There is a norm in the computer industry that building external software is seen as much more interesting, fulfilling, and “sexy” than being involved with internal software. Building internal tools is seen as something that has to be done as opposed to adding to the bottom line. As a UX designer working on internal tools this is the first misconception I hope can be corrected.
Getting Management to Recognize the Problem
The first hurdle is usually getting the needed resources to fix the problem. The easiest way I have found convincing managers and directors of the importance of good internal tools is showing how it affects the bottom line. They are business people, usually with MBA, so the faster I can align the issue with the money the faster they will be convinced. I usually run a comparison user study between an old version and the new redesigned version. With the point where the industry is at right now a lot of the tools and widgets being redesigned didn’t have the input of a designer for the old version so it can be pretty easy to show big differences. If I don’t have time for a user study for currently deployed software then I use analytic reports when they are available.
With the numbers from either the users studies or analytics reports I am looking for total activity time saved, less time per screen, and lower screen count (or click count if I had re-organized the site to have more screens to reduce confusion.) I pull in info from the HR department to get average salary ranges for the group of employees that interact with the tool. Time saved * number of employees * average salary = an easy way to make my case.
Do We Really Need to Make the Internal Tools More Interesting?
Once management is on board and you have the resources needed, then why make the internal tools more interesting instead of just faster? First, and this is the most important thing to do. Banish the idea that “employees have to use this tool”. I hear this constantly from all directions: management, development, even other UX designers. It just isn’t true. If a tool is too hard to use, people will find a way: they call directly on the phone, see people in person, or get someone else to do it for them. In fact the worst case scenario is that they do use the tool. It will add to their frustration and when employees get overly frustrated the good ones quit because they can get better jobs. This leaves the company with nothing but mediocre employees that are still frustrated; not a recipe for company success.
Create a Brand
Next create a brand for the internal tool. Most companies have a marketing department that has created a strong brand externally and that is a good place to start. The more the internal tool is aligned to the company brand the more it will help employees keep the company ideals in practice. That is not the end of it though. The brand must also differentiate itself from the other internal tools so employees remember which tool to go to when trying to accomplish a specific task. An easy minimum is each tool can have it’s own color scheme if nothing else. But I find it is better to look at the needs of the employees who are using the tool and cater the brand to show off the traits they are asking for.
Once the brand is created then possible solutions can be compared. A big problem I have seen is deciding to use off-the-shelf solutions that can not be customized to include branding. It is one of the easiest ways to for all the internal tools to be the same dreary confusing mess most companies find themselves in right now. By deciding how deeply you want branding to go with internal tools I am able to use it as a deciding factor when the team is choosing an off-the-shelf solution or custom building.
Use Motivation Techniques
Lastly I design in aspects to increase motivation to use the product. The three different psychology paths to increase motivation are trust, persuasive techniques, and evoking emotion. There is a lot of information about this topic and I cover more in other articles. Trust is a big one for internal tools and an easy way to build trust is just by having a good looking tool. What good looking is varies a lot more widely when designing internal tools than for external sites since you can be dealing with a higher level of experts who are using the product 8 or more hours a day so to them a beautiful product may be a command line; only user shadowing and surveys can reveal the right answer.
Evoking emotion is often thought of only when it has gone wrong from over stimulation. But I try to get the right level of challenge by sometimes using gamification techniques. One problem I have found using scores, points, or awards on internal tools is employees see using the game incentives as something they are not supposed to enjoy. The mindset that internal tools being a pain to use runs deep. So far the best way I’ve found to overcome this is to explain upfront analytics are being collected and how the gamification improves the analytics collection. Suddenly with the mindset they are helping, tool usage increases.
It is true, persuasive techniques in internal software should be approached with a light touch since employees are going to have a much higher dwell time as compared to customers using external software. So to augment gamification, social proofing from other other employees and management is added. Social aspects into internal tools will work wonders for improving feature utilization. Also knowing which parts of the application are being socialized most either through sharing or “liking” helps the search algorithms to serve relevant data. It isn’t easy, exceeding expectations never are. But when I use these steps then I’ve heard words like exciting, funny, and easy used when describing the internal tools.