Assembling an IKEA desk (a complex job aid, part 1)

(Part 1 of 2; here’s Part 2.)

With most of the job aids I’ve discussed on the Ensampler, I’ve focused on a main purpose–the job aid as primarily a reference or primarily a decision-guiding flowchart, for instance.

ikea-galant-frame-coverHere, I’m analyzing a familiar type of job aid: IKEA instructions. I’ve chosen the guide for IKEA’s Galant desk. The goal of this guide is to help someone attach legs to a metal frame, and then attach the frame to a desktop.

Many people think of IKEA instructions as mainly procedural (step-by-step guides). The Galant instructions are more complex—they cover forty pages, so a single guide can help a consumer assemble any of the thirty-two different Galant configurations, based on size, shape, optional extensions, and so on. (You buy the frame, top, extensions, and legs separately; the instructions come with the frame.)

Beyond number of pages, though, what’s significant is how the Galant instructions support several types of accomplishment. I’ve split the discussion into two similar-sized chunks:

Part 1 (this post)

  • Background on the Galant desk
  • The decision guide section of the instructions, to help you find steps for the specific configuration of Galant desk you have,
  • The concise, detailed checklist that shows the quantity and type of each part needed for each combination of frame, top, extension, and legs

Part 2 (the next post)

  • The detailed procedural steps for your specific assembly.

Galant: the Background

While IKEA’s Galant series of office furniture has been replaced by the similar Bekant series, I’m deeply familiar with the Galant; I had the corner desk in my office for years.

Galant corner desk (160 x 120 cm) with side table (80 x 60 cm) to the left

That’s my old desk in the photo. IKEA calls it a left-hand desktop: one piece whose main, rectangular form curves  into a smaller section on the left.

I didn’t join any extensions to mine, but as you’ll see, all the tops were designed to match up with various extensions.

The tops and extensions attach to a metal frame whose components depend on the configuration.  And two types of legs — angled or T-shape — attach to the frame. For a clearer picture of how things come together, here’s a 90-second video of someone assembling a left-hand desk. (The desktop is upside down as the video starts, so the left-hand section is on the right.)

Decisions, decisions

As near as you configure
For the desk you have, see the page indicated.

Page 3 of the instructions is a wordless decision guide: based on the configuration you’ve chosen, turn to page X.

This page shows thirty-two different combinations of desk elements. Like a good reference, though, it organizes and categorizes.

Each row set off by a line contains combinations that follow the same basic assembly steps. The third row down, for example, shows ten different combinations of desk that all follow the steps on page 10.


You could find many approaches to organizing this decision. It’s not hard to imagine an product-centric one that started with the part number for each size of frame. What IKEA has done well here is to focus on the customer’s goal: a particular desk.

The customer likely compared several configurations and so is likely to recognize the one he chose. What’s especially helpful here is that IKEA relies on generalization: each row is a set of distinct  items (the configurations) that leads to the same response (steps for assembly).

Checklist: which, where, and how many

Page 4 of the Galant guide has this chart:


It’s a checklist, dressed up like a reference.

A checklist, because you choose the type of leg, frame, or extension you’re working with, and then read across to see how many parts of each type you need. The focus of a checklist is coverage or completion: make sure you have all these parts.

Here too there’s an assumption that the consumer knows what’s going on.  The last two rows of the page 4 chart are for different types of desk extensions. You wouldn’t have those if you didn’t have the main desk, and so IKEA is relying on you to chunk your part-identification:

  • Parts for the type of leg your desk will have (the first two rows)
  • Parts for the main portion of the frame you’re using (rows three through six)
  • Parts for the extension

In addition, IKEA steps outside strict rules when it comes to parts for the T-leg. There’s a special size of hex wrench for these legs; it’s used to adjust their height. That size isn’t used for any other part in the Galant family, and so that specific wrench (100092) appears in the right-hand column, where you’d expect either a blank or a 1 (which would indicate you needed wrench 108490.


I’m not sure I would have designed this chart that way, but I think it’s effective. Even if you hadn’t started assembling your desk, you’d be likely to say “I should have this particular wrench,” and it would have come in the package with the T-leg.

As I said, the parts chart is a checklist–but if you keep your IKEA instructions, as I do, it’s also a reference. Eight years after purchasing another piece of IKEA office furniture, I was able to get a replacement part because the original instructions told me what the part number was.

(This was Part 1 of 2; here’s Part 2.)

Assembling an IKEA desk (part 2)

(Part 2 of 2; here’s Part 1.)

Procedure: so let’s build a desk

…there’s one foolproof method for turning IKEA rage into grudging respect: assembling almost any other brand of furniture…

To adapt Winston Churchill’s famous quip, IKEA may be the worst form of ready-to-assemble product design we have—except for all the others.

John Pavlus

As noted above, page 3 of the Galant instructions is a decision guide — it directs you to one of seven different sets of procedural steps, depending on the type of desk you’re putting together.

I had a left-handed desk with no extensions; that’s the fourth set of instructions, on pages 16 and 17.

You can see those are typical IKEA instructions. They demonstrate a careful, specialized approach to guiding performance:

  • No text (a single sentence would have to appear in dozens of languages)
  • Minimalist images (what detail you see matters)
  • Customer focus (the desk, the frame, the legs appear in standard positions and as the assembler would see the actual parts)
  • Call-outs, close-ups, and warnings

Implicit in IKEA instructions are two messages: “You can assemble this item,” and “Here are the details.” Those messages are related: if you don’t attend to the details, you’ll have trouble assembling the item.

You are here.

Here’s the top of page 16:

If you’re building one of these, you’re on the right page.

The diagram is meant to confirm that you want the instructions for a right-hand desk (top row) or a left-hand one (bottom row), whether you’re using five angled legs (left column) or three T-legs (right column).

Each configuration appears both upright (because that’s your goal) and upside down (because that’s how it’ll look as you work on it).

A complex two-step

If you study pages 16 and 17, you’ll see that there are two main steps: attach the legs to the frame, and attach the frame to the desk. IKEA marks those with a big 1 and 2.

The biggest drawback to IKEA’s wordless style is that there can be a lot of detail in a step. Here’s the main part of step 1 (page 16) to which I’ve added some callouts for commentary.

A: attaching legs to the frame

The diagram shows both kinds of legs so you’ll see how to position them: for the angle legs, one in the corner of the desk and two at each of the remaining ends.  For the T-legs, orientation matters, with the two on the long side of the desk parallel to teach other.

B: details for attaching angle legs

A bolt goes through the frame into the angle leg. Note the closeup: there’s a small tab on the top of the leg that fits onto a hole on the frame. Also, the 5X is a reminder that you have five angle legs to attach.

(I’ll get to the details for T-legs later in this post.)

C: attaching the extension to the frame

Some Galant desks are ordinary rectangles, but the right- and left-handed desks need support for their extensions. The closeup at C shows where two hex-head bolts attach the frame extension to the main frame.

Details matter: if you look closely, you’ll see that the end of the extension that the legs attach to looks different from the end that attached to the main frame. (If you don’t look closely, eventually you’ll discover that the leg end doesn’t have any holes for you to attach it to the main frame.)

D: attaching angle legs to the extension

A pointing hand draws attention to the closeness of the legs for the extension. (Compare them with the two legs at the far end of the main section.) There’s even an X-ed out “not this way” diagram to reinforce the point.

The short version:

  • Position each angle leg and bolt it to the frame.
  • Position the frame extension and bolt it to the main frame.

At the bottom of page 16, you find two boxed items; each directs you elsewhere for a specific sub-procedure.

The left-hand diagram sends you to page 40 to see how to adjust the height of your desk, regardless of type of leg. Personally, I might have put this particular procedure on page 17, after you’ve attached the frame to the desk.

The right-hand diagram sends you to page 5. That has the steps for assembling the T-legs and for attaching them to the frame.

Attaching the frame

Attaching the frame to the desk is straightforward: eight screws, as indicated on the diagram.

The less-obvious part of this step involves putting plastic caps over the open ends of the metal frames: four on the main frame, two on the extension.

Here, too, callouts and a don’t-do-this diagram to show there’s a right way to attach the caps. (The small arrow, in the middle of the three circles, shows a little notch you can slip a screwdriver into to easily remove the cap.)

Desk work

Why spend so much time analyzing a set of IKEA instructions?

I think the Galant guide is a highly effective approach to supporting detailed accomplishments. IKEA’s worldwide market necessitates a wordless approach to such support. That has its drawbacks–I know I’ve misread IKEA instructions more than once. Almost always, though, I can back up, undo the error, and get things right.

What’s more, the IKEA format is kind of do-it-yourself cultural artifact, and once you’ve put together a couple of IKEA items, you’ve learned through experience to pay attention to details like hole size, spacing, and position of part.

By the way, there’s also a thriving culture of IKEA hacks–people going far beyond the instruction guide. Here are over a dozen hacks just for the Galant, including someone’s megadesk that’s 25 feet long, not including 12 extra feet of shelving made from yet more Galant parts.

(This was Part 2 of 2; here’s Part 1.)

Weather-Temperature Conversion

About the chart

Last year I traveled to a U.S.-based conference, the first time I’ve done so since moving back to Canada. It’s easy for Americans to forget that Canadians routinely use the metric system every day (gasoline in litres, road trips in kilometers, and temperature in degrees Celsius).

An American business traveler high up in a Vancouver hotel looks out one morning, sees nothing but clouds. He calls the front desk and asks about the weather.

“Cloudy all day, no rain, and a high of 14.”

After a pause, the traveler asks, “What temperature is that really?

Mostly as a way of connecting with other Canadians at the conference, I came up with this chart:

What's the temperature REALLY?

Reference job aids like this aren’t geared to a specific task the way worksheets or procedure job aids are. This is a way to organize information so someone who has a general idea of today’s temperature in degrees Fahrenheit can figure out the Celsius equivalent.

Who’s referring to this, and why?

As Thomas and Marilyn Gilbert pointed out, when it comes to weather people don’t want to solve a mathematical equation; they want to know if they need a jacket. Explaining Celsius to Fahrenheit users, the Gilberts gave examples like 20 is plenty (“room temperature,” 68° F) and 30 is thirsty (“a thirsty hot summer day in New York,”  86° F).

The audience I had in mind was Celsius users attending a conference in Las Vegas. I wanted to offer a quick way to figure out the approximate temperature. Most of the time, in most of the U.S., a Fahrenheit range of 0 to 100 covers any temperature they’ll run into. Anything off the chart is way too cold or, as you see, too damned hot.

Two-way conversion? Maybe two charts

If you want, you can read right-to-left on the chart to see what 27° Fahrenheit is in Celsius. That’s less than optimal, I think. Typically we don’t read in that direction, and the examples in Fahrenheit aren’t as easily read as those in Celsius.

The flip side of C-to-F conversion for weather range temperature:

What temperature is it REALLY?

More to come

You’ve noticed the mnemonics in the chart; three of them in the C-to-F version came directly from the Gilberts. From a pure-reference viewpoint, they’re unnecessary, but as an aid to recall they offer a lot of potential.

I’ll return to that concept, along with some design-for-reference ideas, in a future post.



Makeover: a tech reference job aid

This is the first in an occasional series in which I’ll improve an existing job aid and explain the reasons for the changes.

The original

Weight Monitor indicator lights (original)This is a fictionalized version of a table found in a user manual for some electronic equipment. I’ve changed details to refer to the (imaginary) MacLellan Weight Monitor, a type of checkweigher. The Weight Monitor checks the weight of boxes of pharmaceuticals on a packaging line.  (I’ve put some background at the end of this post, but it’s not essential to the job aid makeover.)

The original job aid is a reference to show various statuses that the Weight Monitor can have, as well as the indicator lights that display for each status. I’ve rewritten some of the statuses here, but the language of the original is similar.

Weak points

What’s wrong with the original?

PurposeWhat’s the table for?

A technician might say “it tells you what status the different lights represent,” but the way it’s set up, it really tell you “if the status is X, then the lights will be Y.” On the job, the user can already see the lights; he wants to know what they mean.

Language: It’s not obvious from the table, but the typical user will not be familiar with terms like initialization, configuration, to say nothing of parameter failure. Too many engineers, not enough packaging line operators.

Title: not  helpful. As is, could just as well be left off.

Organization:  How is this table organized? Not by sequence, not by frequency, not alphabetical by status, and not alphabetical by color.

The makeover
What and why

Purpose: explain what the Weight Monitor’s lights mean.

The new version shows the when/then principle in action: start with what the worker sees or receives or experiences — in this case, the colors of the lights. So colors go on the left: “WHEN the light is flashing red…”

Once you have the color, you move to the meaning: “THEN there’s a jam where the packages exit the Weight Monitor.”

In the original version, the layout was backwards: the left column showed meanings, and I had to skim each one and check its color in order to figure out what a flashing red light meant.


Starting with “device status,” which is now “what it means,” I’ve rewritten several items to be clearer from the worker’s point of view. “Parameter failure” was the engineering way to say that a package didn’t fail within the minimum / maximum weight range. Either way, the Weight Monitor will bump the package off the line and flash red and yellow lights. “Package over or under weight” is clearer.


As simple as it seems, “Weight Monitor status” sets the table in context. What the engineers called indicator lights are meant to show the status of the machine in the workplace.

…As for organization, this first draft has the same order (or lack of order) as the original. I can see a number of ways to arrange the rows, such as by sequence in the process. But in a second pass, I went with color:

Makeover, version two


There are a lot of colors here. I decided to put the single colors first, in green-yellow-red order, followed by the combinations. In the case of those multi-color states, “flashing red and yellow,” like most of the items above it, relates to the operation of the packaging line. The last two combinations are one-time indicators that you’d see when you started the device up (initialization) and once you’d entered the programming for the specific item you were packaging (configuration).

Background on the Weight Monitor:

As part of the packaging process, Dosage Pharmaceutical programs the Weight Monitor with an acceptable weight range for one packaging unit. For example, when the line is packaging physician samples for 200-milligram doses of Nullaproxin, the package unit is one carton, and the weight is based on:

– The carton itself, its label, and its seal
– An eight-page information package for the physician
– 24 wallets (the medication sample package given to a patient)

Each wallet is made up of a cardboard case, 14 plastic blisters (thermoplastic bubbles and foil backing), one tablet per blister, and an information sheet for the patient.

Each carton moves onto the Weight Monitor. If the carton is too light or too heavy, based on the configuration for the specific product, the Weight Monitor bumps the package into a bin for a worker to determine and remedy the problem.


HTML Arrows

About HTML Arrows

html arrows home page
Click to enlarge; grid view from

HTML Arrows is a multifaceted reference tool created by The quick summary: it presents codes for displaying symbols in a number of different formats. In the screen shot above, on the left, you see the left-arrow symbol ( ← ). Beneath it are the formats for unicode, hex (or hexadecimal) code,  and HTML code and entity.

At the top of the screen is a menu to take you to subsets of symbols: arrows, currency, letters, mathematical symbols, numbers, punctuation, and other symbols.

In the row just below that menu, there’s a search function and controls to switch from grid style (what you see above) to table style (below).

html arrows table style
Click to enlarge; table view from

What’s the accomplishment?

References job aids don’t guide a specific task; they’re not a procedure like a recipe, and they’re not helping you make a particular decision. The goal of a reference job aid is to organize information that the intended audience can use in a number of ways.

I see two main categories of reference job aids:

  • Recall: these references present clusters of information (like the Articulate keyboard shortcuts), or indexes (like dictionaries or tables of codes).
  • Callout: these references either decode information (the fields on a form, the parts of an engine) or organize information spatially (like a you-are-here diagram or a geographic map)

I’d put HTML Arrows in the recall camp. In fact, though, calling it a list is like calling a 777 a vehicle.

Who’s the performer?

Someone needing to know the code for a particular format (“What’s the HTML for the capital cedilla [ Ç ] ?”). And, likely, someone browsing a category to see whether there’s a symbol (like for the Thai bhat).


Alexander Dixon, one of the creators HTML Arrows kindly shared some background. He and his friend, in their web design roles, often needed some of these codes. “We thought it would be a fun design challenge to quickly build our own version; the highly typographic nature of the content was exciting — which surprisingly none of the sites we had found really embraced.”

The table layout, he says, delivers a conventional list that might be faster for advanced users; the grid is very easy to navigate visually.

The feedback so far has been really positive, most suggestions are for additional symbol sets on the homepage or main sub-pages.

The value we believe the site brings is in the focus on typography and color to create clear visual hierarchies for both navigation and page elements, the structure of which we derived from the HTML character sets and symbols themselves.

…We’re excited people have found the site helpful, and it’s very cool to see that it can be useful in ways other than simply as a character reference.

My comments

As I told Dixon, this is an stellar example of a job aid. I’m especially glad to talk about it here since it dispells the job-aids-must-be-small myth.

Beyond that, it shows how powerful and appropriate a digital job aid can be. I’m not opposed to paper (you should see my workspace as I write this). 50 years ago, in fact,  if you’d wanted an index of symbols (so you’d know what § was called, say), you’d have needed a pretty heft manual and been happy to find it.

Zeppelin has harnessed the power of code to deliver lots of functionality, almost effortlessly:

  • Swap between grid format and table format.
  • Choose subcategories via the main menu (arrows, currency, letters, and so on)
  • A search function (“…a final element we wished existed on more of the sites we used…”)

In addition, you can click an individual symbol for a close-up that includes (in this case) an HTML example and a CSS example.

html arrows euro sign

Articulate Storyline keyboard shortcuts

Mike Taylor (@tmiket) recently shared a link to a collection of shortcuts for Articulate Storyline. (You can register as a member of the Articulate community at no charge and then download the shortcuts.)

I liked the look of the guide to keyboard shortcuts and asked Mike if I could include it in the collection here.

Keyboard shortcuts for Articulate Storyline

About this job aid

I see this as a reference job aid — one intended to organize information rather than to guide someone through a particular task.

What’s the accomplishment?

Since it’s not designed with a specific task in mind, a reference job aid’s accomplishment is aiding recall. In my opinion, that recall is contextual: I’m trying to remember how to work with text in Storyline–or even more specifically, how to right-align text. Or I want to work with the slide master.

The challenge in creating a reference job aid is to figure out the most useful contexts and group the individual elements accordingly.

Who’s the performer?

Given the general nature of a reference job aid, this collection of keyboard shortcuts is useful for anyone already familiar with Storyline. It might also be useful for someone who’d used similar products like Captivate or Lectora: if I know how to preview my project in Captivate, can I do something like that with Storyline, and if so, how?

Comments / critique

I talked with Mike Taylor a bit via Twitter and email. He said his inspiration “was basically a make over of list of shortcuts that didn’t have any type or logical organization. I tried to group them into categories based on what type of tasks they were related to.”

Notice that the colored groupings don’t depend solely on color for their meaning. Each grouping has a title and a separate icon.

A small but helpful detail: the alternating colored background in each group of shortcuts. Within a group, the individual elements are all single-line items: a description of a function, followed by its key combination. The line-by-line change in shading helps to emphasize individual items, and I think does so less obtrusively than black dividing lines (borders) would.

See if you agree:

Watching the border

Other stuff

I use a lot of keyboard shortcuts. When I first saw the Storyline job aid, I immediately thought of a somewhat older example that’s been in my collection for years: a quick-reference guide for Borland Sidekick (and probably a lot of other Borland products as well).

Borland quick reference

In the upper portion of this example, the designer is using what was once called the WordStar diamond. On a QWERTY keyboard, the letters E, D, X, and S form a slightly slanted diamond. Back before people used mice, some power users preferred to keep their fingers on the typing keys rather than the cursor arrows, and so the Ctrl-xx combinations were a way to change the cursor position.

The “outer diamond” was like a turbo boost: Ctrl-D shifted you one character to the right; Ctrl-F shifted you one word.

Notice also the block commands in the lower right, which harken back to MicroPro’s WordStar and probably to programs before that. It seems clear to me that Ctrl-K-C (“copy the currently marked block”)  and Ctrl-K-V (“move the currently marked block to where the cursor is”) are direct ancestors of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V today, though Ctrl-K-Y (“delete”) became Ctrl-X.

I’m grateful to Mike for sharing this job aid. He’s generous with his time and his ideas, as you’ll see at his blog and at Work Smarter, Not Harder, his collection of tips.

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.


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.

Verb2Verbe – online conjugation

Verb2Verbe is a website for checking the conjugations of verbs in French or in English. When you reach the site, you can enter any conjugation of a verb in French or in English (spokes, she speaks, elles parlaient).

The result is a display with a conjugation for each person, tense, and mood of the verb.

(Click the image below  to see the actual display for the French verb connaître.)

This powerful example of a reference job aid has a number of useful features:

  • The title of the results page includes links to conjugations of the verb’s equivalents in the other language.
    • For example, the page for the English verb to know will have links to two French verbs: savoir (which usually means to know things) and  connaître (to know or be acquainted with people).
  • You can click the round icon with a T beside each group of conjugations to get an item-by-item translation in the other language.
  • An input form allows you to input a new verb in either language.

Reference job aids usually don’t support one specific task. Instead, they tend to organize and present interrelated pieces of information in a way that reduces the time required for someone to remember or research it.

Layout for a cell at Alcatraz

Reference job aid is a term I use for any job aid that collects or lays out information so that someone can look up a meaning, decode an example, or perform other kinds of work with facts.

The image below and its accompanying table of callouts are taken from the Institution Rules and Regulations for the former United States penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, California.    As the regulations make clear, an inmate was entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.  Anything else was a privilege and could be revoked.

Who used this job aid?

My guess is: guards, to explain to inmates how their cells were to be organized, and to make certain that cells conformed to the rules.  Also, possibly, the inmates themselves, though I have a suspicion it would be more to justify some claim:  “Hey, I’m allowed to have up to twelve books.”

What was the task it supported?

Most likely, it was a reference for what can someone have in his cell?  What is he not allowed to have?  (In the latter case, if an item is not pictured here, it’s not permitted.  This is one way to for you to be certain that Robert Stroud, despite the title of a movie, never kept birds while at Alcatraz.

Apparently as a title The Birdman of Leavenworth didn’t sound as dramatic.

(Click to enlarge)

(Based on Job aid: reference for cell layout
published on Dave’s Whiteboard.) 

PHP cheat sheet

Dave Child, a web developer in the UK, is a a creator and an advocate of cheat sheets — his term for quick reference guides.  He’s also the founder of Cheatography, a site which helps people create and share on-the-job guides like the PHP Cheat Sheet (link is to a PDF version).

Image links to

Who uses this job aid?

PHP is “a general-purpose server-side scripting language” used to produce dynamic web pages. The person using this cheat sheet is most likely competent in working with PHP.  Not that a neophyte can’t benefit at all, but such a person probably lacks a good deal of helpful context.

What’s the task it supports?

This is an example of what I call a reference job aid.  It doesn’t guide a specific task, the way the fire-shelter inspection guide does. Instead, it organizes certain information in a way that’s helpful in a number of different but related situations: often a quick look at the job aid is sufficient. You aren’t sure of the code if you want a long month name (“September”) versus a short one (Sep).  Or you want to check the syntax of a regular expression function.  So you go to the cheat sheet.

(Tangent: In my experience, organizations that frown on terms like “cheat sheet” aren’t usually strongholds of effective on-the-job support.  All the more so if the people doing actual work refer to their quick reference materials as cheat sheets–and wouldn’t dream of letting someone take them away.)

One challenge in creating a reference job aid is deciding what information to include (and what to deliberately leave out) and how to organize it. The PHP cheat sheet uses boxes and subtitles as an organizing principle. Here’s Dave Child’s own description of how he came up with the first version:

I wrote the first one waaaaay back in 2005 because I was visiting the PHP manual so often for the same information. I’d started printing pages from the manual and jotting notes down all over my desk, and eventually decided this was just silly and organised all the notes into one page. The layout wasn’t really planned at that point.

This is the way a lot of job aids begin, especially ones for reference: people note the things that are helpful to them, but that they don’t seem to remember.  If you’re looking to support the performance of others, spend some time trying to find out what’s on homebrew job aids.  They may not have the best design; they may even include errors or misconceptions. But they invariably highlight information that the person (a) sees as important and (b) has trouble keeping in memory.

(Based on Job aid: the PHP Cheat Sheet
posed at Dave’s Whiteboard on June 13, 2012)