CEO Sunday: Teaching Tech – Bringing New Technology to Old Industries

By November 13, 2011

There are many ingredients to a winning startup, including solid technology, robust features, monetizable value, and effective marketing. However, there is an additional and equally important aspect that has to be considered when you are introducing unfamiliar technology to an industry: teaching.

My company’s software — JetStream — is designed to help construction companies run more smoothly and effectively. One of our goals when building JetStream was to avoid the need for multi-hour training sessions or thick instruction manuals that often accompany this type of software. In this article I’m going to explore a few of the most important strategies we employed while reaching that goal.

The Strength of Workflow

One of the mistakes I made early on in JetStream’s design was ignoring the product’s workflow in favor of an open-ended system. It made sense in theory; why force users onto a restrictive track when you could allow them to discover and define their own unique workflows?

In practice, users ended up feeling lost and directionless. Instead of the intended feeling of freedom within the application, early JetStream users said that they felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the software’s lack of direction. The answer was to establish a clear, logical workflow that users would remain on as they learned the application.

The key in establishing an effective workflow is tracking your users. We built a detailed activity log for JetStream that allowed us to see what path users had taken through the program, how much time they spent on a page, and so on. reading the logs of a canceled trial account illuminated problem areas with ease. It helped to identify dead ends and points of confusion that later caused trial users to drop out or go in circles.

Constructivist Teaching

Constructivism — the learning theory that states humans learn best when connecting prior knowledge to new experiences — is just as applicable to software as it is in the classroom.

JetStream requires very little upfront instruction. Users begin by entering project information and then are guided through the application with tooltips and overhead messages, which reinforce concepts taught in previous steps. New elements and components aren’t introduced until all of the correct building blocks are in place.

On paper it sounds like a no-brainer, but in reality many software writers overlook this element of learning, which could result in a product that requires extensive support and training — a cost that few startups can afford to bear.

Forgive Your Users

The final tool in a software teaching toolbox is something I call “user forgiveness.” People that are learning unfamiliar concepts — such as a 50-year-old ex-construction worker exploring new software — have little patience for feeling punished or rebuked for mistakes.

Forms should validate easily and multiple interpretations of input should be allowed. Error messages should be cordial and unintimidating. Exceptions that can’t be handled should return users to their last logical “checkpoint” so that they can continue on with minimal disruption. These are all basic user interface and design best practices, which lead to a friendly and accessible product.

These are just a handful of the tools we use to teach our customers about technology. If your startup involves introducing people to unfamiliar or complex concepts, consider using these methods to attain lower support costs and an approachable, easy-to-learn product.