How to Create Great Internal Products for Your Employees

We’ve all shared the experience of being forced to use an outdated, ugly and entirely frustrating internal product. Clunky time entry applications, overly-customized internal collaborate sites, the learning resources center from hell…you get the picture. The fact of the matter is that internal products get a lot less love than consumer facing products. Business leaders are convinced it doesn’t matter how useful or well-designed the product is because employees will have to use them regardless. The flip side of this story is that designing a great internal product will increase employees’ work efficiency (less errors, more intuitive features, seamless workflows, etc.) and also increase employee satisfaction.

This is what a bad internal product looks like.

Designing internal products is much like designing other products, but it does come with a few special considerations. Some key components to an internal product’s success include emphasizing measurable KPI’s, using real stories over summarized personas and working with management to recruit employees for user research. With the right approach you can help increase employee productivity and those benefits will likely extend to the ultimate goal of a happier customer, I mean employee.

While these large companies are constantly working on building intuitive and beautiful applications for their clients, they focus very little on applications for their internal employees. It’s hard to blame the key decision makers for focusing on the money making products they sell to clients, but the poor user experiences across much of the internal products can be costly. Think about the bad design of Hawaii’s alert system where designers ignored basic UX principles for their internal product. Bad design led to a text message being accidentally sent, causing widespread panic across the state and consequently a loss of trust for a potentially life-saving alert system. Other costs to a bad internal product user experience may be decreased productivity, frustrated employees and over-burdened help desks.

Life impacting internal products like emergency alert systems need better design.

How To Get The Funding You Need

Despite these costs the problem of a bad user experience persists due to the lack of resources devoted and the ignoring of basic product design principles. Let’s consider some of the ways you can fix these problems starting with issue of getting the required funding to do things the right way. One of the hardest parts of making internal products is getting the buy-in from the necessary stakeholders to make the investment in creating a great user experience for internal products. You’ll often hear, “What we make for them[employees] doesn’t matter because they still have to use it.” With limited resources devoted, product teams cut every corner to ship a product ASAP that is by their definition ‘usable’. Fixing this mentality requires some effort in that you will need to meet the business side of the organization halfway by providing clear and measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) for your internal product. You should be able to defend your efforts with a set of measurable improvements for the business.

Time is money, or money is time?

There are plenty of points to be made about why the business should invest in an internal product. Think about the employee who always forgets how to enter their time-off request. The overly complicated payroll application where time off requests are entered is confusing and as such the employee has to call the help desk every time they use the system, wasting his or her time and the help desk personnel’s time…and time is money. A less productive employee is spending less time working on more valuable tasks or they may not be serving others as well as they could be. Apart from these less tangible KPI’s, consider baseline testing your current user experience in an existing application so that when improvements are made it is easy to measure the successes. Those measured successes might be lower time on task, fewer user errors or generally improved usability. Business stakeholders who don’t fully understand UX may respond better to numbers over sentiment, which means SUS scores and even NPS scores can be powerful tools to convince people that investing in internal product user experience is worth the cost.

How To Sway Your Stakeholders

Another consideration for convincing stakeholders to invest in an internal product’s UX is creating user stories. These are real user stories, factual events that exemplify the pain points the employees encounter. Personas are useful when designing a product for a subset of users, but with internal products the users are often known employees, coworkers rather than anonymous users. Instead of generalizing frustrations or motivations, tell a compelling story that illustrates how Janet from HR had lost half of the day’s work because the internal application she uses kept crashing. Tapping into these stories brings context to the product’s design and using emotions like frustration, disappointment, etc. will help prove your point. Stakeholders may relate to these stories themselves or be compelled by their close relationship with Janet from HR to make the investment needed to create a great user experience.

How To Recruit Employees For Product Feedback

After gathering the needed resources with your compelling user stories and KPIs to prove the effort will benefit the business you’re ready to build the product. While most aspects of an internal product’s development will remain the same as any other product there are some special considerations. One aspect that divides the consumer product and internal product is the way research and feedback is gathered. It’s important to consider the fact that just because you’re working with internal employees does not necessarily mean you’re recruiting and user feedback efforts will be easy. In fact, sometimes internal recruiting can be harder because you don’t have any way to compensate participants. On top of that, it’s often not the employee’s choice to participate because their manager decides their schedule.

Having a hard time recruiting employees for feedback? Try sweetening the deal with some free movie tickets.

A good approach to this recruiting problem is to start with getting the manager approval you may need so that taking their employees’ time won’t be an issue. Apart from the recruiting, if you’re simply trying to get feedback on your latest release you need to make the feedback entry process as easy as possible for employees. An easy feedback loop might include feedback opportunities within the product, providing an email address they can send all their issues to or a phone number they can call to vent about broken functionality. Documenting and prioritizing these issues is the product manager’s job so don’t push that onto the user. If you still can’t get the feedback you need then you may want to get creative by offering some sort of compensation for participation like money, gift cards or movie tickets to sweeten the deal. Worst case scenario you can reach out to management to mandate their participation. Internal recruiting can be challenging, but with the right approach you can make sure you get the feedback you need to improve your internal products.

In Conclusion

By gathering buy-in from stakeholders and following the appropriate path to gathering user feedback the work of making a great internal product is already halfway done. The rest of the design and development will follow in typical production fashion. Ironing out the potential problems of budget, buy-in and recruiting from the beginning affords the luxury of having the resources you need to make a great internal product. The users will be there to give you the feedback you need, while the financial resources will be there to give you the development resources you need. Using an internal product doesn’t have to be a bad experience and when it’s great experience everyone wins from employees to employers to customers. Consider how you might make a great user experience for your internal products and let me know if you have any other ideas. Thanks for reading :)