ATD Blog

Science of Learning 101: When to Build Performance Support, Part 1

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A colleague recently asked me which is better for driving needed performance: training or performance support (job aids, checklists, documentation, online help, and so forth). Research tells us that the answer is “it depends.” It’s like trying to decide whether board games, online games, or mobile games are better. Better for what? A board game will work best when people are in the same physical location. But you can play online games with people who aren’t in the same location. And finally, when you are waiting somewhere, playing mobile games may help pass the time.

There are certainly other factors, of course, for choosing a game. But I wanted to make the point that there are factors that can make either training or performance support more or less suitable. For example, online application help may work better than a job aid for doing common tasks when the worker is already in the application. Job aids are typically outside of the application. Mobile support is especially valuable for people who travel and need certain information at their fingertips, such as a salesperson who needs to know all the ingredients in certain products when she visits client restaurant.

I’m a strong proponent of building performance support, because it offers numerous benefits. But what does the research say? In this blog post, we’ll discuss when and why performance support is often needed and how performance support and training target different aspects of performance. Next month, we’ll explore when performance support doesn’t work well and how combining training with performance support is often a great solution.

Performance Support Versus Training

Allison Rossett and Lisa Schafer, in their book Job Aids & Performance Support, tell us that performance support is any repository of information that informs and guides planning and action. Performance support should ideally help workers achieve high performance, adds Feng-Ru Sheu, assistant professor of information architecture and knowledge management at Kent State University.

Typical performance support tools include checklists, job aids, decision tools, and templates. More complex performance support includes information about application-specific tasks and wizards, which can complete a task for you, based on provided data. Tax applications are examples of more complex performance support that include less complex performance support.

We also can consider social tools (and the people who use them) as performance support. For example, when I was doing research calculations, a specific set of numbers concerned me. Was the data right or did I mess up the calculation? I talked to my colleague Lesley Price in the United Kingdom. Her answers helped me understand the data.

An essential point is that performance support and training can both support performance on the job. Training is a means, not and end, says Kent Gustafson, professor in the Department of Instructional Technology at The University of Georgia. So, we need to know how and when to use both. If, for example, one of the main reason people don’t perform as desired is because the tools they use are problematic (a common situation), training isn’t the answer—unless it’s training on workarounds.

Training makes the most sense when people do not have the necessary skills and must gain them. But training has many limitations, including typical low transfer of skills from instruction to the workplace, the high likelihood of forgetting (transfer may not last), and the need for fluctuating job skills to meet changeable organizational needs. If we are training people to remember things that cognitive science helps us understand are unlikely to be remembered, performance support is typically used to support memory.

Performance support can overcome these limitations, especially constraints on memory. Gustafson says performance support typically has one of two goals (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Goal of Performance Support


Black box performance support helps the worker do what they need to do quickly and accurately. This type of performance support doesn’t try to improve users’ skills. An example of black box performance support is the tax preparation application I discussed earlier. There is little attempt to teach this information to you so you can do it yourself.

Glass box performance support helps the user learn how to do the task. Examples of glass box performance support includes templates and documentation on how to use them. According to Gustafson, this type of performance support is more difficult to build. An example of glass box performance support includes job aids that help you get up-to-speed on changes to an application. You will be able to use the application without the job aid at some point.

Training and performance can work well together. This is especially true when people need to understand underlying rules and practices but need support when they are just learning a task. For example, a new business travel expenses application may be quite complex. Training helps people understand how it works and what you can and cannot do in the application. But there are many elements that you are likely to not remember (such as airline codes and hotel codes) so performance support is valuable. The steps can be offered in a job aid until they become second nature.

I think of black box and glass box performance support as falling on a continuum (see Figure 2), and see a continuum from do this for me (1), to help me do this (2) to teach me what to do (3). 

Figure 2: Continuum of Black Box to Glass Box Performance Support


When Is Performance Support Especially Valuable?

The primary reason for building performance support is limited human memory. If we could easily remember everything, we wouldn’t need performance support. But human memory simply doesn’t learn a lot of new material quickly. And even when we have learned something, it is sometimes hard to retrieve everything from long-term memory. Well-designed performance support helps people perform as needed despite memory limitations.

We can train people to memorize all the things they need to know and do, but research on transfer of learning from instruction to work shows that this would take a great deal of time and effort. Most organizations are unwilling to have workers spending extended periods practicing remembering.


Performance support is especially useful in the following situations:

  • Infrequently performed tasks.  People perform the task(s) infrequently so it’s difficult to remember what to do. For example, it’s hard to remember the airline and hotel codes for the travel application. But the system is loaded with online help that supplies hotel and airline codes that can be searched by location, alphabetically, and hotels and airlines used before.
  • Changing information or tasks. Information or tasks change regularly. An example is changes to coverage and copays from year to year. An online database that can be searched by name or group could help people find very specific information.
  • Training is overkill. There are tasks that are small or simple and performance support is inexpensive and fits the need. For instance, if there is a new field added to the time reporting system, an onscreen box that opens when the field is filled can provide instructions. Or we can add a wizard that asks a few questions and then inputs the needed data in the field.
  • Training isn’t enough. With information-intensive training, such as product features, training alone is unlikely to help people remember everything. So, training on foundational concepts (such as how each feature works) along with performance support (such as comparison charts, how-to job aids, and decision trees) is typically needed.
  • Outcomes are critical. When there are potentially severe negative consequences for inferior performance such as cleaning hazardous material spill cleanup, performance support can help people do the right things and make the right decisions. A tablet or phone app can renew knowledge and support performance with checklists, job aids, and links to experts.

These examples are not all the situations where performance support is valuable. And there are other instances when performance support makes no sense. I’ll discuss those instances—when to combine training and performance support—next month.

In the meantime, consider information and tasks you teach that are hard to remember when you need to do them. What kind of performance support might be helpful? Is the support you’re thinking of black box or glass box? We’ll pick up from here next month.


Rossett, A. & Schafer, L. (2007). Job Aids & Performance Support, John Wiley & Sons.

Gustafson,  K.L. (2000). Designing technology-based performance support. 40(1), 38-44. 

Sheu, F. (2001). Activity theory framework and cognitive perspectives in designing technology-based support systems. Annual Proceedings of Selected Research and Development [and] Practice Papers at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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Thanks for sharing your insight. Big fan:) And longtime advocate of learning jouneys and learning with and from each other.
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Thanks for this post, Patti. I thought the distinctions were interesting & useful. I have been asked the same question & it still has unexplored dimensions: there’s an element of accessibility to consider- e.g. while sailing there are some things you might YouTube, others that you would want to know by heart. The black/glass box distinction may be under learner control to some degree: e.g. I have used the London Underground map but not learned it -but maybe others have.
Thanks, Nick. Sometimes I oversimplify on purpose to make things more clear (for people who are new). Complex and heavily nuanced issues are difficult to learn otherwise. (But research says it's a good idea to remind people that it's simplified. I try to remember to do that but forget too often.
You are right, it leaves out many nuances. I suspect this issue could be a book or a collection of books. One of my new Make It Learnable books will be on this topic. If I remember. ;-)
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