Employees are Users Too

In the world of UX, or User Experience design, users and their needs are paramount. It’s an entire industry dedicated to empathizing with clients of a product or service, identifying and meeting their needs through painstaking research, extensive testing, shadowing, interviews and studies.

UX is a well-studied and widely-practiced discipline, as evidenced by worldwide conferences, books, and ever-evolving techniques. Photos clockise from top left CC-BY from Flickr users vunguyenphoto, loureiro, knightfoundation and rosenfeldmedia

Organizations are already seeing a lot of benefits from this relatively new discipline. I think we can get even more out of UX.

As a starting point, I think the hallowed title of “user” is something we should bestow much more generously. What I’m getting at is — usability matters for employees, too. In a sense, employees are just as much “users” of a given product or service as are its paying customers. Usability of employee-facing databases, software and tools matters just as much as (maybe even more than) the usability of things seen and touched by the public.

I observed this firsthand in my role at the Cooper Hewitt museum as digital media producer-slash-UX designer, where I worked on many things, including applications used by front desk staff. Much fuss was put into every bit of signage, hardware and software touched and seen by museum visitors, and rightfully so.

Designed by Local Projects, visitor-facing digital touchpoints at the museum were painstakingly crafted & considered.

But slower-than-normal admissions desk transactions and higher-than-normal employee frustration revealed that not enough emphasis was put on internal UX. We jumped to make rapid improvements in both software and ergonomics, leading to shorter admissions waits and happier, more welcoming faces at the front desk (details on that process are well-documented here).

Helping staff is helping customers.

I’m arguing for what I’ll call 360° UX, whereby service providers, whether a museum, a hospital or an on-demand dog-walking app, give equal attention to those inside and outside their organization. For managers who fear that internal UX won’t pay for itself, I’d argue that staff usability bleeds straight into customer happiness in both the short and the long term — and I believe that’s worth it.

Wireframes I created for v2 of an internal-facing application used to pair museum pens with tickets. More info on that whole process at labs.cooperhewitt.org

Non-360° UX — maybe we can call that unidirectional UX —is a costly shortcut. One very extreme example of this attitude in the UX world today is the issue of employee misclassification — when companies illegally call their workers “contractors” instead of “employees,” avoiding the need to pay for benefits required by federal law. According to a recent finding by the California Labor Commission, ride-hailing service Uber was found guilty of doing just this in one (possibly precedent-setting) case. Meanwhile, Uber’s customers receive one of the best on-demand service experiences ever created.

Customers don’t like services that earn them bad karma.

Another example of unidirectional UX is in the recent exposé of the culture of abuse at Amazon, which became the US’s largest retailer by creating one of the best shopping experiences ever designed. But the company can’t seem to apply those same principles internally.

How can it be that organizations that have mastered UX and perfected the arts of customer-facing empathy, responsiveness, and service have so utterly missed the boat when it comes to extending that know-how backstage?

I don’t think it’d be very hard, since many of these organizations already have superb UX teams in-house. Such an effort would likely improve the experience and confidence of paying customers, too. I see it not as an extra cost, but as an incredibly smart investment in organizational sustainability and competitiveness.

Benefits of 360° UX:

  • Recruit and keep better talent.
  • Save $ and time on turnover.
  • Happy employees create happy customers (especially those employees who make direct contact with customers).
  • With better benefits (talking now to the employee misclassifiers) a broader diversity of employees can afford to work for you. Diverse internal perspectives help attract and serve more diverse customer bases.
  • Customers will feel better about using the service. (How many principled customers are actively avoiding services like Amazon, FreshDirect and Uber because of lurking ethical doubts? I think there are many.)

Do service providers need to shortchange every employee and contractor in their path in order to excel? I don’t think so. I refuse to believe that smart service providers can’t afford to do this. Good design concerns itself with the satisfaction, contentment, and delight of employees and customers alike.

“Civil servants, just like people in other sectors, should be able to focus on the work they were hired to do, and not spend hours and hours on the bureaucracy that surrounds it.” — GDS Blog

Here is one great example from the public sector — the UK’s Government Digital Service has started prototyping services that help civil servants do their jobs, treating them as users worthy of research, understanding, and attention.

Another great example of the 360° UX mentality is Slack, a communications tool for teams whose every pixel is designed to make its users happy, right down to the “page load” holding screen.

Employees are greeted cheerfully and thoughtfully when they log in to Slack.

I want a service design world with happy customers and happy employees, contractors, and other laborers. It can be done. And we all know it’s the right thing to do.

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