How to decide whether to build a job aid

If you know certain details about a task, you can decide whether it makes sense to build a job aid.

Part 1 of the decision considers whether you have to build a job aid, even if it doesn’t make much sense, and whether certain characteristics tell you that a job aid won’t work.

Should you, or shouldn't you (part 1)?

“Is a job aid required?” isn’t as daft as it might seem.  If your organization mandates a job aid for some task, then you’re stuck.  Unless you convince the right people to reverse the policy, somebody’s going to be building a job aid. If that’s you, you might as well get started, and you don’t need to read the rest of this piece; your decision has been made.

Assuming that a job aid isn’t mandatory, the next question is whether speed or rate is a critical factor in performing the task.  The short answer is that if speed matters, a job aid isn’t going to work.

Wing tips up, feet down, watch for that wave...

Many jobs call for you to apply knowledge and skill  in quickly, even if not predictably.  Think about safely driving a car through a tricky situation, much less an emergency.  You don’t have the opportunity to consult a job aid.  If a kid on a bike suddenly pulls out in front of you, you can’t look up what to do.

Anyone who’s helped train a new driver knows what it’s like when the novice is trying to decide if it’s safe to turn into traffic.  We experienced drivers have internalized all sorts of data to help us decide without thinking, “Yes, there’s plenty of time before that bus gets here; I can make the left turn.”

The newcomer lacks that fluency. She’ll acquire it with practice, but not  via a job aid. The need for speedy performance gets in the way.

Likewise for rate–a sustained performance over time. Routinely high-volume work like factory production or air-traffic control doesn’t allow time to consult a job aid.  Success depend on learning–on committing skill and knowledge to memory, and on retrieving and applying those things appropriately.

I’m a fast typist (80 – 85 words per minute if I’ve been writing a lot), but the moment I glance down at the keyboard, my rate drops. The visual signal interferes with the virtually automatic process I normally use at a keyboard.


Part 2 of the job aid decision looks at the characteristics of the task at hand. Factors like complexity and risk of error help you make the decision, which is why I call this step:

Use what you know about the task to figure out whether building a job aid makes sense.  You can go about this in many ways, but the following questions quickly cover a lot of the territory.

♦ ♦ ♦

How often does someone perform the task?

“Often” is a relative term–in fact, most of the questions in Ask the Task are relative.  That doesn’t mean they’re not pertinent.  Asking “how frequent is frequent?” turns your attention to the context of the task and the people who typically carry it out.

Frequency isn’t the same thing as regularity.  Some tasks are frequent and predictable, like a weekly status update.  Some are more random, like handling a payment by money order.  And some are much more rare, like a bank teller in Vermont handling a money transfer from Indonesia.

Whether you end up building a job aid, designing training, or just tossing people into the deep end of the performance pool, you need some idea of how frequent “frequent” is, and where the specific task might fall along a job-relevant frequency scale.

Think about what frequency might tell you about whether to build a job aid.  (Yes, now.  I’ll have the mini-lecture later on, but we both know you ought to do some thinking on your own. Just like we know certain other people are going to breeze past without doing that thinking.)

♦ ♦ ♦

How many steps does the task have?

Some tasks don’t really seem to have steps.  Or they have very few: look up the arguments for the HTML <br> tag.  And some tasks have so many that it might make sense to break them up into logical subgroups: setting up the thermoformer.  Testing the thermoformer.  Troubleshooting problems after the test.

So, think of “step” as the lowest level of activity that produces a result that makes sense to the performer.  If I’m familiar with creating websites, then “create a new domain and assign it to a folder in the \public_html directory” might be two steps, or maybe only one).  If I’m not familiar with creating websites, I’m going to need a lot more steps.

That makes sense, because a job aid is meant to guide a particular group of performers, and the presumption is that they share some background.  If the performers have widely differing backgrounds, you may need two versions of a job aid–see the Famous 5-Minute Install for WordPress and its companion, a set of far more detailed instructions.  Essentially, that’s two job aids: the 5-Minute Install for experienced people, and the lengthier details for newcomers.

As with frequency, you need to think about how many steps in the tasks are few or many, relatively speaking.

♦ ♦ ♦

How difficult are the steps?

For someone who writes a lot and who has solid, basic word processing skills, writing a 25-page report has plenty of steps, but few of them are difficult (other than getting reviewers to finish their work on time).

In the same way, a task can have relatively few steps, but many of them can be quite difficult.

That’s the reason for two step-related considerations in Ask the Task: are there a lot of steps? Are the steps hard?

Pause for a moment and think which way you’d lean: if the steps in a task are difficult, does that mean “job aid might work,” or does that mean “people need to learn this?”

♦ ♦ ♦

What happens if they do it wrong?

This question focuses on the consequences of performing the task incorrectly.  Whether a person has a job aid or not is immaterial–if you don’t perform correctly, what happens?  Personal injury? Costly waste or rework? Half an hour spent re-entering the set-up tolerances? Or simply “re-enter the password?”

As with the other questions, you need to think about the impart of error in terms of the specific job.  And, if you haven’t guessed already, about the relationship between that impact and the value of building a job aid.

♦ ♦ ♦

Is the task likely to change?

We’re not talking about whether the job aid will change, because we still haven’t figured out if we’re going to build one.  We’re talking about the task: What are the odds it’s going to change?  “Change” here could include new steps, new standards, new equipment, a new product, and so on.

♦ ♦ ♦

You’ve probably detected a pattern to the questions.  So the big secret is this:

The more your answers tend to the right,
the stronger the case for a job aid.

What follows is the 90-second version of why.  (As your read the lines, just add “all other things being equal” to each of them.)

  • The less frequently someone performs a task, the likelier it is that he’ll forget how to do it.  If you’re an independent insurance agent whose practice mostly involves homeowner’s and driver’s insurance, and you write six flood insurance policies a year, you could probably use some task-related support. Job aids don’t forget.
  • The more steps involved in the task, the more challenging it will be for someone to retain all those steps correctly in memory and apply them at the right time. Job aids: good at retention.
  • The more difficult the steps are, the harder the performer will find it to complete each step appropriately. A job aid can remind the performer of criteria and considerations, and can provide examples.
  • The higher the impact of error, the more important it is for the performer to do the task correctly.  You certainly can train people to respond in circumstances like air traffic control, emergency medical response, or power-line maintenance. You do that when the on-the-jb situation (up on a utility pole) or the time-to-perform justify the expense of learning. Otherwise, a well-designed job aid is a good way to help the performer avoid high-cost error.
  • The more changeable the task, the less sense it makes to train to memory.  That’s because when the change occurs, you’ll have to redo or otherwise work at altering how people perform.  If instead you support the likely-to-change task with job aids, you’re avoiding the additional cost of full training, and you mainly need to replace the outdated job aid with the new one.

♦ ♦ ♦

A recap of those questions:

Part 2: ask the task

The first two parts of the decision ask:

  • Is a job aid mandatory? If not, does speed or rate make a job aid unlikely?
  • Do the tasks’s characteristics suggest that a job aid makes sense?

Getting this far, you might want to leap right into design.  But people don’t perform a task within an environment.


Part 3 of your decision is to ask if that environment will hamper the use of a job aid.

Part 3: what obstacles does your job aid need to overcome?

You could ask these question in either order, but physical barriers are sometimes easier to address than social ones.

Often people have to work in settings where a job aid might be a hindrance or even a danger.  Someone rewiring an electrical panel, for example.  Or someone assembling freight trains at a classification yard:

As the narrator points out around the 4:00 mark, in the 19th century a railroader would have to ride each car as gravity moved it down a manmade hill (the hump), applying the brake by hand to keep the car below about 4 miles an hour. It would have been impossible to give the brakeman a job aid for slowing the car, so his training (formal or otherwise) would have required lots of practice and feedback about judging speed.

Remember, the goal is not to have people use job aids; the goal is to produce better on-the-job results.

Modern railroads rely mainly on computers and sensors to control speed when assembling freight trains, rather than either job aids or training to memory.

Amarillo by morning

Amarillo by morning…

Another way to overcome physical obstacles to the use of a job aid is by changing the form.  No law requires a job aid to be on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch laminated piece of paper. Nor on the formerly ubiquitous, multifolded paper of a highway map.

A road map can support different kinds of tasks.  You can use it at a table to plan where you’re going to go, to learn about the routes.  No barriers to such use.

If you’re driving by yourself, though, a paper road map is at best sub-optimal.  It’s hard to use the map safely while you’re driving.

In a quarter mile, turn left

Deep in the heart of Oslo

Real-time support for the driver now includes geosynchronous satellites, wireless technology, a constantly updated computer display–and a voice.

That voice is transformative: it’s a job aid you don’t have to read. Because the GPS gives timely, audible directions, there’s no need to take your eyes off the road and decipher the screen.

Other examples of overcoming physical barriers: attach the job aid to equipment. Use visual cues, like a change of color as movement or adjustment gets closer to specification.  Combine audio with voice-response technology (“If the relay is intact, say ‘okay.’ If the relay is damaged, say ‘damaged.’”)

But he had to look it up!

Overcoming physical barriers is one thing.  Overcoming social barriers is…a whole bunch of things. Your job aid will fail if the intended performer won’t use it.

Popular culture places a great value on appearing to know things.  When someone turns to an external reference, we sometimes have an irrational feeling that she doesn’t know what she’s doing–and that she should.  In part, I think we confuse retention of isolated facts with deep knowledge, and we think (reasonably enough) that deep knowledge is good.

Don't go off on the wrong track.At its worst, though, this becomes the workplace equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. A railroading example might be someone who can tell you not only the trains but the kinds of locomotive that ran on a certain line decades ago–but who can’t issue you a ticket in a prompt, accurate, courteous manner.

This bias toward recall may come from the performer herself–she may think it’s better not to “have to” use a job aid.

Or coworkers may have that bias–only a rookie need to look things up. Managers and even clients may prefer not to see the performer using a job aid.

One path to overcoming is bias is to embed the job aid in a tool or application, such that the performer is merely applying one feature.  That’s essentially what a software wizard does.  Watch me turn this data into a chart: I just choose what I want as I go along.

(And doesn’t “choose what I want” sound much more on top of things than “look stuff up?”)

Joe Harless, from whom I learned a great deal about job aids, gave the example of an injection gun used for immunizations in third-world settings, healthcare workers occasionally had to make adjustments to clear jams and similar equipment glitches.

Senior workers did not want to seem to need outside help to maintain their equipment, but couldn’t retain all the steps.  (Remember in Part 2?  Number of steps in task, complexity of steps?)  So the clearing instructions were attached to the equipment in such a way that the worker could follow the job aid while clearing the gun.

♦ ♦ ♦

The considerations here aren’t meant as either exhaustive or exclusive.  They are, however, important stops to make, a kind of reality check before you hit the on-ramp to job aid design.  The reason for building a job aid is to guide performance on the job while reducing the need for memorization, in order to achieve a worthwhile result.  If the performer can’t use it because of physical obstacles, or won’t use it because of social ones, the result will be… no result.

CC-licensed photos:
Seabirds by Paul Scott.
1936 Texas highway map by Justin Cozart.
Norwegian GPS by Stig Andersen.
1879 Michigan Central RR timetable from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

The job-aid diagrams are mine. This post is based on material that I originally posted on Dave’s Whiteboard.

Income-based repayment calculator for student loans

About this job aid

The Office of Federal Student Aid is part of the U.S. Office of Education. Part of its mission is to inform students and families about federal student aid programs.

Students with certain federal loans who are experiencing financial hardships may be eligible for the Income-Based Repayment plan. An IBR can lower the required monthly payment, though it can extend the payment period and thus increase the total interest paid.

As part of its information about load replayment, the Office of Federal Student Aid has an online calculator to determine the likely monthly payment under an IBR.

The IBR calculator

The IBR calculator

This is a calculator job aid–based on information entered, it performs calculations and produces an answer. In this case, the answer is an estimated loan payment.

What’s the accomplishment?

Determining the monthly payment for a student load under an Income-Based Repayment plan.

Who uses this job aid?

Anyone trying to determine this figure; most likely someone with a student loan who’s having trouble making the payments.

Using the calculator

Preliminary information:

There are many kinds of student loans, and not all are eligible for an IBR plan. On the same page as the calculator, Federal Student Aid states:

Your loan servicer will determine your eligibility for IBR, but check this calculator to see whether you might qualify and what your estimated payment could be.

In addition, there’s a link to the National Student Loan Data System so that a person with a student loan can determine which type of loans he has, along with the current amount of principle and interest.

Finally, the page suggests having on hand income information like your most recent federal income tax return.

The calculations:

As the first step, I entered marital status, family size, and location, using an example in the FSA FAQs (single, living alone, in Maryland).

Single, living alone, not in AL or HI

Single, living alone, not in AL or HI

Next, I enter details about my current loans:

Current loans

Current loans

After that, I enter income data based on my (hypothetical) tax return.

Income data

Income data

Based on the data I provided, the calculator says I may qualify for a monthly payment of $309.

The calculator then provides information about the next part of the process:

Next steps

Next steps

 

Comments / critique

Adaptive approach

When you see the calculator, it looks like the first image in this post: just the space for marital status, family size, and location. Only after you enter that data does it expand to ask for income data, and only after you enter that data does information appear for the estimated monthly payment and for the next steps to take.

Considering the complexity of the subject, that’s a good approach for the calculator to take. It’s less intimidating at the outset.

Embedded help–less than helpful?

I did find it a little confusing to read “I owe [amount] in federal student loans” and “I originally borrowed [amount] in federal student loans.” When I clicked the icon for more information, at first I thought I had a problem with my browser. It took me a while to realize the information appeared further down the screen than I expected:

Help's down there

Help’s down there

That image is 570 pixels high, and on some computers might not be obvious.

Other resources

How to build a decision table

A decision table is a way to organize information when someone needs to make a decision based on different conditions that may present themselves. Recognizing those different conditions, in job-aid terms, is a discrimination. (You discriminate between the possible conditions in order to get to the decision that fits the condition you have.)

In the simplest form, that means that in a given situation there’s more than one possible stimulus–the trigger for action–and each leads to a specific response, the action to take.

At a retail store, how you handle a return depends on the original form of purchase. The form of payment is the stimulus (cash, credit card, gift card), and in the example above different stimuli lead to different responses (refund in cash, refund via a credit to the account, issue a new gift card).

The purpose of a decision table is to guide someone through a series of possible conditions so he arrives at the appropriate decision. This post shows one method for building a decision table. The task: choosing the price to offer to particular customers.

Step 1: List all the possible decisions.

dt how to example 01

The decisions are all the possible outcomes for this task. In this example, the question–the task–is “what price do I offer?” There are three possible prices: the VIP discount, the courtesy discount, and the standard price.

Here, I’m not talking about what the discounts are. In the real world, at the very least you’d need to check whether the person using the decision table knows the discounts. Otherwise, the job aid that includes the decision table might need to include details about the discounts. If the discounts were complicated, you might even have a separate job aid for How to Calculate the VIP Discount.

The point is that you can decide which price to offer without knowing how to compute that price; choosing a price and computing a price are different tasks.

Step 2: For each decision, list the conditions that apply.

Each set of conditions gets its own row.

dt how to example 02

set of conditions is the “when” (when the person is an existing customer and when his credit code is 1…) that leads to a particular decision–a “then” (then offer the VIP discount).

“Offer VIP discount” may be true for more than one set of conditions. You offer it to an existing customer with code 1; you offer it to any customer whose purchase is more than $999.  Each set of conditions gets its own row; you repeat the decision to mark the different ways to reach that decision.

In a given row, all the conditions must be true in order to trigger the decision. Being an existing customer is not enough by itself to offer the VIP discount.

 Step 3: Arrange similar conditions into columns.

dt how to example 03

If you compare this example with the one in Step 2, you’ll see the information is the same. The difference is that related conditions are now grouped in columns to highlight their similarity.

Step 4: Move the decisions to the right side of the table.

dt how to example 04

In my experience, it’s helpful to begin designing the table with the decisions on the left; that gets you thinking about the sets of conditions.

When someone uses a decision table, though, he works his way through the conditions and end up at the decision. (The when/then approach.) Because English reads from left to right, the decisions belong in the rightmost column. (Not true if you’re building decision tables in Arabic or Hebrew.)

Step 5: Reorganize the conditions.

dt how to example 05

There are several ways to go about this. The guiding principles are:

1. In the leftmost column, it’s usually good to group identical conditions together.

2. As you move to the right, you’re filtering from the initial condition in the first column.

3. Often you’ll move rows up or down to keep related conditions together.

4. If you have more than four sets of conditions (more than four when columns), consider using multiple tables. One way to break up this example (not that I’m going to) might be to have two decision tables, one for existing customers and one for new customers.

Step 6: Add headings that make sense on the job.

dt how to example 06

No hard-and-fast rule here. Putting “Customer” as the heading for the first column means you avoid repeating the word “customer” in all the conditions. I think that’s pretty clear.

Here’s an alternate version. Having just created this version, I think I could have put “code” as a header in the version above, and then just used the numbers.  Hey, it’s an iterative process.

dt how to example 06 alt

Step 7: Look for ways to simplify the table.

dt how to example 07

Try to eliminate unnecessary repetition. (Yes, sometimes there’s necessary repetition.) One of the simplest ways to do this is by merging cells, as I’ve done here with the “existing customer” and “new customer” cells.

I specifically did not merge the adjoining “courtesy discount” cells in the decision column. When someone’s using the job aid, I think it’s best to keep the focus the same size or smaller as he reads across the job aid.

Use dashes, arrows, shading, or similar formatting to make clear that certain conditions don’t apply. (If you’re an existing customer and the credit code is 1 or 2, I have enough information to know which discount to offer; the amount of your purchase is not a factor.)


Most decision tables are part of larger job aids. Often you have a sequence of steps (do this, then do that, then do this other thing) that lead to the decision. The technique above is one way to take information uncovered in your task analysis and turn it into a useful guide to a decision.

By the way, discriminations often occur together with generalizations. A generalization means you have at least two stimuli that lead to the same action:

Although there are three possible conditions in this example (traveler with a child, traveler in first class, traveler with platinum status), you generalize those conditions into a single action (offer preboarding).

Here’s a simple decision table that combines a discrimination and a generalization for the task of choosing a filter for an appliance.

dt how to example 08

Your first discrimination is “which product do I have?” If you have a coffee maker, you discriminate again based on model in order to choose the correct filter.

For the thermal carafe and the Lexan pitcher, you generalize, because they take the same filter.

What to include in a job aid

When you’re building a job aid, pay attention to how you present and structure the information. Job aids don’t usually explain why to do something; they guide the performer about when and how to do something.

I want to highlight features that nearly every job aid out to have. I’ll use some closeups from a job aid I’ve featured on the Ensampler: How to Do the Rapid Test for Malaria. It guides people as they conduct rapid-diagnostic tests for malaria.

(Although I’m discussing features in general, you can click here to open a copy of the entire job aid in a new window.)

By the way, this is a fairly large job aid; it’s meant to avoid page-turning and could easily be a poster mounted so that the tester can view it while conducting the test. Notice that “avoid page-turning” doesn’t mean “keep to a single 8.5 x 11 page.” Not every job aid has to fit into a 3-ring binder.

♦ ♦ ♦

A clear, task-focused title

rtm01 titleWhat makes this title good? For one thing, it passes the “hey, Dad” test:

Hey, Dad — watch me while I do the rapid test for malaria.

In other words, the title explains the job aid in terms of what the person using it will do. This approach is essential in a job aid guiding some task.  Consider alternatives like:

  • Using the Rapid Test
  • Basics of the Rapid Test
  • Steps in the Rapid Test

None of these has the directness of “how to.”

♦ ♦ ♦

First things first • Consistent emphasis • Graphic cues

rtm02 materials

Directly under the title of the job aid, you find a list of supplies needed for the test. This is the equivalent of the list of ingredients at the start of a cooking recipe.

Because the rapid-test job aid deals with a medical topic, it consistently calls attention to words like “new” and “unopened.” “New” is always in bold capitals here; “unopened” is always in bold.

The job aid does not depend on color alone to convey meaning in the text; if you reproduced these steps in black and while, the capitalization and bolding would still convey emphasis.

In addition, the job aid includes graphic illustrations of the materials, in part as a reminder for the community workers who will be conducting the tests. Some may have limited skill in reading, and so the illustrations and labels support their ability to recognize what the test packet is.

Often a drawing rather than a photograph is more effective; line art can retain essential information without bringing in unnecessary detail. It’s much more important for the community worker to recognize an unopened lancet than to be able to read on the job aid the printing on the lancet package.

♦ ♦ ♦

Numbered steps • Separation between steps

rtm03 steps

If you need to perform steps in a particular order, you have a sequence. Use numbering for the sequence. In general, a numbered sequence is easier to keep track of than one with letters.

♦ ♦ ♦

Performer’s point of view • Callouts

rtm04 graphics

Because the purpose of a job aid is to guide performance on the job, graphics need to show examples or technique from the point of view of someone doing the job.  Note the hands under step 2 in the illustration above: they look the way your hands would if you were putting gloves on.

This job aid makes careful use of callouts — they appear only when they’re important for a particular step.  At the beginning of the job aid, for instance, there’s an image of the test packet but no callout for the expiry date. It makes more sense to check the date right before you’re ready to start.

♦ ♦ ♦

Step size: can be done without rechecking

rtm06 step size

If you’re building a job aid to guide steps in a procedure, a good rule of thumb for any one step is that the performer should be able to complete it without having to refer to the job aid again.

It’s not that he shouldn’t refer to it. The point is to avoid overburdening him.

In this example, step 3 spells out what you’re removing from the test packet. That’s all that it contains. If the instruction read, “Remove everything from the packet,” though, the performer has no idea what the packet should contain.

What if there were no desiccant (say, due to a packaging error)?  Because step 3 tells me I need to remove the test cassette, the capillary tube, and the desiccant, if I don’t find those things, I’m pretty sure something’s wrong.

♦ ♦ ♦

Special emphasis for safety / hazard / high-risk information.

rtm05 safety highlight

This is a special case for the consistent emphasis mentioned earlier. Some procedures have steps that are highly important in the context of carrying them out. In this example, the entire sentence for “don’t set the lancet down” appears in bold.

By the way, preparing community workers to conduct the rapid diagnostic test involves more than the job aid. The training includes actual practice, including use of the lancet. The training would reinforce the importance of proper procedure and correct handling of the lancet and the capillary tube (which also goes into the sharps box).

♦ ♦ ♦

The features mentioned here are not a complete list, and not every one is essential for every job aid. On the whole, though, if a job aid doesn’t include most of these features, it’s likely to be less effective in supporting performance.

 

 

WHO: How to Do the Rapid Test for Malaria

About this job aid

Malaria is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitos. WHO (the World Health Organization) estimates 219 million cases of malaria, and 660,000 deaths, in 2010 alone (last page in this summary).

Rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) provide a quick alternative to clinical-based diagnosis, testing for specific proteins produced by malaria parasites. Different tests have different capabilities; some can detect only only species of parasite, such as Plasmodium falciparum (hence “Pf test”). These tests are often conducted by local-community health workers.

A key reason for the RDT is to shorten the time between the onset of symptoms and the beginning of treatment. This WHO job aid is a guide to performing such tests.

rtm entire big

Click the image to view in a separate window.
Based on training materials at the
Malaria Rapid Diagnostic Tests website.

What’s the accomplishment?

Correctly performing the generic Pf test for malaria.  This involves using the materials in a medically correct and safe manner, as well as correctly interpreting the results to determine whether the test is positive (indicates malaria), negative (no malaria), or invalid (need to repeat the test).

Who’s the performer?

Health workers, often “in rural areas with limited access to health and laboratory facilities.” These workers may have low literacy and little formal training in the use of the RDT. They may also have minimal supervision in the field.

Comments / critique

  • Note that this job aid is a model; it would be modified to fit the local language, culture, and the specific RDT test. Thus in step 11, a callout reads “count correct number of drops” (of a buffer solution). In the field, location-specific job aids would presumably give the actual number of drops.

I haven’t seen other examples, though. It may be that the buffer bottle spells out the number of drops clearly, and that the training stresses checking that number.

  • Size: this is a large job aid. It wouldn’t fit on a typical letter-size or A4 sheet of paper. Instead, it seems intended as a poster, and could be mounted on a wall where the health worker conducts the testing.

You’ll often see arguments that a job aid should be brief. That’s a relative term and often misleading. The essential characteristic of a job aid is that it successfully guides performance by specific kinds of performers. If they can’t succeed with a five-step job aid, maybe you need more steps.  If you can’t fit the steps into a given size, then maybe that’s not the right size for that bunch of steps.

Consider: two pages, a larger page, a reframing of a big job aid into three smaller ones (How to Set Up the Widget Modifier; How to Modify a Widget; How to Check Modified Widgets).

  • A combination job aid: How to Do the RDT is mainly a procedure. Step 14, however, takes up 20% of the space, and supports the key accomplishment: a decision in the form of a diagnosis. That’s why, for the Ensampler, I’ve tagged this job aid under both categories.
  • Step 14 provides specific examples for the two kinds of positive results (the line near T can be strong or can be faint), and for the two kinds of invalid results (no line at C and no line at T; no line at C and a line at T). Showing these examples is more useful in the context of this job aid than relying solely on “and / or” language in the text. 
  • One quibble about terminology: step 3 of the job aid refers to the test, not the cassette or the test cassette. The only place cassette appears is in step 16.

(Note: with the following point, I’m musing about job aid design in general. I am not trying to second-guess the developers of this particular job aid.)

I might have made different choices for steps 15 and 16.

rtd step 15 16

Those steps seem to involve three chunks of behavior:

  • Discard the gloves, swab, desiccant, and packaging (step 15).
  • Record the test results (first part of step 16).
  • After recording, discard the cassette (second part of step 16).

I assume that good practice says “write down the results before you discard the test cassette.” If that’s the case, it might make sense to underscore discard-write-discard with a new step 17. It would look like step 15 but with an image of the cassette.

Other resources

  • The home page for the Malaria Rapid Diagnostic Tests.
  • A field report on developing and testing a job aid for RDTs, prepared by the Quality Assurance Project in collaboration with the World Health Organization (2004).

How to write instructions (Dana Chisnell’s field guides for voting)

Background:

A few months ago, I came across a series of “field guides” related to voting. These were developed by Dana Chisnell of UsabilityWorks as a result of research she conducted with Ginny Redish for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because I worked as an election judge (the Maryland term for a precinct worker) during four elections, including two as a chief judge (one of the two chiefs at my precinct).

I’m pretty sure most voters have no inkling of the multitude of tasks and procedures that precinct workers — almost always volunteers, despite a small stipend for their effort — must try and carry out in order to ensure that people can exercise their right to vote.

The Field Guide series, “essentials that local election officials” can use when trying to apply ballot design guidelines to real life, have been edited by Dana Chisnell of UsabilityWorks. From Civic Design’s site you can download PDFs of four guides:

Designing usable ballots
Writing instructions voters understand
Testing ballots for usability
Effective poll worker materials

I want to highlight some of the recommendations from “Writing Instructions Voters Understand.” These make great sense in most job-aid and performance-support contexts, and the Field Guide provides detailed examples for the individual recommendations.

Layout

You can’t tell easily from the PDF, but in the printed Field Guide, illustrations and examples appear on the left-hand page, and instructions on the right, like this:

example voter instruction field guide pp 8 9

So you see the example in context on the left, and then you get details about it on the right.

At the beginning of the ballot, explain how to change a vote, and that voters may write in a candidate.

I think of this as a “before you begin” instruction. The voter might not be thinking about making errors or changing her mind; having this notice at the outset increases likelihood that she’ll recall it during the voting process.

Put instructions where voters need them.

This advice could sound like “be nice,” but the Field Guide gives specific examples:

  • Break instructions into groups. (No lumbering blocks of text.)
  • On paper ballots, put turn-over instructions at the bottom right-hand corner.
  • On electronic ballots, put instructions for writing in a candidate on the write-in screen.

Include information that will prevent voters from making errors.

Here’s a before-and-after approach that shows the stark contrast between insider focus and customer (or voter) focus:

(Before)

If you tear, or deface, or wrongly mark this ballot, return it and obtain another. Do not attempt to correct mistakes on the ballot by making erasures or cross outs. Erasures or cross outs may invalidate all or part of your ballot. Prior to submitting your ballot, if you make a mistake in completing the ballot or wish to change your ballot choices, you may obtain and complete a new ballot. You have a right to a replacement ballot upon return of the original ballot.

(After)

If you make a mistake, ask a poll worker for another ballot.

Use short, simple everyday words.

While I do enjoy the occasional eyeroll in the director of St. George of Orwell’s prescriptionism, Chisnell’s definitely on the right track.

Particularly with the example: Avoid jargon, such as “over vote,” “under vote,” and “partisan.”

Write in the active voice, where the person doing the action comes before the verb.

Note that this guideline is itself an example of avoiding jargon. The average person isn’t good at providing an example of an active verb as opposed to a passive one.

Write in the positive.

Directly from the guide: Tell voters what to do rather than what not to do.

(Before)

If that oval is not marked, your vote cannot be counted for the candidate.

(After)

You must fill in the oval for your vote to count.

When giving instructions that are more than one step, make each step an item in a numbered list.

It’s a lot harder for people to keep track of where they are in a bulleted list than in a number one.

When steps are a sequence, number the steps. That’s what the numbers are for: showing each item’s place within the sequence.

If sequence is not important, then use bullets.

An everyday example: the ingredients in a recipe appear before the steps. The ingredients are usually listed in the order you’ll use them, but they don’t have to be, because (presumably) the steps in the recipe will tell you when to add the carrots and when to add the vinegar.


My thanks to Dana Chisnell for agreeing to have the Field Guides included in the Ensampler.

Wine Folly’s “Different Types of Wine”

About this job aid

This chart, created by Wine Folly, is presented as an infographic. That’s mostly a matter of format. I’m happy to include it here on the Ensampler as a less-typical tool that guides a person in choosing a wine suited to his taste. Or, as Wine Folly says, it “organizes almost 200 types of wine by taste so you can easily discover new wines based on your preferences.”

(Click for original at the Wine Folly site)

What’s the accomplishment?

Identification of a type of wine based on factors like overall type of grape and preferences regarding taste.

Related to that, here’s how Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly describes her goal:

Wine is all about taste, and as a sommelier, my job is to lead customers into wine they want to drink. Most do not know what they like; they just know they want red wine or white wine.

This novice level need is how I built the first level of the flowchart.

[ Red, white, rosé, sparkling, fortified--and of course more of the wine appears in the first two categories--DF]

Beyond the first level is all about flavor affinities… For instance, if you like black coffee, you’ll probably like a bold wine with high tannin. If you prefer a latte, you might lean more towards a round and lush syrah.

Who’s the performer?

Presumably a customer choosing wine. Although the example that Puckette gives above is in a restaurant setting, her level of skill would enable her to guide the customer from memory, so it’s not likely a job aid for a sommelier.

I can see at least two types of people who’d make use of such a chart:

  • A customer curious about or considering a wine, either in a store or online. 
  • Restaurant wait staff, possibly practicing with a subset of the information, in order to increase their ability to guide patrons in the absence of a sommelier.

Comments

I’m usually not a fan of the infographic format, especially if presented as a job aid, because most such graphics by virtue of their size are impossible to use on the job. Wine Folly’s chart, though, isn’t meant to be the final word on wine selection. From Madeline Puckette’s point of view, it’s a way to help people toward an enjoyable experience with wine.

For the purposes of the Ensampler, it’s a highly concentrated way to organize a great deal of information with the goal of a satisfactory outcome.

Someone who knows wine understands the differences between a Rhône and a Pomerol, even though both are in the red / savory / black pepper cluster on the chart. At the same time, that person would probably agree the two are closer to each other than either is to a Médoc. He’d also likely agree that if you say you enjoy the taste of black pepper but don’t care for things that are too spicy, a Rhône rather than a Bardolino isn’t a bad choice.

Underlying the design of the chart is the basic when/then type of consideration that goes into building a flowchart or a decision table. Here’s a sample of what I mean–a portion of the “savory red” section of the chart. For simplicity, I’ve included only four wines in each category.

savory red grid

Turning the entire Wine Folly chart into a decision table would produce one lengthy, complicated table. That’s due to the multiple factors: grape/ overall type (like sparkling); what I’ll call ‘style family’ for a grape (like sweet, savory, or fruity for red); flavor characteristics within that family (the small red circles in the Wine Folly chart); and finally characteristics like tannin versus spice versus roundness.

I’m very grateful to Madeline Puckette for sharing the thinking behind her chart, which I’ve tagged both as decision table and flowchart.

Online guide to Canadian citizenship

An online job aid?

Sure–the essence of a job aid is not the form it takes, but that it provides guidance to someone who’s completing a particular task.

In that sense, many software wizards and widgets are job aids: they enable accomplishment that would be difficult or impossible without them.

I see this online guide from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) as a kind of decision table. (You might see it as a flowchart; the two formats are siblings.)

Most decision tables lead to a specific action–file this form, start that process. This one takes a different route. In a way, it’s a quick substitute for a conversation with a CIC official, the person who’d be making a decision about your status based on your answers to the question.

That’s one reason I’m putting it in the Ensampler: it shows that you can use the job aid approach to help the clients of an organization, as well as its employees.

About this job aid

As with most countries, citizenship in Canada can be complicated. On its website, CIC has information about applying for, getting proof of, and resuming citizenship. One part of the eligibility section is “See if you may already be a citizen.” That pace includes a tool–essentially, an online decision table “to determine if you are a citizen under Canada’s citizenship laws.”

canadian citizenship tool

Note that there’s a legal disclaimer on the page: the tool “is intended solely for general guidance and reference purposes.” In other words, even if the tool says you might be a Canadian citizen, some nuance or technicality can crop up.

What’s the accomplishment?

Determining whether you’re already a Canadian citizen. This could lead to additional actions, such as deciding to apply for a certificate of citizenship or a passport.

Who’s the performer?

A person who believes he or she might be a Canadian citizen–for example, someone like myself who was born in Canada but lost Canadian citizenship as a child when his parents became naturalized citizens of another country.

An example

Because the online tool is informational, you can try it out for yourself, but I’ll demonstrate the process using my own case. For example, this is the first question:

Have you ever renounced your Canadian citizenship with Canadian authorities?

 

canadian citizenship Q1

 

Typically a job aid doesn’t explain why a step is performed. In this case, however, the online tool provides explanation for a technical term (renunciation) to help a person answer correctly.

In my case, the answer was “no.” That led to this sequence of questions (for which I won’t show all the screens; they’re like the example above):

Was your Canadian citizenship ever revoked for fraud?

No.

Where were you born?

In Canada.

When were you born?

Between January 1st, 1947, and February 14, 1977.
(These dates mark a period covered by the 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act.)

At the time of your birth, was either parent employed by a foreign government in Canada with diplomatic status?

No.

And the result:

Based on your answers, you are likely a Canadian citizen.

For a formal assessment of your citizenship status, you have the option of applying for proof of Canadian citizenship.

As CIC points out, for people who were born in Canada, an official birth certificate from their province or territory is often sufficient to prove citizenship. Those individuals, as well as people born outside of Canada, can also apply for a citizenship certificate.

Comments / critique

Citizenship is a complex issue. This online tool, which I see as a form of decision guide (though not strictly speaking a decision table), restricts itself to a single, easily-understood question: am I a Canadian citizen? What’s more, because of the many factors that may pertain, the best answer it produces is “likely so.”

When I answered some of the questions differently, this was the result:

Based on the information you provided, it appears that you are not a Canadian citizen.

That was followed by a list of seven possible reasons (e.g., “you are in the second or subsequent generation born outside Canada to a Canadian parent on or after April 17, 2009″).

So regardless of your citizenship status, the tool doesn’t pretend to give the ultimate decision; it simply explains what’s likely to be the case.

Shoreline assessment job aid

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an Emergency Response Division concerned with the release of oil or chemicals into the environment, such as after an oil spill or natural disaster. An early step in the response is a shoreline assessment to determine facts about the contamination and to “support decision making for shoreline cleanup.”

As a visual guide to such assessment, NOAA developed its Shoreline Assessment Job Aid (PDF). Most of the job aid consists of photos illustrating such things as:

  • Amount of coverage by surface oil
  • Thickness of surface oil
  • Type of surface oil
  • Type of subsurface oil
  • Types of sediment
  • Types of shoreline

Here’s an example: photos showing amounts of coverage by surface oil.

From the Shoreline Assessment job aid; click to enlarge.

There’s also material related to beach profile (e.g., elements of a gravel beach versus a sand beach) and to more than a dozen different clean-up methods.

Since it’s made up mostly of examples and descriptions, I consider this a reference job aid.

What’s the accomplishment?

The purpose of the job aid is to have assessment team members produce consistent, accurate descriptions about the amount of contamination in a shoreline habitat.

As the job aid says, cleanup methods depend on field data about the type and degree of contamination.

Who’s the performer?

The assessment team can include the federal on-scene coordinator, NOAA scientific support staff, state on-scene coordinators, federal and state resource managers, representatives of the responsible party, landowners, and others.

Comments 

Members of an assessment team need to be in reasonable agreement as they carry out their assessment. To aid that, the job aid includes guidance to help people estimate the relative percentage of coverage.  I’ve combined two charts into one for this illustration; the square examples in the upper portion are for “oil band situations.”  The circular examples below are for “discrete oil deposits such as tarballs.”

percent cover estimate chart

Notice also the practical advice, just above the examples:

Do not spend time trying to get a precise measure of percent cover; the four ranges listed [sporadic, patchy, broken, continuous] are usually sufficient.

The back cover of the job aid includes a 15-centimeter ruler:

back coverA similar ruler appears in several examples in the job aid:

tarball exampleFurther information

Along with the job aid, NOAA has a Shoreline Assessment Manual that outlines the SCAT system (Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique). That includes a description of team members, roles, and responsibilities; the SCAT method and process; and information about cleanup decisions based on the findings of the assessment.

Screencast.com’s Getting Started Guide

About this job aid

Screencast is an online service that lets people “manage and share videos, images, documents, or anything else online.” In its Help Center, Screencast has more than a dozen how-to guides, including  a succinct Getting Started Guide.

(You don’t need an account to access this PDF, which is nine pages long–including the cover and the table of contents.)

What’s the accomplishment?

The Getting Started Guide helps you do two things:

  • Create a Screencast account (which you need in order to put your content on Screencast)
  • Upload content to a folder so you can share that content online

Who’s the performer?

Anyone who has video. images, documents, PowerPoint presentations, and similar material that they want to share online.

A job aid strategy: letting people decide what help they need

The Guide takes a useful approach to the task of uploading and sharing content on Screencast: two versions of the same job aid. For people who don’t need a lot of explanation, there’s the short version. (You can click the examples below to enlarge the images, which are taken from the downloadable PDF.)

In a hurry? Four steps to sharing.

That’s it–the basics, on a single page.

For people who prefer more detail, there’s a four-page version for the same task. Here’s how it begins:

The first of four pages in the “more detailed” job aid

One aspect of the detailed how-to is the way it handles screen shots. That example you just saw of the first page includes an image of the full-screen library on the left, then a closeup of the Edit Folder window. In other words, they’ve cropped unnecessary detail out of that second image.

They continue in this leave-things-out mode. For example, to help you decide how you’ll share, they crop to only the Privacy section of the Edit Folder. My take is that they’re focusing your attention on just that section, and omitting anything you don’t need to see while you’re deciding on the level of privacy for the content in this folder.

Some people might find this a bit harder to follow than full-screen images, but I think such images are often hard to follow in themselves. They’re small (in order to fit on the page), and typically they’re needlessly cluttered with detail that doesn’t directly relate to the step I’m performing.

Careful weeding of detail is a way to rely on the performer’s intelligence and his interest in accomplishing the task.

Other features of the Guide

The Guide is really a collection of several job aids, and the way it’s laid out is useful for the newcomer. Here’s the overview at the top of page 1, for example:

Screencast.com is a TechSmith solution for business and academic professionals looking to manage and share  videos, images, documents, or anything else online. Whether you have a Free Account or a Pro Account, this Getting  Started Guide will help you get up to speed fast. In this guide, you will find the following topics: Create a Screencast.com Account on page 3. Give Me the Short “How To” on page 4. Give Me the More Detailed “How To” on page 5

A two-sentence overview followed by a three-line summary, and you can figure out what’s in the Guide. The bullet points of that summary do double duty; you can see them as a miniature decision table, helping you decide which part of the Guide you need to use.

The page has a table of nine “terms you should know” — content, embed, library, and so on — that relate directly to uploading and sharing via Screencast.

As a job aid, that table falls into the reference category; you’d use it to learn or remind yourself what “breadcrumb” or “RSS” means in the context of Screencast. Overall, though, I’d put the Getting Started Guide into the procedure category of job aids.

Finally, still one page 1, there’s a box listing other resources, like the Help Center, two other guides (one with “end-to-end workflow” for using Screencast, and an “example case study“).

More about Screencast

Screencast is a TechSmith product, as are SnagIt [for screen captures] and Camtasia [for screen recording and video editing). Screencast comes in two flavors: you can get a free account (2 GB of storage space and 2 GB of monthly uploads), or a pro account with much more space and several additional features.

I’m grateful to TechSmith and to Natalie Ebig Scott, their Global Public Relations Manager, for agreeing to have the Getting Started Guide appear here in the Ensampler.