Putting Productivity Back Into Software

Organizations realize that their workers ultimately determine the success or failure of any new business software. Unfortunately, nearly all computer software is designed around processing data with little or no consideration of how people need to use it to perform their work tasks. As a result, training, software documentation, and end-user support services have flourished as a way to help users figure out how to work around these systems.

Performance support is about helping to build knowledge and job competency into software design to enable users to be proficient on day one. By focusing on the human side of software design, we can bring job performance into the forefront and multiply its benefits throughout the organization. As a result of implementing this new performance-centered approach to software interface design, companies can reduce or eliminate system training and help desk support, eliminate errors and costly rework, and institutionalize best practice approaches throughout their organization.

Using the scenario of a hypothetical rollout of labor management software, this paper will present the problems encountered by workers trying to learn and use the new system. Offered as an alternative to traditional systems design, this paper will present an overview of performance-centered system design, driving factors in business, and benefits that can be achieved through a performance support approach.

Scenario: A large grocery chain has just rolled out a brand new computer system to 300 of its stores nationwide. The system is to be used in labor management, including the creation of weekly schedules, payroll, and timeclock reporting. The new system is a feature-rich, state-of-the-art software package from a leading commercial software company. If this were a perfect world, there would be no reason to worry. The store managers would be able to turn on the computer the first day it appears on their desktop and immediately begin using it to run their business. They would quickly notice the benefits, such as improved customer service, lower payroll cost, and less time spent in planning. Unfortunately, this simply does not happen.

Instead, the store manager and assistant managers will likely spend the next several weeks or months becoming competent on the system — often at the expense of other job responsibilities. First, they'll take time away from the job to participate in extensive training to learn how to navigate the system and perform their necessary work tasks. After that, the store manager will be on his own. When he has a problem or question, he'll have these choices:

  1. Pull an assistant away from his or her work in hopes of getting an answer;
  2. Call and interrupt another store manager to see how that store handles it;
  3. Wait for a call back from the help desk
  4. Wade through the documentation; or,
  5. Just muddle through and hope he's correct.

Image of confused user
Figure 1 — Typical User in a New System

Whether we like it or not, it's people who ultimately determine the success or failure of any new computer system. Not the people who program the system, but the people who rely on it to get their work done. And when it fails, it often fails miserably. It's estimated that bad software design has cost the US economy about $600 billion. These costs come from work errors, wasted time, rework, redundancy, inefficiencies, and lost business opportunities.

But, instead of fixing the root of the problem, we continue to compensate for poor system design by pouring more money into wide-scale training, software documentation, and end-user support services. Over the past 20 years, entire training organizations have flourished as a way to help users figure out how to work around these business systems.

What's worse, traditional methods of training and support simply are not effective. Training occurs as an event to prepare users for future work tasks. After workers have forgotten or can't adapt generic training to actual work scenarios, remedial support is required and workplace productivity and quality suffers.

For many years, software companies have been working to design computer interfaces that work better and are more user-friendly. Early character-based systems were strong on computing power, but sorely lacking in their ability to reflect the way that people work. The emergence of the graphical user interface (GUI) provided for the first time the ability to design rich interactions, meaningful feedback, and represent the work context. So, why do we still have systems that require so much training and support?

The answer is simple. Today's software systems, to a great degree, are still transaction-driven and data-centric. System design activities focus on designing screens for efficient data entry and information retrieval, with little regard to the job requirements of the worker. As a result, we are faced with an ongoing need to help workers compensate for a system that does not support job performance.

Performance support is an approach to systems design that has emerged over the past ten years. For virtually any system or business process, performance support provides the worker with exactly the right knowledge at the right time in the right way. And performance support isn't just a temporary crutch for the novice user. It provides a system with a low starting point for novice workers, and a high ceiling for experienced users to do the things they want and need to do.

The goal is to design systems that enable optimal human performance, which directly results in achieving the organization's business performance goals. There are two simple principles that embody what performance support is all about:

  1. Design a system's visual interface around the work process and workforce diversity, not just the data.
  2. Embed links to productivity tools that coach, advise, teach, and explain.

Performance support doesn't require technical or programming wizardry. Instead, it leverages existing technologies, such as hypertext, multimedia, and object oriented development, to create rich and intuitive work environments.

Prior to performance support, a worker's competency in performing job tasks was largely dependent on "knowledge in the head," and the ability to transfer that knowledge to the "doing" of the job. Even with typical online help and computer-based training, a worker would be forced to leave the context of their work to get the support needed.

Now, finally, we can provide on-demand access to the necessary tools and information that workers need. Performance-centered systems don't just sit there. Instead, they're designed to anticipate a user's questions and deliver just the right answer at the right moment.

Questions like:

  • Where do I start?
  • What's next?
  • What should this look like?

Performance support has its roots in systems and instructional design, knowledge and hypertext engineering, and usability. But it is the integration of all of these disciplines that results in such a powerful, task-oriented framework of knowledge and productivity tools for the worker.

A performance-centered system has two important components. The first is the task-based, user-focused interface. Not only does this interface present the context and flow of the task to the worker, but it may also monitor their actions in order to:

  • modify or adapt the display
  • provide advice or guidance
  • give positive feedback
  • automatically display a coach, help, or tip
  • provide remediation and guidance

In addition to the interface, the performance-centered system includes a Knowledge Base, which is a repository of information and guidance. Users access the Knowledge Base through a seamless layer of productivity and learning tools that are integrated within the user interface. While the specific combination of tools may vary based on the need, Figure 3 illustrates the most common types.

productivity flowchart
Figure 2 — Typical Performance Support Tools

Let's look again at our hypothetical labor management system to see how performance support would make a difference. Rick, our store manager, logs onto the system for the first time. Because the system recognizes Rick as a first-time user, it begins a quick "Tour" to show Rick how to get around in the system. Then, the main system screen displays a list of Rick's daily and weekly work activities. Selecting the forecasting and scheduling activity, Rick sees a visual representation of the process, which includes:

  • Planning for the coming week
  • Processing time-off requests
  • Creating a schedule
  • Reviewing and editing the schedule
  • Printing the schedule

When Rick goes into the process, the system asks questions about anticipated events, displays reminders, and makes recommendations to help Rick create the best forecast — even if there are unusual events for which to plan.

When the forecast is complete, the system guides Rick to the next step in the process and recommends the best action to take. As he edits the schedule, Rick is alerted to potential gaps in coverage and cost overruns, and provided with recommendations for adjusting the schedule accordingly. Before he prints the final version, Rick can view a checklist to verify that he has reviewed each important aspect of the schedule.

Taking a performance support approach to business systems can provide immediate and significant benefits. The benefits are especially pronounced during a large-scale system implementation, when an organization is able to:

  • Have workers immediately productive on "day one" of a system's deployment
  • Virtually eliminate all training that focuses on teaching system skills (often as much as 50% of a training budget)
  • Significantly reduce other types of cognitive training and help desk support
  • Minimize disruptions and time scheduled away from work for training

However, the impact of performance support extends far beyond the initial rollout. Performance support can help bridge the gap between novice and expert performers, decrease the time it takes new employees to become proficient, and reduce errors and rework associated with poor performance. It can provide users with advice and guidelines for handling unusual or unfamiliar business situations. It can also reduce the strain on the help desk by providing quick tips and troubleshooting procedures to help users get the results they need.

Performance-centered systems design is an innovative and valid approach for businesses interested in leveraging their investments in information technology.

Performance support has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of training, support, and other implementation costs for any system deployment — and especially large, complex systems. As a result, organizations can raise quality and performance, while lowering costs at the same time.

To learn more about performance support, visit the industry-sponsored Web site, which can be found at http://www.epss.com.