Mastering the art of employee experience design

As companies rely more on dispersed teams, they need to design ever-better digital employee experiences

employee experience design

During a project designed to improve its employee experience, a Fortune 100 technology services company with more than 350,000 employees discovered its workforce struggling with an outdated online system that measured performance. Human resources managers asked the rank and file for ideas on how to fix it.

Suggestions poured in. HR used them to design a beta version of a new system, which the chief human resources executive posted on the company’s intranet. The post generated 20,000 comments in a matter of hours.

After further design and feedback, the company rolled out a new process that emphasized continuous employee feedback instead of traditional periodic performance reviews. Employees loved it. But the most significant validation came about a year later, when employee-engagement scores jumped by 20%, says Isabelle Zdatny, an experience management researcher at Qualtrics XM Institute who studied the project for a research report.

The project is an example of employee experience design — developing tools and processes that use digital technologies to improve engagement with customers, employees, and other cohorts. Experience design was originally developed to smooth online and computer interactions for corporate customers and consumers. But the techniques have proven to be especially valuable in upgrading applications that employees professionally engage.

Digital tools—for bringing on new employees, filing expense reports, conducting performance reviews, or collaborating across work teams—have long been frustrating or unsatisfying to use and not nearly as user-friendly as the systems available to the companies’ customers. Just as user experience (UX) design has shown success at increasing customer engagement and loyalty, applying the practice to the workplace can mean big payoffs for companies.

In recent years, digital experience for consumers has improved so much that everyone knows the difference between well-designed tools and those that fail. Great apps are easy to learn and use and accomplish the job they’re supposed to do. But employees now expect the same in the workplace. They want the applications they use on the job to be more functional, elegant, and efficient than ever.

Everyone intuitively knows how ‘good software’ looks and functions, and they carry those expectations to every system they use.

The pandemic has made these needs more urgent, with so many employees reliant on digital tools to get work done. Many companies, as a result, are working quickly to master the discipline of experience design. “Everyone intuitively knows how ‘good software’ looks and functions, and they carry those expectations to every system they use,” says Christie Lenneville, vice president of user experience at GitLab, an enterprise DevOps software developer. “It’s no longer good enough to provide employees with software that gets the job done, but also requires extensive training or workarounds — no matter their role.”

Consumers expect great intuitive digital experiences and spend more with companies that provide them, says Gregg Aldana, global senior director of Creator Workflows for ServiceNow. “We’re now seeing this same behavior impacting recruiting and employee retention,” he says. “Especially among the youngest and most talented in the workforce. They are leaving or turning down offers with companies with sub-par experiences for companies that provide best-in-class digital employee self-service.”


Higher profitability reported by companies that offer a superior employee experience

Improving employee experience also improves corporate performance. Companies that offer a superior employee experience double their innovation output (measured by the share of revenues from new products) and customer satisfaction, according to a study by MIT Sloan School of Management. They also show 25% greater profitability than bottom-ranked firms.

A complex discipline

Experience design is complex, and remote work poses particular user-experience challenges. One issue is that unlike office interactions, remote work is typically asynchronous — there’s a delay between sending an email or a text and getting a response. A number of relatively new digital tools are designed specifically to aid asynchronous work. Twist, for example, is a collaboration tool designed to keep multiple online-discussion threads organized and easy to navigate. Others, such as Loom and CloudApp, record and share video of workers’ screens.

Businesses are recognizing the need to offer more applications like these to improve employee experience. Loom has 7 million users; Twist counts Starbucks and Shopify among its customers.

Companies can also hire user-experience professionals to custom design tools on their own, designed to take the best features of consumer apps and adapt them to workplace tasks. Cisco Systems has held developer hackathons to mine ideas for improving its HR systems. Through one event, says Zdatny, developers came up with more than 100 improvements to Cisco’s HR operations, including a new concierge system designed to help new employees navigate their first few days on the job.

Other organizations are pairing design-thinking techniques and low-code app development to produce better experiences for employees. Design teams at ServiceNow recently helped a major retailer replace a decades-old practice that allowed workers to share feedback with managers in person. They created an online portal through which workers can submit concerns and receive a response within 36 hours, guaranteed. The project went from ideation to launch within three weeks.

Digital feedback loop

One question confronting companies as they pursue experience design is who should lead them. (Experience design is a nebulous craft, Zdatny says, with little consistency across different organizations.) Big companies are turning to those in charge of remote-work efforts to lead the experience design work. But different functional groups can have different experience-design needs.

Regardless who leads the effort, such needs must be well defined to fit specific employee audiences. New hires and 20-year veterans will want different things from their digital experiences. Similarly, if you’re prioritizing retention, you need to design for experiences that differentiate your company from competition.

One guaranteed design strategy to maximize retention, Zdatny says, is simply to keep the feedback loop open with employees. Online surveys about the workplace and workers’ concerns can keep companies apprised of what’s important to their people, who are, after all, their most important assets.