Turning Instructional Design Upside Down

This weekend was my town’s annual Arts Festival. As I was wandering around the booths, I ran into a woman who had been in my first 9th grade English class. Fresh out of college, I had a lot of ideas about how learning should work in my classroom. All my students would be brilliant and I would be the best teacher ever. Reality quickly slapped me in the face and I realized I had to make some adjustments to best meet the needs of my students. When I started working in the world of performance support, I had a similar experience. After 15 years of traditional instructional design, I was confident that I knew what I needed to know to design and develop performance support. After all, I was a successful training and development professional. How much different could performance support be? Well, I soon found out it is very different. Yes, the skills you need and the process you follow are similar, but performance support is a completely different mindset. In addition to covering instructional design competencies like needs assessment and audience and task analysis, writing objectives and developing instructional materials, choosing the appropriate media and delivery modes, the performance support designer has to consider performance management competencies (where are learners struggling on-the-job), coaching competencies (how can the performance support solution help them), and knowledge management competencies (what is the best way to organize the solution so that it is easy to find and share knowledge).

In instructional design, a significant amount of time is spent developing learning objectives, identifying how you’re going to evaluate those objectives, what content is appropriate for them, and how to best deliver the content. Even in a performance-based training course, the learning is passive. We tell you what you need to be able to do and when you need to be able to do it. We tell you what you need to know in order to perform and we give you a test to make sure you’ve “got it.” Then we send you back to your desk to try to transfer what you learned in class to your job. With performance support, the user is in control and the performance support is integrated into the user’s workflow. Instead of transferring knowledge from a scripted and staged situation in the classroom, users access procedures they need at the time that they need them. This requires a shift in focus when you’re designing. Instead of trying to tell users everything they need to know in one huge topic, the topics are narrowly focused. As an instructional designer, I might have a generic topic in one of my lessons called “Print documents” that covers everything there is to know about printing documents. As a performance support designer, I still need to address printing documents, but instead of one big topic, I’ll break that into smaller topics specifically targeted to address pain points or places where my target audience has struggled with something. The topics provide support that’s relevant to the user’s context on-the-job. The topic titles incorporate the performance objective and help guide users to the exact topic they need. Maybe it’s “Print a newsletter” or “Print a two-sided document.”

Another shift is in the structure of the solution. Instead of following a traditional structure where supporting knowledge and conceptual information is introduced before the task, performance support starts with the task and everything is built around it to support it. We develop the support in levels: quick steps, detailed steps, supporting knowledge, and resources and organize it into contexts that make sense for the learner. The idea is to get the user in and out of the performance support as quickly as possible and get him back on the job being productive. Depending on the user’s specific need, he may not even get to my beautifully crafted supporting knowledge topic. This can be a very difficult mind shift. I know it was for me. I was used to giving users everything they needed right off the bat.

While the shift was not easy, it has been rewarding to see people’s eyes light up when we show them a simple solution to a performance problem that won’t require people to spend hours and hours sitting in a classroom or going through an online course. So, if you’re a traditional instructional designer thinking about branching out into performance support, I highly recommend the journey. As you start your trip, consider the following:

  • Instead of focusing on what your users need to know and when they need to know it, focus on what they are doing on the job and where they are experiencing pain or problems. This is a good area for performance support.
  • Don’t try to give users everything. Give them just enough to get them started and then provide levels of support if they need more. Help your users help themselves.
  • Organize the solution to match the user’s workflow on the job. The closer the solution maps to what a user does on the job, the easier it is to find the information he needs at the moment of need.
  • When you are providing details, it’s not enough to give users the steps, you need to explain them in context so that the user can understand. This context generally requires the involvement of SMEs. Don’t be afraid to ask them clarifying questions. Providing context is really critical for a performance support solution. Without it, the user may know what the steps are, but not which options to choose or why to choose them. 

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