Kevin Riggs is the leader of the group that creates documentation for the Solid Edge product. He oversees a group with a wide range of talents who create information for a wide range of products and users.
The help and training documentation is something that most of us have had some interaction with, and to some extent has helped make us who we are as CAD users. In this interview, Kevin Riggs talks about several ideas around the documentation and how to best convey complex technical concepts to engineers and designers.
The “documentation department” has a fancy new name. What is that name and how does it relate to what you provide for Solid Edge users?
Our group name is Learning Media Development; I think it reflects our charter well. We exist to help people learn to use Solid Edge, and we strive to be engaging. So we’re not just about writing words – we develop information to boil down what’s really important, and then we use whatever media works best – text, tables, images, video, product simulations, and voice-over – to get the message across.
Can you give us a brief list of the various formats and locations you use to help keep users informed?
We’re very excited that with ST7 we began making some of our Help and videos part of the Solid Edge user interface itself, with enhanced tooltips. Virtually everything we create is available from the web, and that’s where we hope people will look for information – whether it’s traditional help that describes settings and options, videos that show high-level overviews of what Solid Edge can do, short tutorials to work through groups of commands that work together, expanded self-paced training that covers everything Solid Edge can do comprehensively, and simulations that help you experience managed environments that aren’t practical to set up locally.
From the main web-served help page, if you follow links to the Learning Portal, and then the Training Library, you’ll find printable PDF versions of courses, as well as PowerPoint presentations to support classroom instruction.
If you can’t get to the web, we still deliver standalone help with Solid Edge. It’s the same information that we put on the web, but without tutorials or training.
Though my team does not produce them, I’ll put a plug in for YouTube videos. If you’re not looking there for information, you’re missing out on great examples that our sales partners and many of our customers produce to show how to apply Solid Edge to various industries, and to pick up tricks that you might not discover on your own.
People used to complain about the lack of hard-copy documentation. Do you think the new formats are convincing people that there is more value to digital content?
To be honest, some people still complain about the lack of printed documentation. Most often, they say it would be nice to have the documentation to read at home. But, whether it’s newspapers, magazines, books, or user manuals, people globally are less and less willing to pay the exorbitant price of printing. And now that we post all of our learning media on the web, it’s available whenever and wherever you need it.
Where does your team get their source material for sample models and workflows demonstrated in some of the documentation examples?
Wherever we can! We often use the same examples that product planners use in their specifications for new functionality. These are ordinarily targeted exactly to illustrate how the new functionality is meant to be used. We also keep up with all of demo sets the sales team produces to show off new functionality; these examples are always impressive, though they’re also typically larger and busier than necessary for us to make a clear point. We’ve collaborated with university professors, and we’ve also been able to abstract examples that come from models customers have shared with us. We also listen in on conversations with the online community to find questions real users have asked and the examples that helped them find answers.
Can you offer an explanation of the difference between help and training? Are they both your job? How should a user know which one he/she needs?
My team develops both help and training – though I’m working to blur the distinction between the two. Sometimes you need just a brief explanation, and help is where you’d expect to find it. Sometimes you want to explore a topic in depth, and training might be the best way to get the comprehensive story. So both help and training are needed. The way I’m working to blur the distinction, though, is to make it as easy as we can to move between the two, within the realm of a single topic. With help, we’re trying to make it easy to find specific answers quickly – but once you do, we’re also trying to make it easier to jump into a portion of training where you can work through step-by-step examples.
Creating static documentation or media is different from having a live expert ship with each copy of the software. How far can documentation go, and where do you need to hand off a question to a live human being to help the user problem-solve?
It’s hard to beat instructor-led training for deep learning. So if the time and money are in your budget, our partners are experts at applying Solid Edge to many specific industries.
Outside of the classroom, we’ve done some informal studies of how people learn, and the results are a little surprising. Though the idea of personal assistance may sound appealing, we’ve found that in fact, people seem to prefer learning on their own. The first choice most people make is to play with the software and just see if they can solve a problem by trying many different options. If that doesn’t work, people usually go to You Tube. The next choice is help and training or reading in the online community; but we’ve found that the last place people usually look for help is from another person. This wasn’t what we expected to find! If you’re in a training environment, the situation is designed for you to ask questions; but once you’re outside that environment, we’ve found that people really prefer to learn on their own.
Where does the help documentation overlap with the community of peers?
We try very hard to present information in the context of practical engineering and manufacturing. That’s where our customers use it. But Solid Edge is flexible, and the world of engineering and manufacturing is enormously diverse, so our examples often don’t pertain to the specific situation you find yourself working in. By participating in the online community, you improve your chances of finding examples that are meaningful to you – and if you don’t, you can ask.
As I said earlier, we read posts to the community ourselves, looking for real-world examples of problems our customers are trying to solve.
In writing documentation, you need several skills – organizational, language, and CAD technical skills. Are all of these skills available within your group? How do you pull them together to produce technically valid, well written, highly discoverable information?
The information developers on my team come from widely varied backgrounds! Most were practicing engineers at some point and have come to writing as a later career. Some were trainers. Some are formally trained writers and instructional designers, and some have degrees in programming – or even graduate degrees in psychology. I believe this varied background is essential to form an effective team, and we almost never work completely independently on any project; our best work comes from bringing different perspectives to bear on how to use Solid Edge effectively.
Can you describe the first user certification event at SEU 14 and why users should get certified?
Many years ago, we hosted certification exams at user conferences, and we’ve decided to start these up again. Twenty users passed the exam at Solid Edge University this past May.
Becoming certified is your chance to demonstrate your Solid Edge skills to the community and your employer.
How will on-going certification be different from that first event?
We’re working now to put the certification exam online. The test was free at our user conference – and we expect to continue providing this during future events – but you’ll pay about $100 (need to verify this…) for the online version. We’re working with partners to create a test environment that is secure, stable, and confidential. With this offering, you’ll be able to take the test whenever it’s convenient for you, in whatever environment is most comfortable for you.
Thanks again to Kevin Riggs for taking the time to put together some great answers to these questions, and most of all for putting together the info and media that I still use frequently to research topics in Solid Edge.