Role Models, Guides, and Coaches: Three Reasons to Consider Using Multimedia


by Scott DeLoach

Let’s face it: special effects are modern-day magic. They can help a giant shark scare us out of the water and a homesick alien touch our heart. The entertainment industry has certainly profited from this magic: nine of the top ten highest-grossing films feature ground-breaking special effects. However, special effects alone do not guarantee success (remember Johnny Mnemonic?). These films were successful because they used special effects to get the audience involved. As technical communicators, we also have access to special effects. We just call them "multimedia."

Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of how to use multimedia tools, I would like to explore why we should use multimedia. Three reasons to use multimedia are to provide a role model, coach, or guide. The paragraphs below provide short discussions about these different roles that multimedia can play in technical communication projects. In addition to real-world examples, I have chosen to also include examples of each of these roles from the Star Wars movie trilogy, both because I like the movies and because I think only ten people in the world have not seen them at least once.

Role Models
Role models allow us to learn through observation and imitation. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker learns about being a Jedi knight by observing Obi Wan Kenobi. Rather than reading a "How to be a Jedi Knight" manual, Luke refers to his Jedi role model.

One real-world example of "Role Model" multimedia is foreign language computer-based training (CBT) applications. As the student listens, the CBT plays a sound recording of a fluent speaker reading phrases as they are displayed on the screen. Another potential use is demonstrating hardware setup. For example, a Help file that describes how to connect a modem could include a short video of the connection being performed.

Role Models can be very effective for introducing and reinforcing concepts. However, they do not evaluate how well the user follows the examples. If you need to increase the level of interaction with your users, you should consider creating a guide.

In the late 1980s, Apple developed a conceptual video for a future interactive computing device. In the video, the user verbally discusses with the computer his latest assignment, and the computer assists him in collecting information and creating a report. In Star Wars, Luke often asks the spirit of Obi Wan for guidance and advice. Obi Wan, the Jedi Knight expert, is always there to answer a call for help.

Real-world examples of guides are wizards and cue cards. In Microsoft Word 95, the Answer Wizard can guide you through many common tasks. Like Obi Wan, the Answer Wizard is always listening for a call for help (in this case, the "F1" key). A multimedia guide could combine an Answer Wizard with speech recognition to allow the user to verbally ask the computer a question and receive an answer.

Guides can provide full interactivity, but the interaction has to be initiated by the user. They are useful for automating tasks and hiding intimidating complexities from new users.

A coach observes and evaluates your performance to offers advice, tips, and warnings. Obi Wan offers Luke help when he needs it because he knows what Luke is trying to do. Since Luke knows that his coach is always watching, he is more confident and willing to take risks.

Coaches are very common in video games and tutorials. In a typical sports game, the coach reinforces desired behavior by saying "Good Shot!" or "Nice Pass!". At halftime, the game uses video "replays", sound, and text statistics to offer advice and tips based on the user’s performance.

Coaches are rarely used in business applications. However, one example can be found in retail checkout systems. If a cashier takes longer than five seconds to give the customer their change, graphics of coins and bills representing the correct change will automatically appear on the screen.

The advantage of coaches is that they provide fully interactive, proactive assistance at the moment of need. They are useful in on-the-job training to improve efficiency and reduce errors.

"Help Me, Obi Wan Kenobi!"
Multimedia offers enormous opportunities to make applications and their instructions more interactive and usable. If multimedia will help you communicate more effectively, then you should definitely consider using it. If multimedia doesn’t seem suited to your audience’s needs, then don’t feel obligated to add some "flash." It will just be distracting.

Oh, yes...if you are still wondering about the top ten highest-grossing films, they are: Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Independence Day, Home Alone, Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back, and Jaws. May the multimedia Force be with you.