When it comes to designing a user interface, we always think about how to accommodate and serve our customers. How does their journey flow from one page to the next? Are those buttons too small? Have we made our website and applications accessible?
While these are all valid questions to ask (after all, a company depends on the customer for its revenue), it only addresses one side of the coin. While developers and marketers focus their energy on pleasing external consumers, they forget to smooth out the user experience for the company's other vital constituency: their employees.
Being on your company’s payroll doesn’t disqualify a person from being a consumer. In fact, your employees get to experience a side of your brand that most others never can — your intranet.
When employees are forced to deal with ineffective, unwieldy, or difficult back-end user interfaces and intranets to manage their daily tasks, the negative impact can rock the entire company. Because when an employee’s time and energy will be wasted, it’s actually the employers bottom line that takes the hit.
That’s why an effective B2E strategy — with an efficient and user friendly intranet at its heart — is so vital.
Here’s how a poorly designed intranet UI can damage everything from employee engagement to your company’s return on investment.
Susan Dray, President of the consulting firm Dray and Associates, Inc., once said, "If the user can't use it, it doesn't work." This maxim holds true as much for a company's intranet as the customer-facing website.
When employees disengage themselves from the systems that are supposed to help them work better, both as individuals and as a team, everyone suffers. Workers will gravitate toward systems that fit their individual needs, but may not fit those of other team members. These differences in tool usage can lead to miscommunications among team members, as well as wasted time by the developers who built the unpopular and unusable intranet in the first place.
In a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review, author and former Chief Marketing Officer Tim Leberecht argued in favor of companies using their UX skill sets to design an “employee experience (EX)” to “enchant” workers into using their intranet.
"Encourage both your IT and HR groups to think of the employee experience as user experience (UX)," Leberecht wrote. "(E)mploy the same tools as UX designers to create your organization’s own signature employee experience (EX). If you have a Chief Experience Officer, make it part of their mandate. And, if needed, hire a UX or design firm.”
When companies invest in an improved UX for their customers, they can often measure the return on investment (ROI) by the increase in revenue. However, these same companies may hesitate to create an improved EX, since the ROI on such an effort isn't always as easy to measure. Employee satisfaction, improved communications, and streamlined task management aren't always as quantifiable as increased sales.
A report from Nielsen Norman Group estimated that improvements in company intranets "could save the world economy $1.3 trillion per year when we include estimated improvements in company-specific tasks." Adjusted for inflation, the savings in 2018 comes out to almost $1.8 trillion. The report also stated that a company with 10,000 intranet users would need to invest around $686,000 to improve its intranet usability. A company moving from an average employee experience (EX )to a high EX would see its ROI increase by a factor of ten, while one moving from a poor to an average EX would see a twenty-fold increase in ROI.
Nielsen Norman did a follow-up study on intranet design in 2012. The newer study showed that usability for intranets actually went down, while usability for outward-facing sites went up.
Among the 42 intranets surveyed in the study, a task as simple as finding the head of department took almost 30 seconds longer in 2012 than it did ten years earlier. When those 30 seconds are multiplied by the number of employees, the number of times each day an employee starts a task, and the number of work days each year, the amount of lost time can cost companies millions of dollars each year.
The study concluded that the reason for the decline in intranet usability was linked to the increased complexity and additional features included in the new generation of intranets. The study also showed that “intranet designers must consider many more usability issues arising from the myriad features required by today's enterprise environment” than was the case ten years earlier.
One of the most time-consuming and frustrating aspects of a new position that many employees encounter involves training on the company's intranet. Since the company's internal online presences often takes a back seat to its customer-facing counterpart, new employees can make simple mistakes that cost themselves and the company time and money. Also, the IT staff that developed the intranet must also train the employees to handle a system that fails to provide an intuitive EX.
Amanda Linden, Director of Product Design at Facebook, wrote in 2016 about the need for designers to create UX (and, by extension, employee experiences) that required little to no outside training.
“Building products for people to use at work shouldn’t be an excuse for bad design,” Linden wrote. “If you follow common UI constructs--orient users, give them a concrete user benefit, and leave them feeling that they have gotten something valuable for their time--they will continue to learn to use your product just as they learn video games, mobile apps, and everything else.”
Intranets are meant to help break down organizational silos — but achieving that objective isn’t a given. In fact, a poorly designed intranet user experience can actually perpetuate silos, further frustrating employees and lengthening projects in the process.
Now, not only does your organization have silos, but it also has an unwieldy digital workplace solution that employees are expected to use, but get no joy or efficiency out of doing so. This either results in more wasted time and energy — or, as previously mentioned, complete disengagement from your new and likely costly intranet solution.
A 2012 Forrester study found that 67 percent of respondents said that a poor website experience had a negative effect on their opinion of a brand, and there’s no reason to believe that employees feel differently about poor intranet design.
In fact, while customers have a choice as to which websites to visit, employees often have no choice in which workplace intranet they can use — so you can imagine how quickly and deeply frustration can set in.
While the importance of orchestrating customer experiences can’t be overstated, brands should also pause to look within and evaluate their B2E strategy to ascertain how their hidden stack is impacting the daily lives of their employees — and their bottom line.
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