elearningpost logo

you are here: articles

The Art of the Quick Reference

First published May 08 2003

Amy Corrigan and Eve Drinis,
Technology Solutions Company


There's something seductive about the promise of the words "quick reference". Perhaps it's the hope that there is a silver bullet to quickly solve our problems. Perhaps it harkens back to baseball card collections. Perhaps we just like gadgets. Whatever the reason, we have found quick reference cards and booklets to be popular with management and end users alike. Here we share some options and considerations for making the most of quick references, both paper and electronic, in a corporate training setting.

What Is a Quick Reference?

Definition: Let's start with a definition. A quick reference is any document or electronic performance support device that provides a concise, targeted crutch for performing specific job-related tasks.

Often, a quick reference will outline a procedure or set of facts using a set of minimal step-by-step instructions and, perhaps, lists of critical values or key conceptual diagrams. The idea is that a quick reference provides a structured means to help an employee perform a task. Quick references are typically a user-friendly shape or format to make them maximally easy to use on the job.

The following are the core elements of a quick reference:

Formats: Quick references can come in many formats, although the most popular are the quick reference card and the quick reference booklet. These are usually reproduced on distinctive paper, such as cardstock, or in a unique size to emphasize that they are different from a full manual. The following is a list of paper-based quick reference formats:

quick reference types

With the ubiquitous addition of the PC to the work environment, electronic formats for quick reference cards are also becoming popular. Examples include "the paper clip guy" from the Microsoft Office products as well as simpler electronic cue cards available in other software packages. The following are electronic formats for quick reference cards:

When Is a Quick Reference Appropriate?

Quick references are appropriate in many circumstances, either as a primary means of performance support or as a supplement to more significant interventions such as training classes. Quick references are particularly effective when supporting the performance of:

What Are the Benefits?

We have developed quick references in dozens of corporate training and performance support situations. Some of the benefits we have found are:

Cost Considerations

With so many format options, there is no formula for calculating the cost of a quick reference. However, you should keep the following in mind when estimating the time it will take you to complete a quick reference project.

How To Sell Quick References To Management

Quick references are a different approach to training materials and performance support. You may need to do some convincing to get management to agree to let you proceed with them. Here are some ways to sell the idea of quick references to management:

What Else Should I Consider?

Impact To Training: One option is to use quick references for training instead of a big, thick manual. You should arrange the quick reference items in process step order and teach them in that order. Be sure that the instructor has supplemental material for class, such as details for relevant examples, exercises that support the processes to be taught, diagrams and other visual aids that can be used to further explain the material.

The benefit of this approach is that providing these instructor notes and graphics still costs less than developing full-blown training manuals. During the class, learners complete the exercises provided by the instructor using the quick reference as a guide, much as they will back on the job. This reinforces when and how the quick reference cards should be used in a work situation. You may also wish to provide a list of additional reference materials for those learners who may wish to learn more.

Impact To Material Maintenance: I can tell you from experience that maintaining a quick reference is much easier than maintaining a full training manual. If your quick reference is being used in place of a full manual, then the impact to material maintenance is to significantly cut the amount of time you will spend maintaining materials.

If your quick reference is created as a supplement, then the quick reference must be included in your maintenance and update procedures. It is important to keep all related items synchronized and up to date. The impact to material maintenance with a supplemental quick reference is to add to the amount of time you will spend maintaining materials.

If your quick reference is made available on-line, you should consider posting it in a non-editable, printer-friendly form such as PDF. If your reference material is context-sensitive, and embedded in a software application there are going to be technical considerations. Especially in the case of large software systems such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) programs, you will need to coordinate with your IT group to get updates posted and properly tagged to be context-sensitive. You will also need to work with your IT group to develop a procedure for handling updates.

Reproduction Considerations: When planning a quick reference project, it's easy to get caught up in the gadgetry of today's modern papers and binding processes. Whatever format you choose should be easy to reproduce in both large and small quantities. While it might be fun to have them printed in four colors at a professional print shop, it will be much easier to update and reprint as necessary if you go with a more basic format.

Don't forget that simply posting documents electronically on your intranet site is also an option. In this case, you can allow your users to print reference materials as they need them. If you pursue this option, remember to use only standard paper sizes that will be available to your end-user community. In addition, if color printers are few and far between at your company, be sure that the graphics and any colors you are using translate well as gray-scale.


Quick reference cards and booklets are great because they are cheaper to produce than a full manual. Most end-users find quick references much easier to use than a bulky manual from class, and, because of this, are more likely to use them. Quick references can help ensure that that your critical tasks are performed correctly.

If you plan correctly, you can make quick references available in your organization using a variety of means, such as embedded as context-sensitive help, posted in printable from an intranet or extranet site, distributed during class, or even via an e-mail with a memo describing a policy change. Well-planned quick references may provide you with the same results as a rigorous training program, and, when used as a supplement to training, improve on-the-job performance more than providing training alone.

Download Quick Reference of this article (PDF, 290kb)


Amy Corrigan is a principal for Technology Solutions Company (TSC) with more than 16 years of experience with highly technical computer systems. For the past 13 years, she has focused on training and documentation related to these systems.

Eve Drinis is a Vice President for TSC. She is a key resource for conducting training, eLearning and organizational readiness assessments, developing successful deployment strategies for TSC clients across the country.

The commenting section is closed for this article.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.