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Evaluating Online Tutorials on Software Applications

by Agnes Lumenta

Nowadays, there are a lot of software applications designed to meet the need of end users to simplify their work. These software applications usually come with supporting tools to help users with system setup and requirements, installation guides, troubleshooting, or getting-started tutorials. When looking for more information on a specific topic or “how to” on a software application, users usually tend to look first on the manufacturer’s Web site. In reality, however, the result doesn’t always answer our questions, because the manufacturer may have a wide variety of tutorials that may confuse us, the manufacturer’s tutorials may be intended for experienced users, or tutorials may be incomplete because the manufacturer only goes through the basics of the software application.

Taking advantage of Internet technology, some of these end users who have used these software applications can create online tutorials intended for various audiences, starting with the novice users up to the experienced users. However, not all online tutorials are useful tutorials.

In order to design a good online tutorial, there are criteria that need to be followed. It is a priority that the reliability of the author must be presented when designing online tutorials. This is presented by Digital Education Network (Digital Education Network, 2003), a team of people that develops Web sites that address the concepts of education. It provides teachers and parents a means to access online education for classroom or home use, and introduces students directly to the Internet education experience. Here, citing the reliability of the authors is done to gain trust from users. It reassures the users that the tutorials were created by dependable writers. It would be a plus for the authors to have certification (if any) for this software, but a simple explanation of how long and how often the author has used the software, and how comfortable the author is with the software may be enough. Included on the page should also be a statement of the tutorial’s intended audience. For example, the Web site makes it clear whether the tutorial is for beginners, advanced users, or both. This makes it easier for users to follow the tutorial later on.

Is it always good to have a page that contains the system requirements and installation guides for novice users. They may not have bothered to read this when they installed the software. Along with this page, it is important for reliability to include a link to the manufacturer’s Web site.

The beginning of the tutorial should contain basic information on the software. A recap is allowed if tutorials are intended for the advanced users; otherwise it is important to include a full explanation of the basics. The sentences used throughout the tutorial should be simple, short, clear, and complete. The text or background also should not be presented in distracting colors.

The use of examples and images plays very important role in tutorials. Users want to be able to relate what they see in the tutorial with the actual software. Therefore, screenshots are best to use as guides. It is very important to remember that images used should be kept small in file size because there may be a wide variety of connections made to this tutorial. Large image files can present problems for the users who are trying to download the tutorial using a modem connection. Depending on the available technology, it is now possible to make a simple video clip to capture motion made on the screen. This technology would help the user to follow the instructions better. Digital Education Network uses a lot of images on its tutorials. In fact, there are so many images used in the tutorials that it gets to be too much. The tutorials look too entertaining and less educational. A good tutorial example is done by Florida Gulf Coast University (Florida Gulf Coast University, 2003). The Web site’s Microsoft Word tutorial is simple but helpful for beginners. The example tutorial contains a lot of helpful images. The tutorial contains images that are small in file size. The explanations used in the tutorial are short and straightforward.

For more advanced tutorials, the level of complexity should be defined so that users can estimate the level of complexity versus their experience on the software before following the tutorial.

In summary, good online tutorials should be readable and contain thorough information presented in a short and clear manner. Online tutorials should contain information on the software version, the author, and sources that were used.


Sources

Digital Education Network. ACT360 Media, Ltd: PowerPoint 98, 2003 (14 October 2003). < http://www.actden.com/pp >

Florida Gulf Coast University. Word 2000 Tutorial, 2003, (14 October 2003). < http://www.fgcu.edu/support/office2000/word/begin.html >