Most users are driven by curiosity when using new products. A user is more likely to ask the question "What does it do?" rather than "Where's the instructions?". This property of humans to learn by doing is not often exploited in training resources. One of the major successes in the application of human factors techniques has been the construction of more user centred, "minimal" manuals. The basic premise behind this "less is more" approach to design is to construct training materials which are task centred, and appropriate to the real needs of the users. The rules of thumb for producing such a resource are outlined by Carroll (1988) :
Another user centred approach to learning resources is the F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions, or "Fack" ). These documents originate from users asking each other questions about a common product. Here, it is the users who drive the quest for information about a problem, resulting in a resource which is highly relevant to user demands, and perhaps less technical than a typical manual. In the construction of an FAQ, there tends not to be a single technical author or expert with all the answers, but instead, many users, each of whom have knowledge of different aspects of the product: a user who answers one question may also be seeking several solutions themselves. This free form, cooperative approach has stemmed from the electronic user support groups of the global Internet computer network. As an electronic document, an FAQ usually starts as one or two common questions on a topic and then slowly grows as users resolve old problems and confront new ones. A moderator will usually compile and edit the FAQ, with new questions (and answers) usually being mailed to this moderator for inclusion within the next version of the FAQ.
In prototyping a new training resource for video conferencing, both the minimal manual and FAQ methods of user centred design were considered.
Most feedback was from users who expressed an interest in the compilation of an FAQ, but little information on actual questions about video conferencing in education were forthcoming. This meant that the FAQ prototype was attempted by thinking of questions which might be asked, judging by the results of the studies detailed above. From these user needs, answers were thought of to the questions that users might ask. Although FAQ are normally compiled from a known list of questions and answers, this method had to be adopted due to the lack of user feedback.
This method produced a good structure to which answers could be applied. Since this was produced by information retrieval rather than using feedback from actual users, the FAQ structure was adopted for a minimal manual approach to the new training resource, as shown in Figure 6.
Fig. 6 : Problems with the FAQ approach Sample FAQ question : Q: How do I overcome ISDN bandwidth problems? What additional hardware can compensate low bandwidth? What visual cues need to be addressed with slow frame rates? What techniques can be used for addressing audio quality in low bandwidth? Minimal Manual heading : About that delay: Visually: Orally: This example shows a typical FAQ question, which was not a question from real users, but one which was thought might be asked. This can therefore not be a real FAQ, but the structure of the question was useful in deriving headings for the minimal manual.
As detailed in the method above, the FAQ attempt was rejected as inappropriate at this time. However, with further contact from other people involved with video conferencing in education, a good FAQ resource can be produced for technicians, teachers and students alike. Discussions are ongoing within the Internet "Alt.Education.Distance" newsgroup, and with the electronic mailing list "Distance Education On-line Symposium" on how to proceed with an FAQ for video conferencing. The draft structure of the attempted FAQ is shown in Annexe 4, and may well be used as an initial structure for the eventual FAQ on this topic.
5.6. Discussion : FAQ or minimal manual ?An FAQ usually stems from users beginning to interact with a product, encountering a problem, and then asking for help. The subsequent questions are then recorded along with answers by experts or other users, and an FAQ is slowly compiled. This form of document provides the intended users with a small, brief, easy to reference document. However, creating such a document relies on questions to begin with. An initial draft of a video conferencing FAQ was developed. However, with only domain experts for reference, the FAQ became somewhat contrived and hypocritical.
The solution has been firstly to produce a minimal manual based on perceived user needs arising from the research performed above. This should provide users with a concise, task-oriented resource of good quality. Secondly, this document should hopefully produce user feedback from the education domain. It is hoped that a distance education-biased FAQ on video conferencing can stem from this document as an ongoing, evolving user resource.
This third study continues beyond the time scale of the SIMA project, to allow for user feedback on this minimal manual. All comments, criticisms and feedback on this work are gratefully received and can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Further work is continuing and can be found on the Internet at the following sites :
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