A couple of years ago, our Client Advisory Board meeting featured a panel discussion titled “Understanding the End User,” for which I was the moderator. I’d come prepared with a list of questions on everything from how our clients gather user feedback to what surprising preferences they’d uncovered thus far, but one thing I hadn’t anticipated spending any time on was end user training.

Nevertheless, nearly a third of the time was spent discussing this very thing. And no two companies’ training methods were exactly alike.

In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. Training is one of the few opportunities SaaS companies have to interact with their end users face-to-face and focus entirely on product use. Questions around use cases and UI interactions arise naturally as the users, or students, learn the application, and the instructors can take any valuable observations back to their product management teams.

Research benefits aside, training requires considerable trial and error to perfect. By the variety of methods in the room, it was clear that each SaaS vendor had to design a training program uniquely suited to its product and user base. Their decades of collective experience culminated in some pretty effective strategies, and I thought they were worth sharing. So, without further ado, here are some BI end user training methods to consider when designing your own company’s program.

Tip #1: Segment your courses.

Enterprise BI can do a lot, and it’s counterproductive to rush through the material, so help ensure that your end users get through all the necessary information by breaking up the training into segments. Matt Smyrl, Manager of Training Services at FM:Systems, divides his course into three half-day segments, which allows him to ramp up the complexity gradually and give his students breaks between segments.

Lomesh Shah, President of NonProfitEasy, likewise subdivides his training sessions into one-hour drop-in forums. Each forum focuses on a different level of report designer, either basic, intermediate, or advanced.

Tip #2: Hold in-person training sessions whenever possible.

SIS Product Manager Bryce Lee hosts monthly training webinars for his company’s embedded BI implementation, but he also leads in-person regional workshops for whole groups of insurance agencies using PartnerXE. The CAB generally agreed that in-person training is are preferable to virtual training because it allows for better communication and more interactivity. It’s also easier to observe users as they explore the application.

Tip #3: Start with your data architecture.

That’s right, break out those ERDs. Both DLGL Data Extraction Analyst Jonathan Giles and Smyrl say they begin their training sessions with an introduction to the data itself: what data categories are available, how they are organized, and why they are organized that way. This gives users a better understanding of what data they can access and might even get them excited to start exploring it! If you have a particularly large data set, consider confinging your introduction to an especially relevant subset of data objects to avoid overwhelming new users with information,.

Tip #4: Provide a familiar point of reference.

One CAB member discovered that it was helpful to explain the report designer in terms of a more familiar tool, and that tool ended up being Excel. Our BI solution doesn’t work quite like Excel does, and explaining how they differ actually helped this product manager get some of the more unfamiliar concepts across. Spreadsheet cells, for example, only hold one piece of information at a time, but some BI report designer cells hold whole fields of information that expand to display detail on output. These kinds of comparisons can help users gain a foothold more easily.

Tip #5: Give users an objective to work toward.

Smyrl says he’s found the most success with individual and group training sessions wherein attendees describe a report they’d like to make and then spend the session building it. Not only do they learn along the way, but they have something useful to take with them at the end. This is also a great way to get users working through use cases they might realistically encounter in their daily work, giving them a supportive environment in which to work through design challenges.

Tip #6: Leverage canned reports.

A well-constructed canned report can be as powerful a learning tool as a blank canvas. One product manager said his first step is always getting users comfortable with modifying existing reports for their own purposes, starting with stylistic changes and working up to structural adjustments and new calculations. Giles will tell his end users to take inspiration from the report library and try reverse-engineering the reports or recombining elements to create something new.

Tip #7: Provide refresher courses.

As one panelist pointed out, there’s often a lag between when end users attend training and when they build their first reports. It’s easy to forget some of the finer details in the interim, so help your end users get back on track either by providing a refresher course or by making training videos available on demand.

Tip #8: Incentivize.

In Shah’s experience, some end users come to him exasperated because they needed a custom report made yesterday and didn’t have the skill set to do it themselves. In the interest of time, Shah’s team will typically build the report on the client’s behalf and charge for the work unless the client attends a training session, in which case the report would be pro bono. This has proven an effective means of advertising the training program to those who need it most.

For more on training BI end users, check out our company’s latest episode of the Data Talks podcast.

What BI training methods have you found most effective? Let us know in the comments!

Originally published here.