Software Training with Stories

Software training doesn’t always need a story, but sometimes stories can be effective for examples, motivation, or practice.

One of the common objections I hear to using storytelling in training is that “stories don’t work for all kinds of training.” Those who are skeptical of storytelling often use software training as an example where stories don’t work. However, I think stories can have a place in some (but not all) software training.

Software training with stories

When to avoid stories and focus on features

Sometimes, software training should be just about the features. In that case, you’re often doing more technical writing than instructional design. Just get in, show the features, and be done. Short tutorials and demos are great for that, and they don’t always need a story. If your goal is to create 5 minute tutorials to help people solve a problem at the apply or solve moment of need, they’re already motivated and engaged. You don’t need stories in that case.

Stories as training structure

We often provide software training in advance of the need though. Instead of something learners seek out to solve their own problems, we’re training them about what they’ll do in the future. That training is often much longer; instead of 5 minutes, we might spend hours reviewing everything software can do.

Have you ever gone through software training that was just a list of features with no context? How helpful was it? Did you wonder WHY you might use certain features or why a software update would help you? In those situations, with training in advance, a story might provide a organizational structure to help people remember and apply the training. Build the training around the structure of how a user would solve a problem with the software, from start to finish, rather than how features appear from left to right in the interface.

Examples as stories

With a few exceptions, nearly any training can benefit from examples. Those examples are often stories. When I taught Microsoft Office as a classroom trainer, I often told stories as examples. I had a collection of stories about colleagues or past students who had solved a specific problem like this one.

“One of my past students had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day. She added new data at the bottom, and then she sorted the spreadsheet. The way it was set up required significant manual cleanup. She spent at least an hour or two every day making manual adjustments to the spreadsheet.

During our training, we found several ways to adjust the structure of the spreadsheet so nearly everything was automated. Instead of one or two hours, the new process only took her about 15 minutes a day. With a bit of initial work to set up the spreadsheet, we saved her at least 5 hours a week of wasted time. That’s why this information I’m about to explain about setting up your spreadsheet for sorting and filtering is so important.”

That’s a real story (it’s the only time in my training career where a student literally jumped up and down with excitement at the end of the course). When I was training Excel, I didn’t just tell students, “It’s important for you to set up your spreadsheets to make it easier for sorting and filtering.” I gave them the example so they understood why it was important and why it would matter to them. I made it concrete and relevant.

Stories to increase motivation

When we create software training, we want people to change their behavior. We want them to use the software and use it in specific ways. We want them to be motivated to use the software effectively.

This is especially important when software is updated and people need to change how they use it. It’s not always enough to just say, “here’s a new feature.” Sometimes we need to show people why that feature is going to make them better. Stories and scenarios put those features in context so users are more motivated to try them.

Hands-on practice with scenarios

As a software trainer, the books I taught from included examples that were often scenarios. Excel pivot tables are much easier to understand if you have a realistic project where you need answers from data. Those projects are usually short scenarios, whether you’re teaching in a classroom or creating elearning.

I could use the example of the poorly formatted spreadsheet above and convert it to a practice scenario. Instead of simply giving people a set of steps to follow, the scenario provides some context.

Why and when to use features

If you’re creating software training to help people solve a problem while they’re in the middle of working, then microlearning focused on just the features is a good approach. If you’re creating software training to help people use complex software, including selecting certain features or tools in the right situations, stories can be helpful.

For example, layer masks are a critical tool in Photoshop. It’s not always obvious to novices why they’re important though. This tutorial puts layer masks in context by creating a realistic scenario (merging together two wedding photos for a client). The author even starts by explaining how to merge the photos with an easy but incorrect and destructive technique.

This shows the benefits of using the right technique and addresses a common mistake. Plenty of tutorials out there explain various features of Photoshop. Not so many explain how to select the correct tool for the job–that’s what’s valuable in this example. While that tutorial uses an old version of Photoshop, you can still see the training technique. (Plus, this tutorial helped me finally understand layer masks!)

In complex software, it’s often not enough to know how to use various features. Sometimes you have multiple options for an action, each with pros and cons. In Captivate, you can use a regular Advanced Action or a Shared Action. Depending on your needs, one or the other may be a better choice and make your development more efficient. Stories and scenarios help learners understand how to choose the right tools.

Model the Thought Process

Stories can also be helpful for modeling the thought process that accompanies using software. For example, I once created a software tutorial on how to troubleshoot a particularly problematic task in an LMS. We wanted the online instructors to do some basic error checking themselves before contacting technical support. While I could have simply provided a PDF document with the steps to troubleshoot (and I did provide that as a job aid), I also created an interactive simulation.

In the simulation, an instructor (represented with voice over plus character photos) narrated how she solved the problem. She walked through each step of her thought process. The actual story was pretty thin (an instructor has a problem in the LMS), but the character gave learners enough to relate to. This training gave learners more confidence that they could troubleshoot it because the process was modeled by a character similar to themselves.

How Do You Use Stories and Scenarios?

How do you use stories and scenarios in software training? Do you have a great example of your own? Share it in the comments or reply to this email.

If you’re developing software training and are feeling stuck, feel free to share that in the comments. We can brainstorm together ways to use stories to make your training more relevant and engaging.

15 thoughts on “Software Training with Stories

  1. I left a question to you on when not to use stories and conversations, and push back I’ve had around using it in software training, then I found this article 🙂 gives me a bit more clarity ! Very helpful, thank you !

  2. Very helpful, thanks Christy! Any chance you can link the Adobe Captivate section of the training you mentioned?

    1. Hi Jessica, if you’re referring to the idea of training on Advanced Actions versus Shared Actions in Captivate, that was a hypothetical example. I haven’t actually created any training on that topic. Lieve Weymeis (Lilybiri) has several posts on her blog about this topic if you’re interested in learning morning.

  3. Hi Christy! I am aware this is not a recent article, but I am glad I found it, it’s very useful! I am actually doing an internship in instructional design in higher education. We are looking at the option of helping faculty members learn more about the LMS and troubleshoot specific problematic tasks before contacting the support department. For this reason, the ‘Model the Thought Process’ section in your article caught my attention. Would you mind sharing more about this project? How was the process of creating the software training? Did it include only one specific task or multiple? What program did you use to create this training? I would appreciate any information you can share with me. We already provide multiple PDFs with screenshots and step-by-step instructions, but it seems this is not enough. That is why we are looking at the option of providing a more interactive training. Thank you in advance!

    1. That project was a number of years ago, but I actually found some of my notes. It was for one specific problem, but there were 3 different things that could go wrong that they needed to verify.

      I built the simulation in Adobe Captivate, which probably would be the tool I’d recommend today too. While I like Storyline and Camtasia, I think Captivate is still the best option for interactive software training. In Captivate, you can record the steps in a software task in “training simulation” mode, which creates a “try it” simulation. Instead of just passively watching the tutorial, they click the correct places to take the actions.

      This is the beginning of the storyboard for that tutorial, so you can get an idea how that worked. Imagine this with voice over, a picture of an instructor, and screenshots of the gradebook.

      Text 1
      Hi! I’m Rebecca. This is my first time teaching an online course, and I’m a little nervous about getting my course set up correctly. I’m glad you agreed to help walk me through the process of verifying my gradebook.

      [[Link to PDF–tell them what page they should look at]]

      Text 2
      Let’s check the course total to see if it’s right. I already checked the syllabus, and I know this course should have 724 total points. Now, where do I click to check the total points in the gradebook?

      Click Course Grades.

      Text 3
      Uh-oh. 644. That’s not right. Good thing you’re here to help me!


      The incorrect total–add a caption saying what it should be.

      Text 4
      So, on the verification checklist, it looks like the first thing to check is the Gradebook Items.

      Click Gradebook Items.

      Text 5
      First, we should look for any gradebook items in gray instead of blue. Do you see items that haven’t been released?

      Click Yes or No.
      [[Yes is correct.
      Positive Feedback: You’re right. I see that 1-B-1 hasn’t been released.
      Negative Feedback: Hmmm…it looks like 1-B-1 hasn’t been released. It’s gray, not blue, and the “Released to Students” column has an “N.”]]

  4. Christy, I have been studying the power of storytelling in learning for a while now. I agree that stories can make training concrete and relevant to the learner. What do you think about using stories for novice versus expert learners? Do you think experts don’t need stories to provide motivation to learn? Just curious what you thought about it.

    1. That’s an interesting question. I think stories can be useful for both novices and experts.
      For novices, a story may provide context that they haven’t yet experienced themselves. A story might also help them connect the new knowledge to their prior knowledge and experiences in other areas.
      I do think experts need motivation to learn, especially when we’re asking them to change. “We’ve always done it this way” is a powerful force, and you have to convince people to be willing to do something different from what they’re used to. Even if the current way is inefficient or prone to mistakes or whatever the problem is, inertia keeps people stuck doing what’s familiar. Stories can help “unstick” people when they need to change.

  5. I’ve often heard this term of telling stories in relation to training and had no idea what was meant by this. Thank you for clarifying. As someone trying to break into the field and learn as much as I could, your post are a God-send!

  6. Hi! I’m not an instructional designer, but I work in a place where there is no instructional training even though it needs it. I’m learning on my own about how to build instructional training material in the near future. This article is helpful. Thank you!

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