something is off slightly from one screen to the next.
When capturing menus, the eLearning will need to show before the menu is selected, the drop down menu open, and the results of the selection. So you may need more screen shots than you think. Some of this can be corrected with editing in Snagit, but it may be easier to capture more than you need and just not use the unnecessary ones.
Here's a checklist for your capture session process:
Then you can use the images in your eLearning project just like any other image file. I hope this process helps you build effective eLearning! Let me know in the comments if you have other suggestions I didn't cover.