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Our workplace solutions are user-centered – but what does this really mean?

Aleksandra Domagala
April 2, 2020

At any company I’ve ever worked with, each architect, program, or project manager has claimed that he appreciates the significance of users’ needs, and that he creates and tries to implement user-centered solutions.

And that’s great. But what does it mean really?

The reality is that there are many definitions, interpretations, and implications. The more people are engaged in the project, the more different understandings there are. Most IT project team members appreciate the concepts of enhancing the user experience, user-centered solutions, and human-centered design. But while the situation is rather (at least technically) straightforward when talking about servers, cloud, or network connections, the concept of user experience is much vaguer. There is no clarity if this means that the products or services should have the best possible quality or implementation should best suits clients’ needs, and all business requirements, and that would be enough. Or maybe a better solution would include some good market practices that target end users’ expectations and solve common pain points.

Let’s go one step further and look what might occur in our projects

We are starting a new engagement. A solution design document is already polished and rich in concepts and approaches on how to achieve the main goal – excellent user experience.

But then, the delivery of workplace projects differs from what was initially planned.

This can happen for many reasons: no time, not enough resources, no understanding of users’ feedback implications. Core technical aspects were holding everybody’s attention during the project – because they seemed to be more crucial to the success and easier to understand than those “intricate and whimsical” user-experience methods.  Ultimately, the product or service is implemented but not exactly as user-centered as it initially claimed to be.

Let’s move on and check another scenario. The user-experience approach is included in our endeavor. Will it always work? We wanted to create personas, user journeys, and empathy maps. And we did. We succeeded. Great job. But what’s next?

Let me give you an example, the persona (a typical user, with specific needs and expectations) seems to be the overarching concept when thinking about applying the user-experience approach in a project. Everybody keeps talking about it. Some want to create personas for their companies or better yet, for a specific project. However, personas are often created for the sake of personas themselves – and simply because it is currently the trend to do so. Many resources are invested, much time spent, many discussions and cross-organizational meetings attended. The results may be impressive, but are these personas really used?

Unfortunately, every now and then the answer is no. The reasons may differ, but at the end of the day, no one knows what went wrong with this UX or when or how to benefit from what was created – and we invested so much and engaged so many people! Stakeholders might even express a concern, why do we need UX team engagement if it fails?

What happens if the user experience approach is properly implemented in workplace projects?

There are myriad benefits of including user experience methods, gathering insights, and acting upon them from the onset of the project. Let’s consider a few examples what might be achieved:

  • New tools will be utilized more
  • Because they will focus on their core tasks rather than on the technology itself, employees will be more productive
  • Fewer user mistakes will lead to smoother work of technical teams
  • User satisfaction will significantly increase.

The last point is often repeated but what does it really mean and what might be long-term consequences?

Based on my experience, it means not only higher efficiency by focusing on what is important and needed but also employees’ perception that their company really takes care of them. By asking users what their needs are, we engage them in the decision-making process. This is not done “to them” but “for them” and with them. The final decisions no longer belong to seemingly out-of-touch and inaccessible management exclusively. If the employees feel truly important to the company, they are willing to become change champions. This is an invaluable attitude. They would spread the positive news about new, improved tools or services to others.

What could be better than users willing to instantly tell others how great is the new company service?

So how to avoid mistakes and make use of the user-experience approach?

  1. Clarity of the user-experience goals

User experience is a broad area. Its application in the project should be clearly specified at the very beginning to avoid any misunderstanding. So, what should be clarified from the beginning?

  • What is the purpose of including the user-experience approach in the project?
  • What might be the implications to the other engaged streams?
  • How will other streams work on the outputs from the user-experience domain?
  • Who will decide what, how, and when conclusions from user-experience research should be implemented?

A common understanding of the user-experience approach and its application in the project is essential for the success of any user-centered solution. I am thinking not only of architects and managers as having strategic impact in the project but also about any other project team member. The communication and the collaboration will be much smoother and more effective. I promise.

  1. The right time for right activities

User-experience research is a part of the project just like any other engaged capabilities. The only difference is that, in order to propose or design anything that would be valuable to the users, assessment (and creating personas as the outcome) should happen at the beginning. Not during or even after the technical design/development/implementation, etc. First, learn about the users, then create solutions for them – the outcome is a user-centered solution.

  1. Invest time and resources in the assessment part of the project

Once again, user experience is part of project just like any other capability. To learn about the users, we need not only enough specialists engaged in assessment activities and adequate competencies to lead the study. We also need proper timeframes to design these activities, conduct them, and run results analysis. Preparations and the overall concept might be perfect but we need people to take part in interviews, fill out surveys, participate in workshops, etc. By resources we must understand not only people doing their job and learning about users’ needs but the users themselves – users’ representatives who can stop performing their daily tasks at work and share their insights.

  1. Management support

User experience is all about learning how to improve experience by gathering data directly from users. To do so, we must ask them about their needs and receive their answers, and act upon them. Users need time to provide UX team with this feedback during their busy workday. They will not stop performing their daily tasks at work to take part in user-experience research initiatives with no information, good reason, or encouragement from a supervisor. Rejected invitations, no attendance at workshops, low response rates – that’s the reality if no one recognizes the value or supports the user-experience activities. In the end, no engagement means no feedback from the users and the lack of possibility to adjust the solution to their needs.

  1. Open discussion of the outputs

Sharing results, engaging the whole team, including decision makers, is crucial. Let user-experience specialists present what they have learned from the users, what they expect, the data and conclusions, and the possible implications on service or product. Then decide what is doable, what can wait, and the priorities to make the final recipients satisfied. After all, these are the people who will benefit from the new solution.

  1. Iteration and changes

There are many ways to gather user feedback or insights to create a user-centric solution. If the initial approach is not as effective as expected, change it. We are dealing not with machines but with other people, who have different priorities than ours – so flexibility is essential. Gather feedback, adjust the solution, and test it with users one iteration after another. Once again, people are not machines; there is no single right solution. It must be tested with real users, the adjustments checked, and the results measured – and repeated until the result is satisfactory.

Our goal: User-centered AND meaningful

All in all, this is not so challenging. We can create excellent user-centered solutions by asking real users about their needs. Undoubtedly, this requires proper planning, support from management, and a shared understanding of the goals and how these precious insights and conclusions will be implemented. Let’s remember that, in the end, users might be so intrigued and proud of a new company initiative that they will be willing to share the positive news with others. So, the adoption of the new tool is instant – and that’s the essence of truly user-centered design.

Download our Connected Experience Framework brochure here.