Investing in the digital workplace

Not investing in your customer’s experience would be a huge blunder. So why should your staff be any different?

Give users a better experience, and it’ll benefit your business. It’s the most fundamental ideas of user experience, and the reason our industry is thriving right now.

  • For eccommerce stores, good UX improves sales.
  • For news sites and blogs, good UX increases readership.
  • For customer service applications, good UX reduces overheads on call centres.

And so on.

Over the last decade we’ve seen that businesses who adopt more consumer centric attitudes tend to be more successful. Having great digital experiences is a huge competitive edge.

In spite of this, many businesses still aren’t investing in their internal experiences.

Dealing with crappy internal systems is something most of us are probably used to. Most workplaces are littered with poorly designed digital services .These bad experiences do more than just annoy us. They’re actually costing businesses millions in lost productivity.

Poorly designed internal tools cost businesses millions in lost productivity.

Why are intranets so terrible?

The development of intranets was a task traditionally assigned to IT teams. With design historically being a marketing function in large organisations, UX time was reserved mostly consumer-facing products.

IT do an upstanding job when it comes to platforms, but these internal projects have been lacking design ownership for a long time. As features and content accumulate over the years, it’s only natural that interfaces get convoluted.

Becuase organisations rarely take a holistic view of the digital workspace, experiences can also be wildly inconsistent. Multiple apps and platforms will launch within a business. Many of these serve overlapping purposes, with staff not knowing what they should use and when.

I recently worked with a large business to transform their digital workspace. When coming into the project, we discovered that two separate teams had built and launched their own versions of the same productivity application. Because there was no joined-up design thinking, these sorts of problems were transferred onto the staff. Naturally, people were very confused.

Why do so few businesses invest in the digital workplace?

It’s hard to measure profitability

At least in the short term, anyway. There’s rarely a simple ‘conversion rate’ that we can try to drive up. The goals for internal systems are usually increased productivity and reduced pressure on the HR team. It’s tricky to track these goals back to the application itself, in quantifiable way. When teams can’t share a return on investment, it’s very hard to get senior stakeholders on board.

Internal politics quickly get involved

People can get very personal when it comes to internal communications. After all, for many the business is their life for most of the week. Organisational culture can quickly seep into the product. Design and content decisions are often being driven by those not really qualified to make them.

Staff don’t have a choice

I think this could be the main one. Unlike the general public, there’s no competitor they can go to instead. Unless they leave the business, staff are expected to put up and shut up.

The road to digital transformation

Many businesses are starting to put more focus on their internal digital tools. They’re taking note of how profitable good UX can be for consumer products, and wanting to use these principles to operate more efficiently from within.

This trend has recently gotten me involved in several digital workspace transformation projects for the likes of Tesco, Bupa, Unilever and others.

Though it’s a different kind of product, the way we need to work for internal projects really isn’t that different to normal consumer products.

When planning better digital tools for staff, a user-centrered approach needs to be taken from the start. Rather than head office assuming they know best, normal employees (i.e. the end user) should be involved in the design process. They should be treated just like users of any other technology product.

Listen to your staff

Traditional research methods like questionnaires and surveys work fine, sure. But because our staff and colleagues are so easily accessible, user research is made much more affordable on internal projects.

This is a real bonus for UX designers. User research with consumers can sometimes be a costly activity, but this isn’t the case at all with internal products. In fact, my experience is that staff generally don’t even need incentivising. Having their opinions listened to and respected is usually enough. A case of doughnuts never hurts, though.

When planning a new initiative, give some ordinary staff a bit of time out of their day to attend a kick-off workshop.

Workshops can be great at figuring out what it people really need, and where their frustrations are.

Involving the everyday staff in just a few workshop activities can be enough to identify and prioritise requirements for a new system. When running these workshops make sure to bring a mix of senior and junior staff. Giving the higher paid people an insight to what their teams are saying is incredibly valuable, and helps to put aside opinions and biases that traditionally dominate decisions.

Getting senior stakeholders involves early is also incredibly helpful when it comes to design sign-off. Because they people will likely have a say on the output, it’s good to make them fully aware of the product’s objectives. For that reason alone, I’d highly recommend this kind of collaboration.

If workshops are out of the question, then just having some sneaky observation sessions or casual water-cooler chats can help to handle of people’s frustrations. With your users literally on your doorstep, there’s really no excuse for not listening.

Share your work early

Just like with your initial research, it’s super easy and affordable to conduct user testing for internal projects.

When working with Tesco on their internal digital services, we regularly visited stores to get feedback on our concepts. This involved simply coming in with a wireframe prototype running on a phone or tablet.

We asked staff on the shop floor to spend 10 minutes using the prototype, and share their feedback. Most people were overjoyed to be included in the process, and we had some amazingly insightful feedback that fundamentally improved the design.

By sharing work with staff early, you can be more iterative. Listen to their feedback, and use it to create another version of your design. Bring that new version back, and then ask for their feedback once more. Going through this process makes sure you get it right for the people that matter.

Not only does this process help flag and fix potential issues early, but it’s also a great PR exercise too. Sharing these work-in-progress prototypes builds awareness of the new tools, and helps to create a bit of excitement.

Sharing your design work with ordinary users is so important. In this case, it’s also super easy, too!

It’s all about governance

We’ve talked a lot about the design process - but to do this we’ve got to be enabled by the business itself. In my experience, the key to making all of this magic happen is the right team, and the right governance.

A single group of digital experts to needs to oversee and own all the organisation’s internal tools, regardless of the specific departments or roles who are using them.

It’s the most important thing to ensure a project’s success. Everyone needs to be working towards the same objectives.

One of the most biggest challenges Tesco needed to overcome was consolidation of their internal platforms into a single place. A spider’s web of totally different sites and tools is no good to busy staff. They don’t have time to learn dozens of interfaces, let alone keep track of what’s available to them in the first place.

There are so many elements of the user experience that revolve around consistency :

  • User interface behaviour.
  • Branding and visuals.
  • Language and tone-of-voice.
  • Alignment on actual requirements and priorities.

Before starting a digital transformation project, you’ve got to make sure that the right team is in place. They should be prepared to work across the organisation to implement it in a consistent way.

It’s a long-term goal, but with enough investment you’ll see massive benefits.

A better digital workplace will improve your status not just as an employer, but as more forward-thinking business.

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 7 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris is a freelance UX designer with over seven years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

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