Employees are the new customer.

For those of us working in internal comms, this means many of the challenges faced by consumer marketers and communicators are ringing true for audiences inside the business.

We’re battling the challenges of digital noise, short attention spans, and rising expectations of our technology. We’ve evolved from a function for merely pushing out information, to a strategic partner responsible for business-critical objectives such as driving employee engagement, improving retention, and connecting dispersed workforces.

Ensuring that we get through to our employees and deliver on those expectations calls for a change in the way we approach communication. Like external marketing, it’s no long simply about the end product, or the message itself: it’s about the whole experience we offer employees, at every touchpoint.

As user experience design, or UX, rises in popularity and importance in consumer marketing, what can internal communicators learn from this growing trend and approach to enhancing the business offering for customers?

Could embracing UX best practices help transform the way we engage with our staff?

What is user experience, or UX?

User experience, or UX, can often get mixed up or used interchangeably with UI – user interface design. The two are dependent on each other, but they represent something quite different.

Wikipedia tells us UX is:

“The process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usabilityaccessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.”

The focus goes above and beyond the look or functionality of a product: it’s about how users feel when interacting with a digital product and a brand. By contrast, UI focuses more specifically on the ‘skin’, setting out to translate a brand and visual assets to a company’s digital interface. Emil Lamprecht explains on Career Foundry:

“While User Experience is a conglomeration of tasks focused on optimization of a product for effective and enjoyable use; User Interface Design is its compliment, the look and feel, the presentation and interactivity of a product.”

UX design looks to create products that provide meaningful and personally relevant experiences, at every touchpoint of the consumer journey. It considers everything from usability and accessibility to performance, ergonomics, functionality and more – and as such, the term is applied to both digital and non-digital elements. Ultimately, UX is a holistic approach to design that brings together all the fragmented parts that make up the consumer experience.

Why is UX important to business leaders?

UX has risen on the boardroom agenda in recent years, particularly as many markets become commoditized or price competitive – making user experience the only viable competitive strategy to differentiate one business from another.

A digitally-driven world of constant innovation has changed how our customers engage. The ability to capture attention, impact buying decisions, and develop long-term loyalty to a brand, are increasingly tied to customer impressions of their interactions with us, rather than the end-product alone. In terms of technology, this means that a website that is hard to navigate, has poorly mapped user journeys and navigation, ‘crashes’ or fails to load, or isn’t adapted for mobile, will cause irreparable damage to a business and how it is perceived.

If we don’t make it easy for our customers to get the information they need quickly and intuitively, the answer is simple: they’ll go elsewhere.

What’s more, the growth of comparison shopping, user generated reviews, social media, and mobile web have transformed consumer behavior. If the experience for our customers isn’t aligned to our brand promise, or falls short of expectations, there’s nowhere to hide. Transparency and delivering above and beyond a checklist of features is no longer a nice-to-have, but a business necessity.

What does UX (currently) look like internally?

Historically – and understandably – the focus for design and user experience has been on customer-facing technology: particularly consumer websites, apps, or point-of-sale terminals and tools that consumers interact with first-hand.

Sadly, internal business tools have been slower to respond to this trend. Technology for employees is seen as a means to an end, rather than an integral part of business strategy. New platforms and tools are introduced without considering how they fit into the digital workplace, how employees will use or respond to them, how they can be effectively optimized, or how they can work together.

The result is often the creation of silos and a fragmented digital experience for employees, impacting on how well they can perform their roles.

Staff in Customer Service may not be aware of a solution in the product roadmap that will answer a customer query; Marketing may be making a brand promise that doesn’t align with how Sales are positioning the product. With information and touchpoints segregated, rather than working together, the result is a negative impact not only on staff themselves, but on the service they are able to provide.

Strategy Director at Foolproof, Tim Loo, explains:

“Each new tool and technology tends to be bolted on to an organization’s existing organizational silos. These silos increasingly struggle to collaborate in the creation of a high value customer experience.”

“Without a shared understanding of the customer, or a shared vision for how they need to be served, many companies are unable to create a coherent and valuable customer experience. The user experience feels like a patchwork or unrelated interactions, often irrelevant to the lives and goals of customers.”

Experience and feedback from our own customers also suggests many internal business systems are slow to innovate or adapt to technological trends. The experience is “clunky”, “outdated”, or “unintuitive”. Many individuals struggle to adopt new tools that have been designed with functionality as the primary focus, rather than user experience.

UX and IC: why communicators need to place user experience on the priority list

According to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report, organizations urgently need to adapt for the demands and expectations of today’s diverse, multi-generational, digitally astute and mobile workforce. Flexibility, an employee-centric environment and strong communication are essential to realize this:

“This new mode of organization – a “network of teams” with a high degree of empowerment, strong communication, and rapid information flow – is now sweeping businesses and governments around the world.”

(Source: Global Human Capital Trends 2016, Deloitte University Press)

Utilizing technology effectively internally will ensure our employees have those all-important connections essential to realizing this vision:

  • Connections to their colleagues and peers across the business, regardless of timezone or location;
  • Connections to the information, knowledge and systems they require to thrive in their roles;
  • And finally, a connection to their business, its culture, mission, and direction.

This new vision for the digital workplace is something explored by our own CEO, Simon Dance, in his commentary on truly collaborative working, published on CMSWire.

Internal comms has a vital role to play in shaping the UX of those technological touchpoints for employees. By ensuring a positive experience, businesses will see measured impact upon:

  • Employee engagement and satisfaction levels, as staff are able to access the tools and information they need to perform their roles well
  • Recruitment and retention: millennial employees and the emerging Gen Z place workplace technology as a high-ranking priority when it comes to choosing, or electing to remain with, an employer.

“Millennials expect the technologies that empower their personal lives to also drive communication and innovation in the workplace.

“59% said that an employer’s provision of state-of-the art technology was important to them when considering a job, but they habitually use workplace technology alongside their own. Over half of those questioned routinely make use of their own technology at work, and 78% said that access to the technology they like to use makes them more effective at work.

“More than two in five of those questioned said they felt that their use of technology was not always understood, and some felt held back by outdated and rigid work styles.” (Source: ‘Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace’, pwc.) 

  • Productivity: properly selected, implemented and integrated into the digital workplace with UX at the core of its design, technology is proven to improve productivity and reduce time spent searching and gathering information or completing common workflows and tasks
  • Establishing – and maintaining – a common culture: “For Millennials,” Gallup reports in ‘How Millennials want to work and live’, “work must have meaning”. The importance of company culture is continuing to rise, but is equally facing challenges as workplaces become more fragmented and dispersed. Selecting effective communication and collaboration tools and improving how staff engage with one another, alongside the motivation, mission and direction of the business, is key.

UX for employees, for customers

We touched on this above, but it’s important to highlight that gains to be made from improving the employee user experience internally don’t stop inside your office walls.

When employees are better informed, happier in their roles, and engaged with their organization and its mission, the result is a direct impact on the customer experience and bottom-line business benefits. This includes:

  • Effective, collaborative problem solving and faster customer service
  • Consistent delivery on your brand promise
  • Collaboration across different functions for a more seamless, connected customer experience
  • More knowledgeable staff will offer a tailored and comprehensive service, improving upsell/cross-sell or repurchase opportunities, and customer loyalty
  • Improved efficiency and productivity will increase the amount of time employees can put to serving customers, innovation, or business-critical projects

How can we improve the UX of our internal comms tools?

Much of the user experience comes down to the tools we use. The good news is, the market for internal communication tools is growing and innovating at a rapid rate, following the trends of consumer technologies to help shape our digital workplaces.

Make UX a centerpoint for your internal communications strategy and use the same benchmarks when selecting or improving internal technology as you would any consumer-facing tool. This includes:

  • Ease of use: can employees easily navigate, access and update content on your internal communication platform, regardless of their technical ability? Tools that require IT input to create or make changes or are simply difficult to use will receive negative feedback, low levels of engagement, and eventually become redundant.
  • Familiarity: do your tools utilize familiar functionality that employees use in their home lives? This can support better adoption and engagement rates, as well improving the overall experience for users. For example, social media elements such as #tagging, @mentioning, or the use of timelines are now commonplace in the consumer market, and increasingly being replicated in business tools.
  • Information Architecture (IA): Can employees find what they’re looking for quickly and efficiently? Is content grouped logically, with a clear navigation and user journeys? Is content relevant, tailored, and up to date? A well-designed information architecture for your intranet or internal communications platform is essential for a positive user experience. Interact’s own Head of Professional Services, Tim Gough, explores this more fully in his blog on the role of professional services to support a winning intranet.
  • Content plan: does your internal communications plan incorporate a variety of content types, such as video, images, and blogs, alongside the traditional corporate documents and policies? Is it dynamic, with something new keeping users coming back? Can content be personalized to specific user groups or personas?
  • Accessibility: can your staff access internal communication platforms easily, regardless of location or device? Cloud technologies are now established in the consumer market, and increasingly our employees have the same expectation of their work tools. The growth of a BYOD (bring your own device) culture and globalized or remote workforce adds to these demands.
  • Performance: do your selected tools do what they’re supposed to, and do it well? Do they load quickly and effectively, and complete workflows or tasks the way they should?
  • Integration: do your tools and platforms work harmoniously together, enabling employees to benefit from a centralized digital workplace? Do they move seamlessly from one platform to another, be confident of a single version of truth, and avoid information silos or duplication of effort?

Perhaps one of the best ways to ensure your tools and strategy are effective and deliver an outstanding experience is with specialist support, both at the design and implementation stages, and in the long-term execution of your internal communications strategy.

By looking at each of these individual elements and how they impact and align to your overall objectives, you can help shape a more positive experience.

UX: worth the investment

A fully optimized and successful UX design doesn’t happen by chance. For many internal communicators, UX may also be unchartered territory or a new concept for internal tools. But while the process may seem overwhelming, the evidence shows it’s a project worth undertaking. The rewards for both employee and business are extensive.

Take the time to evaluate the internal user experience for your employees. Seek feedback on what the different touchpoints are like for them within the business: from recruitment and hire to onboarding, training, and day-to-day roles.

Look more deeply at the technology you use, and how it compares to your consumer platforms. What are the main frustrations or perceptions held by employees? What could work better, more efficiently, or engage them more effectively?

By taking a holistic approach to not only what we communicate, but how, we can ensure our employees have the best possible experience of their workplace.