Brain-Friendly Principles for Document Design

Whether creating Work-as-Prescribed in our documents, or Work-as-Instructed in our training materials, it is important to consider good cognitive practices. If we start from two principles we quickly can start doing some amazing things.

  1. Organize resources so it’s easy to understand. Reduce cognitive load by breaking information down into small, digestible chunks and arranging them into patterns that make sense to the individual. Always start by giving an overview so individuals know how all the smaller chunks fit together.
  2. Use visuals. The brain has an incredible ability to remember visual images so you must exploit that as you look for ways to reinforce key learning points. Create tools that are primarily visual rather than word-based. Use images in place of text (or at least minimize the text). Use videos and animations to help people understand key concepts.

We can drive a lot of effectiveness into our processes by structuring information to make complex documents more transparent and accessible to their users. Visual cues can provide an ‘attention hierarchy’, making sure that what is most important is not overlooked. People tend to find more usable what they find beautiful, and a wall of text simply looks scary, cumbersome, and off-putting for most people. I am a strong advocate of beauty in system design, and I would love to see Quality departments better known for their aesthetic principles and for tying all our documents into good cognitive principles.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory (CLT) can help us understand why people struggle so much in reading and understanding contracts. Developed by John Sweller, while initially studying problem-solving, CLT postulates that learning happens best when information is presented in a way that takes into consideration human cognitive structures. Limited working memory capacity is one of the characteristic aspects of human cognition: thus, comprehension and learning can be facilitated by presenting information in ways minimizing working memory load.

Adapted from Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). ‘Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes’. In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195

Structure and Display

Information structure (how the content is ordered and organized) and information display (how it is visually presented) play a key role in supporting comprehension and performance. A meaningful information structure helps readers preserve continuity, allowing the formation of a useful and easy-to-process mental model. Visual information display facilitates mental model creation by representing information structures and relationships more explicitly, so readers do not have to use cognitive resources to develop a mental model from scratch.

Leveraging in your process/procedure documents

Much of what is considered necessary SOP structure is not based on how people need to find and utilize information. Many of the parts of a document taken for granted (e.g. reference documents, definitions) are relics from paper-based systems. It is past time to reinvent the procedure.

Metrics Plan

A Metrics Plan describes how an organization intends to establish, implement, fund, collect, analyze, and report metrics. A Metrics Plan:

  • Ensures that the correct metrics are collected
  • Ensures that metric analysis and reporting meet all stakeholder needs
  • Ensures that adequate and appropriate resources (e.g., funding, personnel, tools) are available to properly perform metrics implementation, collection, and ongoing support.
  • Ensures that appropriate change management activities are undertaken

This is one of those that can be done at several levels, and it usually has several cuts, from a top-level strategic document to the process owner level to potentially deeper cuts lower in the organization. I am a big fan of each process owner owning their parts and it passing up.

This plan is a critical feed-in to quality management review.

A typical structure of a Metrics plan includes:

  • Strategy
    • Rationale and Desired Outcomes
    • Metrics Framework
    • Success Criteria
  • Implementation Plan
    • Steps, Timelines & Milestones
    • Resources
    • Governance
    • Communication
    • Training
  • Specific Metrics
    • Outcome Mapping
    • Outcome Action Plan
    • ROI Evaluation
    • Routine Analysis & Improvement Evaluation
    • Retirement Plan
  • Data Collection
    • Data Sources
    • Data Flow
    • Resources
    • Reconciliation
  • System & Technology
    • Data Visualization
    • Support
  • Communication Plan
  • Sustainability Plan

Common Ownership Challenges

Process Ownership Challenges

Governance and ownership challenges often arise in an organization for four reasons:

  1. Business stakeholders who resist assuming ownership of their own processes, data and/or knowledge, or have balkanized/siloed accountability
  2. Turf wars or power struggles between groups of stakeholders
  3. Lack of maturity in one or more areas
  4. Resistance to established governance rules

The Business Struggles with Accountability

Processes often have a number of stakeholders, but no apparent owners. This results in opportunity costs as compulsory process changes (e.g. legislative requirements, systems capacity, or company structural changes) or process improvements are not implemented because the business process owner is unaware of the change, or no clear business process owner has been identified which leads to an increase in risk.

Sometimes processes have a number of stakeholders who all think they are the owners of parts of the process or the whole process. When this overlap happens, each supposed owner often identifies their own strategy for the process and issues their own process change instructions to conform to their understanding of the purpose of the business process. These conflicting instructions lead to frustration and confusion by all parties involved.

Lack of accountability in process and system leads to inefficient processes, organizational disharmony, and wasted energy that can be better spent on process improvements.

Turf Wars

Due to silo thinking there can be subdivided processes, owned by different parts of the organization. For example, count how many types of change control your organization has. This requires silos to be broken down, and this takes time.

Lack of Maturity

Governance is challenging if process maturity is uneven across the organization.

Failure to Adhere to Governance

It can be hard to get the business to apply policy and standard consistently.