Nuts and Bolts: Designing for Panic

Written By

Jane Bozarth

November 08, 2016

One of the persistent challenges in our work is finding the line between just enough and too much. We fight scope creep, push against adding on “just this one more thing,” and work to keep stakeholders focused on the tight bits of training that will enable or support performance. I recently saw a new twist on this—something that gave me an aha moment—and thought I’d share.

Last summer, I was lucky to attend a keynote presentation by one of my idols, Eric Meyer of CSS fame. He was describing an emergency with his sick daughter Rebecca being taken by helicopter to a children’s hospital in an unfamiliar city. There was no more room in the helicopter, so Eric was traveling as a passenger in a car en route to the hospital. Working only from his phone, Eric frantically searched the hospital’s website for information about where the helicopter would be landing, what entrance he should use, where he needed to go, what information he might need, and what staff he should ask for. All of this was made harder by the fact that the trip was happening after hours, when public entrances might be closed and usual staff were not likely to be around.

The hospital website offered a lovely home page and a menu with these items:

  • About Us: the hospital’s strategic plan, a list of amenities like music rooms and teen spaces, and the hospital’s most recent annual report
  • Find a Doctor: an alphabetical directory by specialty
  • Patients and Families: information about billing, calendars, and support services
  • News and Events: interesting promotional updates on research relevant to juvenile patients
  • Support the Hospital: how to donate or volunteer

It’s a beautiful site with great information for the average visitor coming for an elective procedure. It’s great information for someone doing comparative research about, say, specialties or clinical trials. It’s not great for the visitor who, in a crisis, needs critical information now. As Eric said, there was no tab for: “My loved one has been rushed to the hospital. Where should I go? What do I need to know, do, bring?”

Missing the affective domain

You know what else is missing? The difference between calm and panic. Even if the parents planning an elective procedure are frightened and filled with dread, they can still sit and review and compare and surf. But the panicked parent—the one in an emergency, who needs help right now, who needs answers quickly, and on top of that is not thinking clearly—is operating from a different place. The site may in fact have that information somewhere, but finding it requires clicking and scanning and scrolling back and using the right keywords—all made harder on a phone during a crisis.

You’ve felt it, too—when you are suddenly locked out of some critical work function with a deadline looming, or when you forgot to submit some something-or-other that endangers your health insurance coverage, or (an example from Eric) when you are leaving for the airport, stop to check in online—and can’t find the reservation you know you made. You have had that frantic feeling kick in. New employees likely have those moments often. So what is the message for the training designer?

How can this help my work?

Be thinking about frustrated or panicked learners. Help them with keywords. Be consistent with language: Is it “hazardous” or “toxic”? Is it “manager” or “team lead”? Help others learn about tagging. In a panic, would you be searching for “time sheet” or “Acme Corporation T.E.A.M. HRIS Portal”?

  • Offer “in an emergency” options or quick links. Consider two- or three-tiered design. I once did a “user guide” version of our policy manual for managers. Each section started with an “If this happens…” job aid; for instance: “If an employee gets hurt at work, you MUST 1. ____ 2.____ 3. ___.” This was followed by a couple-of-paragraphs overview of critical points good for a quick scan, and finished with detailed information if the manager cared to review that in depth.
  • Offer overviews and recaps that users can easily access later, without having to search through a whole course.
  • Include a “Panic” button instead of just “Next” buttons.
  • Offer easily findable, searchable job aids post-training.

Ask:

  • What does the new hire need to know right now, today?
  • What does the manager need to know right now, today?
  • Ask the same questions about job roles or critical incidents.

Remember tricks you know from safety training, like the PASS (pull, aim, squeeze, sweep) acronym for fire extinguisher use. Or the “blue to the sky, orange to the thigh” rule for using an EpiPen autoinjector. Could you build similar mnemonics into other instruction?

Use your influence. Everything we do isn’t necessarily a “training course.” Where you can, try to have input on projects like site or app designs. Try to be involved in conversations around information storage and retrieval. Work with community managers and knowledge managers to find out where people are struggling and how you can help. Talk to the people who answer the initial calls or emails when panic hits.

What might they want to do while they’re freaking out?

I know we’re good at documenting and addressing critical incident information. But are we recognizing the emotion—the feeling of panic or crisis—that may come with it? When approaching your work, think about this quote from Eric Meyer: “I don’t know why they’re here freaking out, but they’re here freaking out. What do I think that they might want to do while they’re freaking out?”

And even if your topic isn’t likely to lend itself to panic, try applying that guideline anyway. When, as a designer, you’re challenged with differentiating must-know versus nice-to-know content, when you are trying to articulate the absolute bare bones of correct or effective performance, see if applying the “what if they’re freaking out?” concept can help you crystallize and better define what you’re after.

Want more?

You can hear Eric’s story here.

See this 2010 Nuts & Bolts column for more tips on determining critical content and cutting extraneous information.

Editor’s note

Enjoy Jane Bozarth’s columns? Then be sure to find her next week at DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo, November 16 – 18 in Las Vegas. Jane will lead sessions on music and the brain and the dynamics of a community of practice, and she’ll participate in a panel on accessibility in eLearning design.

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