The Clearleft Podcast

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Season Two

Employee Experience Design

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

Katie Wishlade is a designer at Clearleft and she’s fascinated by employee facing tools.


In large organizations you know there’s loads of tools behind the scenes that none of us might be aware of managing workflows and processes and delivery mechanisms and procurement and all of these processes that happen behind the scenes.

They often are very complex. They involve loads of people interacting with it in different ways because there’s different roles to consider. There’s loads of different workflows.

Often it’s a real mess, the backstage experience. There’s loads of integration issues. There’s loads of systems that talk to one another that are in different sort of stages in their development. So there really is untangling like a complex spider web behind the scenes in order to define the problem that you’re trying to solve and see how it connects to all the other systems around the business.


This language around backstage and front stage experiences came up in the last season of the Clearleft podcast when we looked at service design. Usually Clearleft is working on the front stage experience, the user interface, UI. But sometimes the work expands to cover the backstage experience, the employee interface. EI. EI? O.

Here’s Chris How.


Hi, I’m Chris. I work as a UX consultant at Clearleft.

We’ve recently been working with a large university helping them to rework various parts of their public facing website. We have had the opportunity to look at not just the front facing public part of the website, but some ofthe digital tools and the CMS that their content editors will be using.

One of the challenges that people in the organization had was the content management system that they were expected to use.


If you ask the right questions, you can move from solving a front-stage problem to understanding how things get pushed into that and how the information collected there is used.

I mean, content designers must be up against this all the time. As we all know, you can create the best framework for content, but where’s that content coming from? How regularly is it created? How’s it updated?


Rachel McConnell worked at Clearleft as a content strategist. She recently tweeted:

If you really want to transform your business, start with your internal systems and processes and not the end customer experience. These are the impediments that prevent your teams creating better online experiences.


This particular project came out initially of a walk along the sea front. In summer when we were out of lockdown temporarily, the user experience folk at Clearleft working on the project and content strategists that we’re working with got together for a walk along the sea front, just as a way of collecting our thoughts on what we’ve been doing, what was going well, what we would like to improve in the next project.

And one of the things that kept coming up was the need to ensure that in a large organization, that we were making it easy for content creators to create that content. And because it was a distributed team of content creators, how could we make it so that we didn’t have to hold their hand and explain to everybody individually the intention behind the designs. There was enough information around for them to be able to do a great job.

And that’s where we came up with an idea of the content management system and the way that is set up and the advice and tips that are provided in it and the way that handles you through the process of creating content for these pages could be improved. And as designers and content strategists and technologists, we are doing a disservice if we’re not also investigating the tools that people use.

This became very apparent when in early research looking at how content moved around the organization, we were given a fabulous walkthrough by somebody in the digital team.

And looking at the interface and the tools that people were expected to use to publish content, you could see that gulf between what are now great looking user efficient designs at one end and the tools in creating it.

Initially we ran it as a very small experiment. We took the design sprint approach. We created a version of that to test the content creation process with a fake mocked up CMS. That whole process, by nature of being a sprint, was a week long, very experimental and investigation- based with the idea that if this was an effective way forward, we would then be able to develop that process and run it with more departments around the university.

But initially the pitch was give us a week to investigate the requirements for a future CMS. And in doing that in a short period of time, we were hoping to mitigate the risk of making that decision and making it a fairly small financial outlay.

And it felt to us as if the content experts, if they were being expected to tell great stories, be really persuasive, bring that rich experience, then one way that we could really support them would be by providing more efficient, more intuitive tools to use to create a better editing experience for them.

It’s beneficial for us to get the experience right for them as content editors in order for them to be supported in producing better outputs for the audience who are going to consume that content.


I think you could really affect the customer experience if you invest in your backstage tools.


I think this is true of many clients that we work with, that the tools they are given to, in this case, create, publish content, often hinder them in storytelling and hinder them in producing the work that they want to do. And in that case, it’s great because you’ve got some people with a defined problem and you can do research to uncover what that problem is, where the big points of friction are. And you’ve equally got an audience who are really wanting you to help create a user experience that better allows them to do their job.


Ultimately what we’re always trying to do is obviously design for the audience. Regardless of what you are designing, you need to understand the breadth of that audience, the characteristics of that audience and design forthem.


We approached this problem as we would with all of our design projects. You know, we started with research to explore that problem space, to see how people currently carried out content creation.

We use the expertise that we have in interfaces, and the content strategists we’re working with, their expertise in what supports content creation. And we started to prototype some possible solutions to the problem that we’ve identified. And that prototype has been honed over a series of short bursts of activity, some design sprints to start uncovering the requirements that will help support the build of a better or more appropriate CMS.


When you start these projects, actually there is a little bit of like, Oh my gosh, I only understand 50% of what you’re saying. But I actually think that’s really exciting.

And that’s, to be honest, one of the things I love about it is really understanding someone else’s domain. I think it’s a real privilege.

You just need to understand enough to design an interface that will be useful for them. Yeah, it’s important to not get too caught up in trying to understand everything, just enough.

It’s a very rewarding space, I think. And if you can design these tools right I think there can be loads of efficiency, as well as making your employees generally more happy, less frustrated.


I think a vast amount of design is about unblocking. And when we talk about creating tools for people to better do their job, get more information, better quality information out there, we’re unblocking.

But likewise it’s the same as designer or as a user experience person when you’re looking at the UI and the interface for members of the public, you know, by removing we are often clearing a way for people to get to the most valuable and useful content that solves the reason that they’ve come to the website.

So I think a lot of design is actually unblocking, and we hear that the whole time in our design crits at Clearleft, you know, one of the questions would be what could you take away from this design and still make it effective or in many cases, more effective?


User centered design is totally natural in this space because you’ve got access to the user. Often the stakeholder is the user. So you’re really talking to users all the time, rather than having to recruit them on a regular kind of iterative cycle, they’re there sitting there designing with you naturally. And in my experience, yeah, they’re really excited to be on that journey.


What people I find really get energized by is when you come in and you help to identify and articulate their pain points and you are potentially as part of a team, that’s going to remedy those pain points. That definitely it’s something that is welcomed. People are always grateful for the people who are looking to make their life easier and to help them do their best work.


So the theory is that if you improve the tools that employees are using, then it will lead to a better customer experience. Is this trickle down user experience?


I quite like that phrase trickle down user experience. I can see what it’s going. I think of it more as: if you’ve got great craftspeople, and the content editors that work in the client’s organization are definitely that, you really want to be supporting them with great tools.

You know, you wouldn’t have a decorator come around your house and give them a toothbrush to paint the walls with. And I think that’s often the case when you go and see organizations that have employed great quality staff, put a lot of time into their staff, they’ve trained their stuff up. And then they hinder them by giving them substandard tools to work with.


I guess with public facing user interfaces, you might make a small change, but the benefit of that change comes with scale. That small improvement is multiplied by the tens of thousands of users who will experience it.

With employee tools, the audience is much smaller, just a handful of people sometimes. But any improvements are multiplied by the sheer amount of time that people spend with these tools.


I think often, to be honest with these employee tools you look at and think, Oh my gosh, this is ripe for like just bringing up to date in modern best practice, you know, things like progressive disclosure, streamlining processes, just making things work.

You’d be amazed how neglected these tools often are. So they’re not just behind the times. They’re like stuck in the dark ages, really. Millions of pop-up windows, really basic things. And I think one of the things about employee tools is that employees these days, they’re comparing it to the likes of Spotify and other consumer based services so they’re not just living in the arena of their employee tools. They’re living in a broad arena of good design basically.


I was working on a project with a large insurance company based in Glasgow. We were brought in to look at the systems that people in the company used. They weren’t call center operators, but they were having conversations with the public to sort out insurance inquiries.

The main driver for this was to improve the efficiency of the operators to make sure that business efficiency and the metrics they were looking for were more easily met. The systems used and the interface used was an absolute dog’s dinner.

But there were two things that came out of the research that had real resonance with the decision makers in the organization.

One of them was when we pointed out that the people they were employing were generally early twenties to thirtie sand all of these people had smartphones. They were operating their life through the phone in their pocket. At lunchtime, they were sorting out their insurance, their banking, their holidays via their phone.

And yet the systems they were being asked to use at work were older than the iPhone. The last time they’d been updated was 16 years ago and they were incomprehensible to the audience that we’re expecting to use them.

And the other thing that came out of research was this hidden commercial benefit of having better tools.

So when we were talking to people in the call center using these screens in front of you and using the software in front of them, they would often tell us of friends that they had that had moved to a rival company. Over the courseof many conversations, many people pointed out of the window to the rival company, which was literally across the street.

And one of the reasons to go to the rival company was the tools they were using were more modern, easier to use. Therefore, the job was easier and more enjoyable. And that was an absolute hidden cost to this organization. That idea that they put all of this training in to get staff used to the tools, but staff was still leaving because the perception was across the road there were better tools, better software that just made life easier. And that was areal eye-opener for the company.


I think human nature is you kind of fudge things that you can get away with. And obviously you can get away with fudging backstage tools, neglecting them, not investing in them and just sort of invest in hamsters behind the scenes to kind of do loads of processes, and get pretty frustrated and slow them down.

I think hopefully people are beginning to wake up that when you do fudge those sort of things together, particularly over years, you build loads of legacy and loads of debt.

If you look at big businesses, some of them are investing in internal teams to help their digital workplace and the employee experience. Particularly as you know, everyone’s kind of distributed these days around the world.


The downside of having poor tools to use in work is people are less efficient at work. They are more frustrated at work. They are more tempted to go and leave and work for somebody else. All of those things might not be immediate. You know, it’s not, Oh, I’ve been given the software I’m off. It’s a drip feed. Over a long period of time it wears people down.

That’s one of the hidden costs of making a poor procurement decision. Going and finding out the needs, the abilities, the context of use for the people who will be using these tools is a great way of making a better decision and having all of those upsides of helping people to more efficiently do their job and do a better job. And when I say better job, that’s the job that people want to do. The tools often the point of friction.


Enterprise software is one of those terms that’s always bothered me because even though everybody knows what it is, nobody can give me a good definition. It’s like brunch. The best working definition I’ve been able to come up with for enterprise software is that it’s software you didn’t choose. Which means the customer and the user are different people.


If you’re in procurement and you’re procuring those enterprise level pieces of software, I think you should be mandated to spend time with the people who are going to be using those tools and finding out what potential pain you are going to give them and equally finding out what moments of friction you can remove from their life and how you can enable them to do a much better job. And I think you only do that by, by getting on the floor, seeing whatpeople use, seeing the implications of the decisions that you’re going to make.


So just how different is user interface design from employee interface design?


It’s the same process. Front stage, backstage, it doesn’t really matter. For me, it’s just as rewarding because often you can make a bigger difference to the audience because they’re using it more regularly and more frequently.


I think it is a false dichotomy when you look at a public facing project and an internal tool or service design project and think of them as vastly different. They still need the same skills, the same kind of approach. And for me, they have the same reward of finding a problem that’s worth solving and then finding an elegant solution to thatproblem.


If you’ve got some internal tools that could use some design love, you should give Clearleft a call. You can find us at

Thanks to Chris and Katie for sharing their thoughts.

And thank you for listening.