Artificial Competence

This post will mix a kitchen remodel with some video game nostalgia. Believe it or not, these have something powerful in common. Artificial competence isn’t a bad thing if it gets the job done.

Chances are, you’ve played Super Mario Brothers at some point in your life. Super Mario Brothers is a side-scrolling platform game where you, the player, control Mario. Mario can walk, run and jump through puzzles, defeating enemies using permanent or temporary abilities. The designers of the game strategically placed performance support power-ups throughout the game to provide options for defeating puzzles and enemies. Without these power-ups, tasks within the game are more difficult to accomplish.


A kitchen remodel

We’ve been planning to remodel our kitchen since moving into our townhome 8 years ago. The old pine cabinets and light blue countertop had each overstayed their welcome. This year we took the plunge and decided to do it ourselves. I have some construction skills but had never tackled anything as complex as a kitchen. I was going to need a special kind of magic to get this done without help.

IKEA cabinets seem to be well reviewed and a good value for the money. So we set our budget and started down the DIY path. I started by using an online tool to design the kitchen. Since I’d never designed a kitchen, this was a tremendous help. Start by measuring the room and plugging in the room dimensions. A 3 dimensional model of the room appears as a canvas. A menu of items appears. Dragging the cabinets around the canvas locks them into positions along the wall, providing helpful hints like wall clearance and real-time feedback about how things will look.


When everything was set, I generated a parts list along with the price of the whole kit. The store uses the same configuration to generate a pickup list. Painless and exactly what my better half wanted.

A week or so later, the new floor tiles are in and the kitchen is ready to receive the cabinets. Cabinets stacked in boxes since I picked them up at the IKEA store, yet to be assembled. Breaking open the first box reveals sheets of wood, bags of screws and other hardware, and a set of instructions.

IKEA’s assembly guides are well designed. Each page of the reference contains very little text. Each step is carried with an illustration. I assume this is partly to service their much of their worldwide audience without maintaining a large inventory of guides or redundant sections with varied languages. The manual works quite well without text.


Given that this was my first kitchen remodel, I’m not terribly disappointed with the results. Without performance support, this project probably would have turned out much differently.


Performance Power-ups

Performance support is one of the key reasons that DIY industries, like home improvement, have exploded. These “power-ups” enable people to do, fix, and build things without prior experience and, in most cases, without assistance. Technology has changed the nature of and access we have to these power-ups. Most of us access these power-ups every day to get things done. Google and YouTube are just two of the many tools that shorten the reach mere mortals have to performance supports and the capability boost they provide. If you run into a task challenge, chances are you’ll find the answer you need with the magical help of the internet. Pretty amazing stuff.


The focus in L&D also appears to be shifting away from design for courseware content. There seems to be a movement toward an intentional effort to design performance supports like references and resources that temporarily boost human capacity. Little nudges that bump folks into skill range and enable competent performance of a task.

Do we have a shared concept for these things?

This week I had a few conversations related to performance supports and job aids. It seems to me that folks like us in the L&D industry don’t take complete advantage of simple and cost effective solutions like job aids. Could we have a lexicon problem that contributes to misalignment and miscommunication? Could we have a purism problem that excludes job aids from “training stuff”, assuming the two work at cross purposes? I think that’s part of it.

Here’s the way I think of the relationship between performance supports and job aids:


A job aid is performance support, but not all performance supports are job aids. It seems important to have a common lexicon / arrangement and definition to make it easier for practitioners to talk about this stuff. I wouldn’t get too academic or nutty about purist definitions but having some sense of what fits where is helpful. Thankfully, this most of this groundwork is already in place.

Performance Supports – A broad class of solutions that can include job aids, tools, electronic performance support, references, and orientation resources that might be used before or during task performance. This encompasses a full range of “power-ups” that could be encountered before, during, or after task performance and include both tools as well as information. I define tools as performance supports because they can both enable and enhance performance. A better hammer, or a hammer specifically designed for the job may indeed improve your nail driving performance. All of this stuff is part of the same system.

Job Aids – Support a specific task or work activity by providing information to externally boost performance capacity (as a prosthesis for human memory). Job aids are used during task performance.

In A Handbook for Job Aids, Allison Rossett and Jeannette Gauier-Downes outline three categories of job aids:

  • Informational
  • Procedural
  • Decision-making

In Job Aids Basics, Joe Willmore defines ten types or formats of job aids.

  • Reminder
  • Match
  • Step
  • Checklist
  • Worksheet
  • Process Table / Flowchart
  • Decision Table / Step-Action Table
  • Troubleshooting Diagram
  • Data Array
  • Script

Dave Ferguson adds calculator and reference. In the “job aid job aid” table below, I’ve cross referenced Allison and Jeanette’s major categories with Joe and Dave’s formats. I’d be careful not to exclude a specific format from a context. I think there are stronger resonance for some formats than others in certain situations. The situations with strong resonance (my perception) are highlighted in green. Others are highlighted yellow.


When should you build a job aid?

Dave offers some really great stuff here. His series of articles describes a general decision-making process for when to build a job aid as opposed to other methods of support.

I’d keep in mind that just because a job aid is perfectly tuned for situations identified by an algorithm, it doesn’t mean that the job aid can’t also be great when combined with other solution types. In so many instances, a job aid can be dynamite when combined with a training event or as a scaffold (training wheels) that fall away as the performer gains fluency. As a foundation, job aids and other performance supports are outstanding because they can directly support task practice.


When you think about designing or building a job aid, keep in mind the core definition. It’s used while performing the task. Combined with other performance supports, a job aid can significantly boost first time performance (fresh) as well as subsequent performance (refresh). I’d be hard pressed to pass up an opportunity to build performance supports into a solution. Even if your solution is instructor led, don’t dismiss job aids. They can provide a potentially powerful resource both during the learning event and on the job!

Worry that a job aid might short circuit skill development

There is an argument that could be made that a job aid could bridge over the skill, preventing development of that skill. In the case that the job aid fails or isn’t present, this suppression of skill development could be detrimental to task performance.

Take a Turn-by-turn GPS, for example. A pizza delivery guy or gal might use the gps to locate each delivery location, enabling the performer to deliver that pizza within a specific timeframe. Since the performer uses the GPS every time to deliver the pizza, they might not form the mental model of street navigation that would enable performance without the GPS, making the performer completely reliant on a fallible technology.


I think there are a couple of problems with this argument. The first problem is in the design of the solution. If you pride your business on your driver’s ability to solve any problem (even the failure of a GPS), you’ll want to design both the job and the skills around this specific performance goal. Knowing where your off-normal task performance might be and putting the necessary support in place is all part of designing for success. Be careful not to pay more attention to activity than you do accomplishment. As Dave says:

The accomplishment, however, was not “know where you are and what road you should take,” but “arrive [at destination] in a reasonable amount of time”.

Job aids focus on task accomplishment, nothing more. I used the job aid the first two cabinets I built for the new kitchen. After that, I was able to assemble every cabinet, door, and drawer from memory. A job aided experience is still an experience.

Job aids are powerless all by themselves

If people don’t know a job aid exists, the unknown job aid has no power. Likewise, if you deploy a job aid and don’t connect it to additional support venus or other solutions, the job aid will never reach full power.

Take a look at the IKEA manual above. In the first diagram, in the universal language of cartoon, they advise adventurous assemblers to call the support line if they have any questions. Don’t forget to extend the support of the job aid to super charge the resource. Use job aids to scaffold new learning events, to clarify the context of new concepts, and to provide resources for use after a learning event has concluded.

Anticipating challenges and designing power-ups

Game designers anticipated challenges Mario might run into as he accomplished tasks in the Mushroom Kingdom. To offer the player a boost, they placed performance enhancers that transformed Mario’s abilities. These provided the player the ability to throw fireballs, run faster, jump higher, fly, or run invincibly through enemies, sending turtles to their doom at breakneck speed.


Just like a game designer, with a little bit of effort, we can anticipate challenges of the performers we serve and provide power-ups. We can provide power-ups like job aids to help folks perform faster, more confidently, and more accurately. Unlike Mario’s magic mushrooms, the effects of our power-ups might just be permanent! Job aids are cool like that. The leap from artificial competence to real competence is shorter than the jump from no competence to real competence, as long as the task is performed well.

Artificial or real, the job gets done with competence. In the end, does it really matter as long as the job is done efficiently and well?

  • Super Mario images property of / copyright Nintendo. Not licensed, assumed fair use in this context. No commercial use, damage, or infringement intended.
  • GPS Image by Humberto Möckel (CC License).

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