One of the most brilliant cognitive aids devised by some very smart humans is the checklist. Hidden in this deceptively simple format is a type of performance support that has saved lives in the air and on the operating room table. Forward thinking hospitals use checklists to stop the spread of hospital-based infections. Human factors engineers use them to design and develop products. Recruiters use them to evaluate candidates.
Checklists Are a Cognitive Aid
Checklists, as you know, are predefined lists of tasks or behaviors. People use checklists as a guide when an activity has too many elements or is too intricate to remember. This qualifies it as a cognitive aid.
The first checklist was created in 1935 by a group of pilots in the aftermath of a fatal plane crash caused by pilot error. At that time, a highly experienced pilot was flying a new plane with a more complex system than anyone had previously used. The required tasks for take-off outstripped the capabilities of human memory, causing the pilot to forget one critical task. After this episode, the checklist was born to prevent a similar fatal mistake from happening again.
Checklists work well for both novices and experts because they free up brain resources, sparing the user from having to remember every element of a process or every item to verify. The more complex the task, the more important it is to have a checklist for reducing errors.
Benefits of Checklists
Checklists have a lot of value. See if you know of another format that matches these benefits outlined by Stanton & Salmon (2013):
- Inexpensive to create
- Easy to use
- Easy to apply
- Easy to adapt for another purpose
- Reduces errors
- Provides immediate benefits during use
Checklists can be created and used on paper or online. They are as good for making time-critical decisions as they are for methodically going through a step-by-step procedure. They can work in any field that requires more working memory than humans possess—from customer support to auto repair to the practice of medicine.
Disadvantages of Checklists
- Checklists can be incomplete
- They may be difficult to use in some situations
- There is a risk of simplification
- Experts may be offended at the thought of needing a checklist
Types of Checklists
If you’re not sure whether a checklist will improve the performance results of your current or future projects, look at the different purposes they can have. This list was modified from human factor engineering checklists.
- Step-by-step Procedures: These take a person through a complex procedure in order to minimize errors.
- Verification and Inspection: These allow someone to check that a task has been done correctly for inspection purposes.
- Evaluation: An Evaluation checklist allows the user to assess a person or a product. For example, whether someone is a good match for a particular job. Or whether a product has all the components and functions for which you are looking.
- Troubleshooting: A checklist can be used for finding a technical or mechanical error when it lists ways to troubleshoot common problems.
- Observation: This checklist delineates a set of possible behaviors an observer can check off when trying to understand how someone does a task or reacts to certain situations.
Read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right to better understand the value of all types of checlists.
Checklists for Performance Support
Using checklists for performance support is not a new concept. In her book, Job Aids and Performance Support, Allison Rossett explains that for a job aid to qualify as performance support, it must “…house valued information, processes or perspectives that target a need or task.” A simple ‘To-Do’ list may not qualify as performance support, but guiding a worker through a process or helping an analyst evaluate a product to make a decision, will qualify.
Checklists for Replacing Courses
- How to do a simple step-by-step procedure
- How to do an inspection (you may need to add images)
- How to observe and assess behaviors
If the tasks are straightforward or if your audience has enough expertise to view a checklist and understand it, consider replacing the course with a checklist. You could start the checklist with a one-page explanation to add clarification.
Five Resources for Creating Online Checklists
There are many online tools dedicated to creating checklists. Below are some resources for doing this online.
- Brykczynski B. A survey of software inspection checklists. SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes. 1999;24(1):82.
- Christov, C. et. al. Smart Checklists to Improve Healthcare Outcomes. 2016 International Workshop on Software Engineering in Healthcare Systems
- Gawande, A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Picador; Reprint edition, 2011.
- Stanton, N & Salmon, P. Human Factors Method: A Practical Guide for Engineering and Design. CRC Press; 2nd edition, 2013)
- Wilson, C. Credible Checklists and Quality Questionnaires: A User-centered Design Method. Morgan Kaufmann, 2013.