Let’s Get Tactical: Supporting Performance through Effective Design

The fall is a great time for attending conferences. We have a chance to meet face to face and actually hold real conversations. I have been hearing a common theme in many of the conversations I’ve had lately – one that goes along the lines of “Ok, I get it – I buy into the concept of Performance Support – but how do I actually do it?”. There are a lot of strategic level conversations / articles / presentations available. I think it is time to get tactical. Let’s talk about some nuts and bolts that, when combined, add up to effective performance support for the end user.

This summer, Sue Reber published a great, tactically focused blog called Managing the Performance Support Pyramid for our community. She talked about a methodology that helps to manage the analysis aspect of determining what content goes into a full Learning and Performance Support ecosystem as represented by the Performance Support Pyramid.

Convergence mobile employee at work

Conversations that focus on Electronic Performance Support (EPSS) are often about the top three levels of the pyramid – contexts, tasks and supporting knowledge which provide the backbone of the performance support architecture. In the middle part of the pyramid are the reference resources (documents policies, job aids, FAQs) and learning objects that link into the “backbone” of the EPSS. These are all the resources that support the workflow. They can be accessed via the EPSS to be viewed digitally or printed out, or they may only be available in a hard copy version embedded within the work flow.

Electronic Performance Support (EPSS) pyramid diagram

Many of these usually already exist in an organization and they represent the most basic level of performance support described on Frank Nguyen’s Performance Support Maturity Model. They are the resources that have been developed intuitively by those people who do the job. The challenge is if these resources are poorly designed and developed they may likely impede the performance objective rather than support it. For example, I encountered a situation where the performance support backbone linked me to the front page of a 350 page manual, in .pdf format with no bookmarks to support easy navigation. I was left lost in a wasteland of information overload. I only needed a small series of steps to help me complete my task but when I arrived at the front door of the manual and struggled with navigating through the document I lost all interest in trying to find the answer myself. An end result was that I would never follow that link again, nor trust the source that sent me there.

A critical skill of a Performance Support Designer is the ability to curate existing organizational resources to find the right match (in terms of content, size, format, design, purpose) for the workflow backbone identified at the top of the pyramid. I really like Nick Shackleton-Jones’ (Learning Elimination Team) comment that, for me, really describes the true purpose of the “organizational resource” when it comes to supporting performance:

“When we shift from course to resource we externalise knowledge, we remove the cognitive burden, we enable the relevant information to be made available at the point of need without relying on human memory and all its frailties.”

In the big picture, a well-designed EPSS can fail the end user if the supporting resources are poorly designed. Appropriate design principles need to be applied across the full “Learning and Performance Support Ecosystem” – from instructor-led learning (e.g. explanation, demonstration, imitation and critique) to EPSS design (e.g. 2 clicks 10 seconds), to job aids / resources (e.g. legible, readable, and employable at the micro-performance level). From my perspective, the end goal of the performance support environment is to be “forgiving”– designed to minimize the occurrence and consequence of errors (Lidwell, Holden, Butler, Universal Design Principles, 2003).

Soooo… I’ve pulled out my design books because there are some very smart authors out there who have been publishing in this area for years (Ruth Clark, Allison Rossett, Golombisky & Hagen, Lidwell, Holden and Butler, Jonassen). My plan is to do some curating to find the guidelines that can help to improve the design of the most basic elements of the Performance Support Pyramid. I’m going to start with Job Aids – in particular how to optimize the use of text (Blog #1), visuals (Blog #2) and page layout and design (Blog #3). I will add the hyperlinks to this article as each blog gets published.

Of course, the principles applied to job aids will likely be the same for many different resource types, but applying them to job aids helps to provide context that can be fast tracked into a real product.

If you have tips and tricks of your own – please share! We are all in this together.

Perhaps we can get together in Austin next June, face to face, at the e-Learning Guild’s 2015 Performance Support Symposium to expand and share on the “Let’s Get Tactical” topic.


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