Types of Electronic Performance Support Systems:
Their Characteristics and Range of Designs

Deborah Alpert Sleight, 1993
Educational Psychology
Michigan State University


An Electronic Performance Support System is, according to Barry Raybould, "a computer-based system that improves worker productivity by providing on-the-job access to integrated information, advice, and learning experiences" (Raybould, 1991). Gloria Gery defines it as "an integrated electronic environment that is available to and easily accessible by each employee and is structured to provide immediate, individualized on-line access to the full range of information, software, guidance, advice and assistance, data, images, tools, and assessment and monitoring systems to permit job performance with minimal support and intervention by others." (Gery, 1989).

Electronic performance support systems are used for:


An electronic performance support system (EPSS) displays some or all of the following characteristics.

Computer-based: EPSSs are computer-based, which is what the &quotelectronic" in their name indicates. There have been older attempts at performance support systems, such as a series of manuals, job aids, and other paper material. But it wasn't until the advent of powerful multimedia computers that optimal performance support could be made possible. Optimal support includes quick and easy access to the information needed at the time the task is being performed.

Access during task: EPSSs provide access to the discrete, specific information needed to perform a task at the time the task is to be performed. This is a two-part characteristic: 1) access to the specific information needed to perform a task, and 2) access to the information at the time the task is to be performed. If one part of this characteristic does not exist, then the characteristic changes and is no longer a performance support characteristic. The discrete, specific information provided may be:

This availability of information, instruction, advice and tools makes much prior training unnecessary.

Used on the job: An EPSS provides information to people at their workstation on the job, or in simulations or other practice of the job. The information is provided at the worker's workstation as the worker sees a need for it. The EPSS can be used in simulations or other practice of the job, so that the worker learns both the information he or she will probably need when doing the job, and how to use the EPSS itself.

Controlled by the worker: The worker decides when and what information is needed. There is no need for a teacher, as the worker is guided by the needs of the task. The motivation is provided by the worker's desire to accomplish the task.

Reduce the need for prior training: The easy availability of the information needed to perform a task reduces the need for much (but probably not all) prior training in order to accomplish the task.

Easily updated: The very nature of an EPSS, that it provides the information needed to perform a task, requires that it be easily updatable, in order to keep the information that it provides current. The computerized nature of an EPSS makes updating faster and easier in some ways than in other media, such as print, video, or audio.

Fast access to information: The user must be able to access the needed information quickly when it is needed on the job. Otherwise the EPSS is no better than a set of manuals, which probably contain the information, but the information is difficult to find when needed.

Irrelevant information not included: The user is able to access only the specific, discrete information needed at that instant, instead of having to wade through loads of irrelevant information to find the few details needed. This is one of the problems with instruction that is not specific to a task; it forces the user to sift through it looking for the details needed. This sifting not only slows the user down, but can result in confusion.

Allow for different levels of knowledge in users: In order to speed up information access and understanding, an EPSS can provide minimal information for those who do not want details, yet, through the hypertext links in the databases and through optional tutorials, provide detail for those who do want more.

Allow for different learning styles: Through multimedia, an EPSS can accommodate users with varied learning styles, thus providing more optimal learning. The same information can be presented in visual, textual, and audio formats, with the user selecting the format.

Integrate information, advice, and learning experiences: An EPSS can integrate information, advice, and learning experiences for the user. For example, a database entry might describe a procedure. The user may not know if the procedure is the proper one to use, so he or she might turn to the advisor to find out. The advisor would ask the user some questions about what he or she needs to accomplish, then would suggest which procedure to use. The user might then access a tutorial on using the procedure, and practice it through a simulation, before actually performing the procedure.

Artificial intelligence: Artificial intelligence is an essential characteristic of EPSSs, according to Carr (Carr, 1992), but not according to Gery. I think that at this early stage of performance support system design and use, AI is not essential, but that eventually it will be one of the defining characteristics of EPSS. This will happen when research on EPSS and on AI has progressed further.

An EPSS is not an absolute system that contains all these characteristics. Rather, different systems will fall on a continuum of these characteristics. An EPSS displaying all these characteristics would be the ideal. Since performance support systems are still young, it is more likely that many will display only the key characteristics.


The key characteristics of EPSS which make them different from other computerized instructions or tools are the first five that were described above:

It is my opinion that these key characteristics are the minimum a program must have in order to called an EPSS. It must be computerized, by definition ("electronic"). It must provide the specific information needed to perform a task, otherwise it would be no different from traditional training, which provides the information needed, but includes irrelevant data as well. It must provide the specific information when it is needed, otherwise there is no difference between it and traditional training, which provides the information, but not when it is needed. It must allow the learner to decide when information is needed, and to access it, otherwise it is no different from teacher-controlled traditional training. And finally, the program must reduce the need for prior training in order to accomplish the task, otherwise why have a performance support system at all?


Defining a range of technologies that could be classified as electronic performance support systems (EPSS) involves defining which and how many EPSS characteristics are necessary and are displayed, and how much of the design is new and how much is based on existing systems.

Perhaps the most important characteristics of an EPSS would be provided by the worker's environment. The work environment would have to allow the worker to decide when information and training is needed, and would have to provide the capability of the worker obtaining that information and training without outside intervention by supervisor or other staff. Management would have to expect the EPSS to provide the worker with certain training specific to job tasks, and thus would not provide that training elsewhere, nor expect the worker to obtain that training anywhere but from the EPSS.

EPSS characteristics have been described above. Let us now turn to an examination of the design of EPSSs.


The extent of the new design refers to how much of the design of the EPSS is new and how much is based on existing systems. According to Gery (Gery, 1993), the extent of the new design can be divided into four categories, listed here from least to most new design:

1) front end to existing system,
2) supplement to existing system,
3) stand-alone tool for specific tasks, and
4) new systems with integrated performance support.

Gery does not define these levels, since they were only mentioned in a brochure for a seminar, so I have added my own definitions to them.

Front end to existing system: Existing systems have usually not been designed for performance support. They may not allow non-linear hypertext links that improve ease of access to information, or may not allow easy updating of information. For this reason, designs that use existing systems are placed lower in the ranking than those that are designed specifically for electronic performance support.

A front end is an interface between a person and a software system. It helps the person to use the system, but it does not change the system itself, nor can it be used apart from the system. Microsoft Windows is a front end to the DOS operating system. It obviates the need for the user to remember DOS commands and syntax. A front end adds functionality to an existing system, but no additional information. It may act as a patch on a system that was not optimally designed for performance support.

Supplement to an existing system: A supplement to an existing system changes the existing system in some way. Hypertext links to a traditional database would be an example of a supplement to an existing system. Hypertext links allow a person to make non-linear connections between pieces of related information. It is like an electronic cross-referenced index, where the user decides what related information to look at next. Hypertext links in a database would permit the user to follow his or her interests in finding information in the database. A supplement may also act as a patch on a system not designed for performance support, although it does make changes within the existing system itself.

Stand-alone tools for specific tasks: Stand-alone tools for specific tasks are small EPSSs that are not built on existing systems, but are designed for narrow, specific tasks. A tutorial on how to use a computer program is an example of a stand-alone tool, since it can be used apart from the program itself, and supports only the use of that particular program.

New systems with integrated performance support: New systems with integrated performance support are designed with no reference to an existing system, and with performance support built in. They support a wide variety of job tasks, instead of narrow ones, as do the stand-alone tools described above. A new EPSS might provide the information, training and advice for all the tasks that a customer support representative would need in order to do his or her job.


In order to describe the range of technologies that could be classified as electronic performance support, both the EPSS characteristics and the extent of the design must be taken into account. This relationship is illustrated in the graph below.



Figure 1: Range of EPS Systems as the Relationship between Their Characteristics and Extent of Design


A minimal EPSS would have the lowest extent of design, and would exhibit only the key EPSS characteristics, no matter if a higher extent or more additional characteristics were needed to support the task or tasks.

A mid-level EPSS would have a higher extent of design, and additional EPSS characteristics beyond the key characteristics, but would not have all the necessary characteristics needed to support the task or tasks.

An optimal EPSS would have the highest extent of design and all the EPSS characteristics needed to support the task or tasks. All the characteristics may not be necessary for optimum support. An optimal EPSS would have the all the characteristics needed, and no unneeded ones.


A minimal EPS system would be a front end that contains only the key EPSS characteristics, is built onto an existing system, does not change the existing system, and cannot stand alone.


A mid-level EPSS would be a supplement to an existing system, and would contain not only the key EPSS characteristics, but additional ones as well. However, it would not contain all the EPSS characteristics needed to provide optimum support for the task or tasks.


An optimal EPSS would not be based on an existing system, but would be designed specifically to contain all the EPSS characteristics necessary to optimally support a task or tasks.

There are many configurations of computer support that can be classified as electronic performance support systems, but they range from low level to optimal support. This description is a brief overview of the current state of the design of such systems.


Carr, C. (1992). Smart Training: The Manager's Guide to Training for Improved Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Gery, G. (1989). The quest for electronic performance support. CBT Directions, July.

Gery, G. (1991). Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and Why to Remake the Workplace through the Strategic Application of Technology. Boston: Weingarten Publications.

Gery, G. (1993). Brochure for the seminar Designing Electronic Performance Support Systems. Chicago: Ziff Institute for Professional Seminars.

Raybould, B. (1991). An EPSS Case Study: Prime Computer. Handout given at the Electronic Performance Support Conference, Atlanta, GA, 1992.

(c) Deborah Alpert Sleight, 1993
Permission is given to reprint for non-profit use providing credit is given.

Deborah Alpert Sleight
Educational Psychology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824