As a user, I want the software I use every day to work better, so that I can do my job…
November is budget season for us at Sigma and being part of a wider group of companies means various systems come into play, for IT costs, HR data, auditing, forecasting and so on. It means tonnes of fiddly Excel-based plumbing, effectively. We have also just transitioned our corporate bank account. This means we get to “experience” a new online banking platform and re-submit our new account details through numerous supplier engagement platforms, in the hope we get paid in time for Christmas. Add to this, the various bid submissions we’ve made and software usability studies we have done for clients, and it’s fair to say I am pretty sick of corporate platforms.
In fact, I was literally ill, as in the early hours of the morning last week, powered by Lemsip, I responded to Matt Edgar’s eloquent thread on building a business case for better tools:
Recently someone asked me how to make a business case for user-centred design on internal tools. Here’s a handy 3 step process that works in many cases:
Step 1: Calculate the cost of staff time spent watching the painful screen-by-screen training video for an unintuitive tool
Step 2: Multiply the number of employees whose time will be wasted
Step 3: Spend that money on designing something intuitive instead
My frustration with workplace tools may have been amplified that day as I’d spent 3 hours on a screenshare with my HR Manager, also suffering with a bug, to enter payroll data, line by line, into a half-translated glorified Excel interface. We were both poorly and fed up. On reflection though, what if this stuff is making us ill, in terms of stress, anxiety, fatigue, worry, error, missed deadlines or general confusion, brought about by poorly designed tools and processes? I recall Katy Arnold sharing her experience at Camp Digital of helping to onboard a member of her team with a sight loss condition and we have some similar requirements in our team. Standard office processes and systems tend to fail us because they are built on a normalised set of use cases.
Nationally 10% of working adults are without essential digital skills (communicating, creating, transacting problem-solving and managing information). I’ve been reading some lovely “This is how I work, give or take” posts, kindly collated by Matt Jukes, and it made me think about just how happy we’d be at work, if some aspects of work didn’t get in the way.
We need to stop cutting corners, procuring the “most economically advantageous” solutions, and swallowing the Emperor’s new clothes line about the nearest competitor using the same “best of breed” platform. Rather than assume everyone at work is a digital native, shouldn’t we be investing in productivity, removing barriers, making the experience more inclusive, enjoyable, seamless, or at least satisfactory?
In the interests of disclosure, I’ll admit we are trying to make this better. Sigma does a lot of corporate usability, design and build projects. We have recently joined a cross-Sigma initiative called Tomorrow Worklife, which looks at user behaviour, motivation, usability and change communication in the workplace.
Microsoft technology is at its heart, as that’s what many people use. Microsoft have an attractive licencing offer for not-for-profit orgs and have an impressive focus on accessibility in our core sectors (Health, Public Sector, Charities and Education). If I said we were going to make Office 365, SharePoint and Teams the poster children for workplace user experience, I suspect you’d laugh in my face. Yet, this is where we have gone wrong. We've taken a plug and play attitude to IT.
Organisations have bought products, not designed services. And we don’t implement things well, at all. We don’t do sufficient user engagement, discovery, prototyping or service design for internal users. We get what we are given, and we muddle on. Ironic, given how much time we spend at work.
How do we make things better?
I think security and compliance have a lot to answer for, having given software vendors a massive get out jail free card on core usability. Authentication is hard to get right from a UX perspective but on corporate platforms, logging in can feel like a scene from Entrapment.
When it comes to authentication, content, error handling, even simple stuff like affordance, we must turn our UX skills on ourselves and demand better for everyone.
From bid submission portals to posting invoices, some of the darkest design patterns I have seen, have been on corporate platforms. This is a core area for improvement. ROI could be proven quickly by testing and trialling redesigned on-boarding and authentication approaches for corporate platforms.
As organisations get larger, they procure from a limited pool of options, and for those platforms to work for the vendor, customisation is a challenge for Business as Usual support models. As Matt mentioned when looking at business cases for user centred design in the workplace, some costs are easy to quantify in terms of time on task, failed or incomplete tasks, cost of rollout comms and training and so on. But there are numerous add-on costs that are harder to quantify. They include offline workarounds and deviation from process, the risk of data error where validation messages are missing or meaningless, the pressure to provide specialist support roles or teams, exclusion, employee disgruntlement, and staff turnover. And that’s just looking at cost reductions, not the untapped gains of building better things for people to do their jobs more effectively. Let’s lobby for evaluative user research on platforms shortlisted at the procurement stage and use employees to inform purchasing decisions.
Training and communication
Systems require training and documentation. New IT rollouts require comms. But where the systems are used in a compliance-driven sector, such as financial services, health or life sciences, the need to be suitably qualified or certified is, I believe, often used to cover up poor design.
We have observed employees start task-based testing by nervously saying “I haven’t been trained on this yet”. Have we built a culture of propping up poor systems through training and service desks as a backstop?
The part of the tool we are generating is mostly to be used by only a small subset of Admin staff, and as such we can go heavy on training if required, if what we decide is not intuitive.
Let’s design for context and encourage our organisations to move from the situation where everyone gets the same thing and training and communications become a giant sticking plaster.
Usability and accessibility
It’s a myth that everyone in the workplace is digitally savvy or that they use tech in the same way. In the 2017 Charity Digital Skills Report, 51% said lack of skills was a barrier to their charity getting the most from digital.
Years ago, we were working on service design for a large Building Society. When I asked about accessibility, they advised that they knew exactly how many blind employees they had so it wasn’t a need for them, as they could make the appropriate, reasonable adjustments.
I suspect we have moved on considerably since then but we should demand more from vendors on accessibility. We should go beyond the obvious interface design WCAG elements and the ability to use the platform with specific assistive tech.
Do organisations understand the neurodiversity of their teams and how things like cognitive load affect people’s ability to work with tools? Do they consider their future workforce when buying kit, and how they might support temporary impairments or help people with progressive conditions, or those lacking in digital confidence? That's where training does add value but let's consider people up front, not try to fix them with e-Learning. We want and need diverse teams, so we need to understand their behaviours and interactions better than we do now.
I have been capturing screenshots but my sense of “professionalism” and genuine desire to make these platforms better, is preventing me from sharing. I’d love to hear if you have your own examples and of course, if you have a platform you’d like to improve or you’d like to get involved in our Tomorrow Worklife pilots, then we are of course, “Here to help”.