My PhD work included mental models, and the research is robust: that with models, learners can forget some steps and regenerate the missing bits; that models provide the ability to predict what will happen or explain what happened; and troubleshoot. But what we get in instructions are rote procedures to do something, not oriented around our goals.
When I tried to learn Macromedia’s FreeHand, their tutorial had you build a picture. It was useless. It was only by experimentation that I discovered that what I thought were the atomic elements, shapes, were actually paths that could be manipulated, e.g. cut (see the Quinnovation logo). They didn’t provide a conceptual model that talked about paths and how everything, text, shapes, etc, could be translated to them (and had to be for real manipulation). I may still have it wrong, as it’s also known that individuals will infer models, possibly incorrectly, and without guidance can retain those models with great persistence.
I’ve been trying to get most elearning to focus on the underlying models instead of rote procedures (it’s one of my seven steps to better elearning points; warning, PDF).
I also note that the claim about systems being designed to not need manuals doesn’t make sense for anything more complicated than a toaster. Unless, of course, you’re going to give me unlimited bandwidth and resources, but most people want to keep the size of their devices under control and provide the full set of features people want.
I argue that it’s not about training, it’s about supporting performance, and that includes responsibility for a broader picture. Currently too much of this is siloed off in different parts of organizations, so software engineers write help systems, a different group writes manuals, the training group prepaes training, etc., all from the same information (hence the push for ‘single-sourcing’ and content models). We can do a better job if we start from the models, and populate all these forms of information in an integrated, cross-referencing, and encompassing strategy.
If, as the experts have it, customer experience is the new differentiator, having a usable system coupled with coherent support ought to be part of the picture.