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Seven Steps to Creating an Effective Tutorial

As a freelancer, I run across a lot of other freelancers and entrepreneurs who are experts in their field and want a way to share their knowledge. This is often done via a tutorial.

These tutorials are met with varying degrees of success; sometimes the tutorials fail to resonate with the intended audience. As an instructional designer, I am usually able to identify the reasons why the tutorial isn’t working fairly quickly.

I came up with these seven steps to help my fellow freelancers avoid common tutorial pitfalls.

1. Pinpoint the problem you are going to solve

If you are writing a tutorial, it is because you have noticed a problem. You have noticed that your audience is at point A and you need to get them to point B, or because they have come to you and asked you to help them get to point B.

From the beginning of the creation process, it is important that you maintain a clear idea of exactly what problem you are trying to crack and focus on solving it.  Focusing on the problem first helps you to organize your thoughts.

Some problems are nebulous, which makes it harder to clearly identify the solution and write a tutorial to solve them.

For example, I have seen many tutorials that start off with too broad a problem, which makes the tutorial feel poorly organized and often makes the audience feel unsatisfied with what they learned.

There is a huge difference between saying, “I am going to teach you everything about Google,” and “I am going to teach you effective search syntax that will produce better quality results and save you time in your Google searches.”

The first example does not really have a specific problem that it is trying to solve, but the second example clearly has a exact problem and a clear solution, which would make it an appealing tutorial for anyone who is tired of getting too many results from Google searches.

Your audience comes into the tutorial knowing exactly the problem that will be solved and whether the problem applies to them.

2. Identify Your Audience

After you identify the problem you want to solve, ask yourself who are you writing this tutorial for.

Are you writing this for Aunt Phyllis who just got her first computer? Or are you writing for Joe User who wants to become Joe Power User?

This step is important in deciding where the tutorial should begin.

Some tutorials are for the general public and need to be written for the lowest common denominator, meaning everything starts at step zero.

This is not a winning formula for every tutorial, however. If your target audience should already be familiar with the topic that you will be covering in the tutorial, then there is nothing wrong with starting step three or four and providing a general overview of earlier steps in the tutorial introduction with links to more specific information, if needed.

Many readers are lost before the tutorial really begins because the tutorial was not written to the correct capacity-level of the target audience.

3. Define what success looks like

Once you identify the problem and target audience, you have to tell your audience what success looks like.  

You will be completing this sentence for your audience, “At the completion of this tutorial, you will be able to…”

This step is usually a pretty easy one if you have done steps one and two. If you are addressing a specific problem, it is easy for your audience to know whether that problem is solved at the end of the tutorial.

Circling back to the Google example, if you are addressing the search syntax problem, your audience will know that they successfully completed the tutorial when they enter searches into Google and get valuable results, spending less time sifting through inapplicable links.

If you are addressing the problem, “I will teach you everything you need to know about Google,” it is very difficult to measure success because the problem is incredibly subjective.

Does everyone need to know the same things about Google? Probably not.

If you find that you reach this step and are having a really hard time defining what success would look like for your tutorial audience, then you probably should go back to step one and work on a clearer definition of the problem that you are trying to solve, or maybe zoom in to a specific element of the problem and consider writing several smaller tutorials to address one issue at a time.

4. Decide the format of your tutorial

Once you decide on the problem you are solving and who you are solving it for, you need to decide how to present it.

Would a textual blog post be a good way to present the information? Or should you post a video tutorial?

Would a screen capture/simulation be appropriate? Sometimes your resources and capabilities limit this decision.

With that being said, if a video would really be the best format for presenting the information but you do not have the capability to shoot the video, consider establishing a partnership with a videographer to get the best possible tutorial out to your audience.

Same goes with the screen capture/simulation option. There are tools out there that can simplify the process and make a more professional-looking simulation video. Presenting tutorial information in an inappropriate format undermines the instructional integrity of your project and could hurt your credibility with your audience.

5. Make it user-friendly

Once you know the format you are going to use to present your tutorial, make it work for your audience.

Following writing and presentation standards is incredibly important. You do not want to lose your audience because of easily avoided editing mistakes, like typos or poor word usage.

If you are presenting in a blog post, do not present a wall of words. Short paragraphs with plenty of pertinent images, graphics, and white space motivate the reader to keep going.

While graphic use helps draw in the audience, do not overdo it and turn off the reader by inundating them with images, graphics, and crazy fonts. Overstimulating them is just as damaging as boring them.

If you decide to create a video tutorial, do everything you can to ensure that the video is watchable. Edit the audio and voice over to make it as appealing to the listener as possible. Whatever you do, do not distract the audience from the goal of the tutorial, which is to solve the problem identified at step one.

6. Elicit feedback from your audience

Once your tutorial goes live and you have an audience, follow up with them and find out their thoughts about the tutorial.

One of the most common problems with tutorials written by non-training professionals is that they are often written to one learning style (usually the author’s learning style.)

Sending a brief survey to your audience post-tutorial could help you to identify that your tutorial is missing elements that appeal to visual learners, or is missing audio to draw in your aural learners.

While it is incredibly unlikely that 100% of your tutorial participants will be happy with the tutorial, you will notice themes in the feedback that will help you to improve the tutorial.

7. Don’t forget about your tutorial

The final step in the tutorial creation process should be to keep improving your tutorial.

Set a calendar reminder to go back and revisit your tutorial quarterly to make sure that the information is still correct, and to add anything new that you have learned in the mean time.

If you are writing the tutorial to answer an ongoing problem, many times that problem is timeless and you cannot predict when someone will access your tutorial.

You do not want to ruin your integrity with your audience by allowing your tutorial to become dated if someone stumbles onto your tutorial six months after you initially posted it.

Beth Wisch Beth is an eLearning consultant with 9:9 eLearning Solutions. She has over 15 years experience in the adult education field. Her goal is to work with clients who have not previously considered working with instructional design professionals and bring instructional design out of academia and into the real world.

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