Michael Armstrong, one of the UK’s leading researchers and authors on performance management says in his Handbook of Performance Management that performance management systems must be ‘ridiculously easy to understand’. If not, the system will hinder, rather than help the process of improving performance and developing individuals.

So what is it that makes performance management software ‘ridiculously easy’ to use? Here are 5 things to look out for:

1. Relevant options for the task in hand

People often buy a performance management system because they are impressed by the amount of features it has. However, this can be counter-productive. As a user, if there are too many options when you login to a system, it can feel overwhelming and immediately put you off using it. This is particularly true for performance management as, unlike email or Facebook, most users will only log into the system periodically, so they need to understand straight away what they need to do. Therefore, the number of available system options for the user should be kept to a minimum and any that are not relevant to what the user is doing at that moment should be hidden or deactivated.

2. Clear calls to action

Whenever you visit a well-designed e-commerce website, you will notice that each page has a clear ‘call to action’. These are normally large, coloured buttons with a clear action verb such as ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Start your Free Trial’. They are effective because they encourage the user to take a specific action.

Unfortunately, a lot of software does not use the call to action principle. Users are frequently presented with a number of different options on a page (print, save, save as draft, submit, etc.), often in the form of icons which are not immediately obvious what they are for. That might be OK for something like Microsoft Word that people use daily, as users will eventually work out what to do. But for an employee completing an online performance review, there needs to be an obvious call to action button which clearly explains the next step – e.g. ‘Send for Approval’, ‘Add Comments, ‘Share with your Reviewer’.

3. A simple process

No matter how well designed the software is, if the process that the users have to follow is long-winded or convoluted, they will be put off from following it, or will just pay lip-service to it. So keep your process as simple as possible. If you do performance reviews that have multiple steps (e.g. complete pre-appraisal form > complete final appraisal form > employee sign-off > manager sign-off > senior manager sign-off) ask yourself whether this many steps are really necessary. For example, instead of asking an employee to complete a separate pre-appraisal form, why not just ask them to complete the actual appraisal form in draft and then have the manager finalise it? If you have a senior manager ‘grandfather’ sign-off, why do you need this? If it’s about quality assurance and consistency, you could simply allow senior managers to access any review in their reporting tree and ask them to sense-check a selection of reviews, rather than making them formally sign-off every single one.

You could simplify your performance management system even further by following in the footsteps of companies like Adobe and GE and not have performance reviews at all. Organisations are increasingly replacing traditional performance appraisals with regular check-ins and in-the-moment feedback.

4. Contextual help

It is inevitable that at some point, a user will be unsure of how to do something in the system. This is where context-sensitive help really makes a difference. Whilst most software offers users a ‘help’ option, often this takes them to a menu where they need to browse help pages or search for help. Context-sensitive help on the other hand knows what user is doing that that time and immediately presents them with relevant help for that specific task, without the need to browse or search.

When it comes to performance management, employees and managers only have a limited amount of time to devote to it, so if they can’t find the help they need straight away, they will be inclined to give up. So context-sensitive help is essential.

5. Simple performance review forms

One of the biggest pitfalls in taking a performance review process online is getting carried away with all the possibilities. In the ideal world, you probably want your performance review to meet a number of different goals, for example – assess performance against objectives, assess demonstration of behaviours / values / competencies, capture career aspirations, plan and review personal development, plan forthcoming objectives and priorities, rate overall performance for reward purposes, identify potential, etc.

If you were trying to achieve all of this in a single review, you could easily end up with a monster of a form that takes hours to complete. The performance review then becomes a box-ticking exercise, rather than a high quality discussion. So focus the content of your review or check-in on what’s most important. And remember that you don’t need to capture every element of an appraisal discussion on the form. You can simplify things by giving employees an agenda of items that should be discussed, and use the form to capture the information that genuinely needs to be recorded in writing or needs to be collated centrally for analysis.

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