What makes a good practice guide good?

A couple of the projects I have been working on recently have involved written guides for practitioners. You know the kind of thing: ‘Tips for effective social work practice’, ‘How to communicate well’, ‘A guide to public engagement for planners’ (I made those up by the way).

They might be produced by public bodies, academics, charities or think tanks. They might come from the corporate centre or from the team leader.

In all of these cases, the assumption is that practitioners will read, digest the contents and, because they find them helpful, improve what they do as a result.

However, for those producing these guides there are design choices to be made.

Design choices for practice guides

Style is one choice. It could be written in the first person, informally or journalistically, for example. On the other hand, it could be written third person, formally and technically.

Another choice is around the strength of advice. At one end of the scale they might be highly prescriptive. At the other end more like a discussion document; summarising research and posing questions rather than offering something definitive.

A further choice is about how the guide is intended to be used. The default would be that the guide is simply to be read by the individual practitioner who makes their own choices about how they use it. Or it could be a reference book that you check when you need to — what Dr Anonymous calls a ‘go-to’ (you go-to it when you need to). In contrast a ‘workbook’ approach might be recommended — whereby the practitioner works through step by step, building knowledge along the way. Finally, a group appproach might be suggested — this might be more fitting for a discussion type guide — where conversation and debate are intended to help engagement with key ideas and topics.

A final choice is about the foundation for the advice. Is it a guide to effectiveness — prescribing what works best to do a specific thing? Is it a guide to appropriateness — suggesting what the right thing to do is (in a moral sense)? Or is it a guide to safe performance — showing how to avoid problems and pitfalls? Or maybe any combination of the above?

Who is the guide for?

The choices made by those producing guides are likley to reflect the assumptions they have about the end user and the end user’s professional role. Sometimes these assumptions may be well founded, other times not so much.

Either way I think it helps to imagine an end user for a guide. Perhaps it’s worth creating a persona for the person it is being written for.

I’ve been wondering if a travel guide comparison might be helpful to distinguish different types of user, for example:

  • Package holiday maker — wants everything set out with certainty and organised in clear steps; a nice clear itinerary.
  • Independent traveller — wants a rough guide that they can ‘go-to’. Says where is good to visit and eat and what to do if your bag is stollen. But leaves plenty of room for choice.
  • Intrepid explorer — wants to know where is good to go, and what to look out for, but happy to take risks and try things out by themselves.

How is it going to be produced?

Another area of choice is around how the guide is developed. By a lone researcher? A research team? A cross organisational partnership?

Or should it be co-designed with those who are actually going to use it. This might be the best model — I would love to hear examples of this being done in practice.

Questions for further research

Here are some questions I think it would be useful to answer:

Are these guides actually being used?

Would be good to know, yes? Would be nice to hear the results of evaluations perhaps.

Why do practitioners reach for these guides?

Is it only when they are stuck, as part of ongoing professional development or because they have been marketed in a way that meets a specific need? Also useful to know why they don’t.

How are practitioners actually using these guides?

It would be great to see some user research to discover exactly how people use these guides, what they are trying to do and how successful they are.

Which guides have been most successful?

If we knew that we could find out why and perhaps get some inspiration.

I’d be amazed if there was one best way to do this. My working assumption would be that different approaches are needed for different groups of public servants and different circumstances. It would certainly help to learn more.