A Recipe for More Engaging Software Demos

This is a funny video of Chris Pirillo talking about how difficult it is to teach people software.

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In software training sessions I’ve given recently, I’ve learned that demos can be incredibly boring unless you do them in a certain way. People don’t learn much by simply watching you click through everything and explain tabs and buttons. People learn by doing, so you have to get them doing something.

Here’s my recipe, recommended by a friend, for delivering more engaging software demos. (This assumes you’re in a computer lab).

  • Show a few of the most common tasks one can do with the software. 10 minutes.
  • Give a list of 5-7 tasks (not too hard) for users to complete. While they work on the tasks, walk around and help them out individually. 15 min.
  • As a group, walk through how to do each exercise. 10 min.
  • Answer miscellaneous questions. 10 min.

People like to be challenged with exercises — that’s the key. Even if you haven’t shown them how to do the task, that’s okay. Let them try to figure it out.

Also, make sure you invite your interaction designer to come and watch people stumble around the application.

What tips and techniques do you use to keep people engaged while giving software demos?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

5 thoughts on “A Recipe for More Engaging Software Demos

  1. 4feer

    I’ve done software demos on our company products, sharepoint, and Microsoft Word for adult learners.

    Usually in a class of 3-4 they get lost in the first 2 minutes. Then I have to repeat and do every step slower.
    If i have no printed handouts (for quick 1 hour lessons)
    I write on the whiteboard all the class objectives i.e. tasks to complete within the hour, 4-5 key tasks.
    I tell them to watch and take note as I perform one task. Then give them 2 minutes to replicate what I did.
    Then when everyone is comfortable I move on to the next task on the board.
    Sometimes its frustrating, to them, because I may move too fast, or they may see something interesting they want to experiment with but the class is too structured to let them experiment… experimenting is great way to learn, but a headache for trainers managing a class when training with a set of clear lesson objectives…:)

  2. Tom

    Thanks 4feer for sharing your method. I think that would work well. I’m fond of the idea of demonstrating a task and then asking others to repeat. Thanks.

    I think often when we demo 8-10 tasks in a row in lecture style we think others are getting it. But then we realize, when they attempt to do it themselves, that they have many questions.

  3. Holly

    I’m like 4feer. I usually train internal employees on software they will be using to do their jobs.

    It’s important to know the business processes that surround the actual software steps. For example, if they are learning how to put invoice data into a system, how do they get the invoices? Are they paper or electronic? If something is illegible, whom can they turn to for help?

    By approaching it holistically (for lack of a better word), I can hold the students’ interest because most people like to talk about their job. We’re not talking about clicks and screens and buttons, but a tool that will help them do their job.

    The larger the class, the harder it is to keep everyone on the same page. You’ll always have the sharpies who speed ahead, the followers who match your every step, and the laggards who get stuck on the login page or maybe just have a faulty computer or connection.

    As an instructor, you have to have a sanguine approach. If you get flustered or discouraged or snippy, you’re toast. You must stay calm.

  4. Ryan

    As an end user, most of the training I get seems to be along the lines of “pack as much as possible into the alloted time”. Totally overwhelming.

  5. Jessica

    The training sessions for Microsoft Office at my job have handouts with each session. The handouts have step-by-step instructions with screencaps. The instructors usually follow close to the handouts. They show what to do on their screen which is projected via overhead projector, and then have the students do the same steps and help individual students if necessary. After the session, they will also answer questions and explain other things.

    I keep the handouts on hand to refer back to. I’ve also printed out similar step-by-step instructions with screencaps for common tasks performed in Microsoft Office. I added a table of contents divided into sections and put it in a binder. The binder is available for library patrons and workers to use.

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