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.
“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.
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.
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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.)
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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.
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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?”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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A recap of those questions:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
The job-aid diagrams are mine. This post is based on material that I originally posted on Dave’s Whiteboard.