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The Art of the Quick ReferenceFirst 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:
- Focuses on the essentials of a given task or set of information. The user doesn't have to wade through a big binder to find out what to do.
- Can target a specific audience or task in a very focused way.
- Implies that this task is very important.
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:
- Tri-fold card
- Laminated card
- Wallet card
- Small format booklet
- Tabbed flip book
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:
- Electronic cue card
- Printable electronic versions of paper-based quick references
- Context-sensitive electronic performance support
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:
- Infrequent tasks: For example, most workers will fill out a travel expense report only a few times a year. One option is to provide training and practice drills until they are able to do the task from memory. A more efficient use of resources is to support the worker with a quick reference that will help them enter expenses even if they haven't practiced the task repeatedly.
- Simple but important tasks: For example, entering a sales order is typically a fairly simple task, but it must be done correctly each time. Providing a quick reference with steps for each of the most common kinds of sales orders may be a way to increase the percentage of sales orders entered correctly.
- Tasks that apply to a large population (with multiple learning styles): For example, if a company rolls out a new automated timecard system to the entire employee population, a quick reference would be a good supplement to other training interventions. The quick reference card may be enough on its own for a portion of the population. And, it will be a good supplement to other employees who may require more hands-on attention.
- Tasks that apply to a small population (not large enough to justify a full class): For example, only a few employees perform month-end closing in the Accounting Department. Having a quick reference card that provides a minimalist set of instructions for the process may be enough for the person with primary responsibility as well as the backup person.
- Tasks that apply to a population with high turnover: For example, retail positions typically have high employee turnover. Providing a quick reference card for cash register operations is one way to augment one-on-one training.
- Tasks based on step-by-step procedures: For example, the warehouse process of pick, pack and ship and the corresponding entry into computer systems to mark the shipment typically follows a very standard step-by-step process. A quick reference on the topic can concisely convey those steps to all involved in the process.
- Tasks that require criterion-based decision making: For example, some tasks require you to categorize items or other data, such as making journal entries in the general ledger. A quick reference can provide the breakdown of your accounting structure with lists of values in each of the categories. This may be just the crutch that is needed to allow an experienced worker to complete the task with minimal training.
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:
- Lower total reproduction costs than full manuals: Although the price per page is much higher for the cardstock or laminated pages of a quick reference, there are fewer total pages. The cost to reproduce a small booklet or double-sided card can be significantly less than reproducing a full binder and training manual with hundreds of pages. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands of copies and the dollar savings can be significant.
- Easy to use: End users typically find quick references easier to use than full training manuals.
- Long usable life: Although the large binders learners receive in training classes look great on a bookshelf, they are seldom used after class. Quick references, on the other hand, tend to be used for a longer period of time. Not only do they have a longer usable life, but quick references are also referred to more frequently than full training manuals.
- Can tailor each card to the specific audience: Quick references are small and can be reproduced more quickly, so you have the option to tailor each card to the specific audience. Rather than making one large general manual, you can make a series of quick references targeted to specific audiences.
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.
- Must do a more careful analysis on the audience: To ensure that you are capturing the details for them correctly, you must truly understand the characteristics of the audience. Often, you must write more than enough to fill the card and then boil that down to the essential material for the target audience.
- Must edit more carefully than a full manual: In a quick reference, in addition to the content review, you must edit for word count and short, easy-to-read sentences. The intent of a quick reference is that it is quickÑor easily scanned or skimmed.
- Need desktop publishing skills: The layout of a quick reference is typically more complicated and difficult to manage than a standard training manual. The layout may contain multiple columns, complex tables and the need to tightly integrate graphics into the text. If you don't have these skills in house, you may need to go outside your department or company to find them.
- Per-page development costs will be higher than traditional training materials: The cost (in time and money) to develop a single quick reference page is higher than a single page in a full training manual. However, the significant reduction in the number of pages will make the overall project take less time than a full training manual. In a typical large system training project, each instructional designer can produce 5-10 well-tuned training manual pages per day. In that same day, an instructional designer may only be able to produce 1-2 well-tuned quick reference pages. This is because information is so much more concentrated in the quick reference.
- Per-page reproduction costs will be higher for a quick reference: Quick references may require special paper or reproduction treatments such as lamination. They may also be a smaller size of paper and require cutting or special binding techniques. All this will make for a higher per-page reproduction cost for some quick references as compared with typical training manual binders.
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:
- Sneak a couple out there as a "test drive": Use the reactions to these initial few to sell this a viable alternative to full training documentation.
- Capture management's imagination. Mock up a few cards, making them look slick. Color-code them by department or come up with a unique format that it is easy to collect into sets.
- Talk about reduced costs: Although the per-page reproduction cost will be more, the greatly reduced number of pages should bring down your overall reproduction costs. Compare the current reproduction budget for a particular course to the projected reproduction cost using quick reference cards rather than full training binders.
- Talk about "shelf-ware" versus usability: A graphic explanation is the best tool in this case. Drop one of those 3-inch binders full of pages on the desk with a thump and then let your mocked up quick reference waft gently onto the table. Which are you more likely to pick up to use on the job?
- Plan for quick references in the initial training: Paint a picture for management about how quick references can be used in an upcoming training class as an alternative to full training manuals. By training your learners in class to rely on the quick reference, you are making the quick reference even more useful out in the field.
- Explain the popularity with students: Each time we have introduced quick references in a corporate training situation, word has gotten out about their availability. Invariably, non-students request copies of the quick references. This happens much less frequently with full training manuals.
- Site statistics on performance improvement: If you have in-house examples of providing on-the-job references to improve performance, you should use it to help make your case. Some areas to focus on are reduced error rates, better completion times, and fewer "redos" when quick references are used to support workers at their job. For example, at a library near my home, when a quick reference card was developed for properly collecting and recording library fines, balancing the petty cash and tying out the total to the fines listed in the system became a much simpler job. Recording the fines also became much less painful for the staff. However, developing an entire course for fine collection probably would not have produced better results than the quick reference card alone.
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.