Methods for crafting effective employee-productivity tools and career-growth products

Eric Burns
Aug 16, 2018 · 7 min read

Note: This is a transcript of my talk (watch the 5-minute video) at DisruptHR San Francisco Bay Area.

What is it like to be at a company that goes from 2,000 employees, to 18,000, in just three years?

How do you make good hiring decisions?

Our employee directory, Whober, started as a prototype built at an internal hackathon. It’s now the most visited internal product at Uber.

Making high-quality hiring decisions at scale is always a challenge. You need clear and fair hiring policies, an efficient recruiting process, and — behind it all — robust HR technology. In order to build that technology at Uber, we assembled a Productivity Tools team consisting of engineers, data scientists, researchers, product managers, and designers. Our HR tech has been key as we’ve grown to more than 18,000 employees globally.

Our team has built a mobile-optimized careers site (uber.com/careers) for online job applications, a referrals product, an applicant tracking system, an interview scheduler, and much more. For employee growth, one of our biggest focuses has been launching an internal jobs marketplace.

After spending the last three years focused on building HR tech for ourselves, we’ve learned a lot along the way. I want to share with you five tips for creating customer-obsessed HR tech. Hopefully you can avoid some of our mistakes, and put into practice some of our tactics.

First, you need to start with a vision.

Set a North Star that will guide the team to create the ideal employee experience. Julie Zhuo, a design leader at Facebook, says a North Star should be highly visual. It should show your customers as humans with real problems, and show how your solutions make their lives better.

We sketched storyboards that show what we believe the candidate journey should look like at Uber. Our teammate Ning has a superpower of illustration. She did several storyboards of hiring managers, new employees, and HR directors. We hung these on the wall to serve as reminders of the future that we want to live in.

Before you can realize your vision, you need to define job competencies for each role, at each level.

My colleague Patty used to say, “Competencies are the central nervous system of an organization.” They are critical to screening candidates, making hiring decisions, evaluating performance, and creating effective training.

Articulating competencies isn’t easy to do. It’s hard to write an effective job description. But it has major benefits.

We’re experimenting with a Job Intake form where hiring managers must describe exactly which competencies are required for the role.

With competencies defined and agreed upon, you can conduct structured interviewing where panelists each ask specific, predefined questions designed to effectively evaluate the candidate based on the expectations of the role.

In 2017, on the DisruptHR San Francisco Bay Area stage, Danny Speros, Director of HR Products and Services at Zenefits, did a great job of describing how structured interviewing is proven to reduce bias in hiring and ensure that you find the best candidates. I believe including well-defined competencies is an essential part of this, and that ultimately, you just can’t create customer-obsessed people products without them.

When you start building products, you need to do research early and often. Even if it’s simple paper prototypes.

Quick story. Recruiting coordinators at Uber used to spend an hour scheduling onsite interviews where a candidate would spend nearly all day in an office. So, we built an interview scheduler that integrates with Google Calendar meaning interviews can now be scheduled in five minutes. Woo hoo!

But, long after we launched the product, we discovered it wasn’t being completely adopted in our European headquarters. Come to find out, they don’t do all day onsites in a single room during a single day. Rather, everyone video-conferences in from various countries in different time zones throughout the week. Our product wasn’t built to handle that. We completely missed that use case, because we hadn’t done our upfront research properly.

Recon, our interview scheduling product.

On another project, when we were building our internal mobility product, we started with research, and I asked an employee, “How important is it to tell your manager that you are looking for a new job internally?”

“I wouldn’t tell them,” he said quickly. “I follow the Tarzan principle. I don’t let go of one vine until I have a good hold of the next one.”

That observation, along with many others, helped us decide to let internal applicants decide whether or not they want to tell their managers they are looking for a new role internally.

So, my ask to you is to put together a cross-functional team, and go into the field together to do research. Go way outside the bubble of the Bay Area.

I guarantee at least one of three things will happen:

  1. You’ll learn something totally new.
  2. You’ll validate your early concepts.
  3. You’ll have the team gain empathy with end users by hearing their pain points first-hand.

As you go along developing your solutions, keep a high bar for the user experience of employee products.

No, your employees won’t have a choice of which applicant tracking system to use. But if it’s a poor UX, it’ll slow them down, and maybe impact the quality of their feedback on candidates.

We start each project by drawing inspiration from well-designed HR tech. Products like Breezy have beautiful, easy-to-use UI that’s on par with consumer products. And that’s important. Everyday, employees come to work with their own devices that are full of consumer apps with high-quality UX. Employees have a low tolerance for enterprise software that has poor UX design.

Workplace by Facebook sets the bar for well-designed HR tech. It’s UI is optimized for mobile. It’s UX patterns are familiar with everyone who has used Facebook, so, basically everyone. It has built-in chat and has been proven at scale by companies like Walmart.

All of the above tips can really be summarized as one: always consider the employee journey.

Uber employees have described working at Uber like climbing a mountain, not a ladder. When you’re on a ladder, and you look down, it’s not that interesting. The steps you took to get there were predictable.

But when you are mountain climbing, sometimes you go sideways for long stretches. You may even have to go down, or backwards, for a while. It might be less straightforward, it might be more challenging, but when you look back at your journey, it’s a whole lot more memorable.

You’re not meant to read all this. The point is, the employee journey is complex.

We’ve mapped out the employee journey. It includes different people that employees interact with, at different stages.

It’s a long period of time, with lots of different channels and actors.

Phone calls with recruiters. Your first day with your mentor. The day you get promoted. Your last day.

One stage of the employee journey that’s often overlooked is when employees have left your company. Clio Knowles, Vice President of People at Virgin Hotels, talks about the importance of engaging with alumni, and the concept of boomerang employees- those alumni who return to the company. How might you engage your company’s alumni? How might you celebrate their accomplishments? Create a valuable network for them? Or leverage them for referrals?

Overall, there are enough opportunities in the employee journey to keep any HR tech team busy for years, and years.

But how do you execute?

Remember. Follow a North Star and start with job competencies.

Be customer-obsessed. Do research early on, and hold a high bar for UX.

There are dozens of opportunities to improve the employee journey at each of our companies. No matter how quickly your company grows, with these tips, you’ll be ready to create effective people products.


Learn more about our design team’s events, people, and impact at www.uber.design.

And see some of our recent work at https://dribbble.com/DesigningUber.

The Author

Eric Burns is a hybrid UX researcher and product designer. He recently transitioned into a new Design Operations role where he leads initiatives related to hiring and growth for Uber’s product design team. Previously, he managed Uber’s design teams building HR tech, and he led product design efforts across experimentation, communications, and Uber Freight. Ask him about design sprints, electric vehicles, and driving with Uber.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: uber.com/design. Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

Eric Burns

Written by

Design Ops at Uber. frog design Alum. Dad. Husband. Electric Vehicles Nut.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: uber.com/design. Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

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