You don’t have to be a user experience expert to know when you are being frustrated by software. We are only human after all, and if a website navigation menu doesn’t seem to have the option I am searching for, or a spinning wheel lags on for a fraction of a second longer than my expectations, it is only natural for my lowly primate brain to spiral into a panic, questioning my own intelligence and cursing the Age of Information.
While glitches in online shopping experiences or social media platforms are unsettling, issues with software systems at work cause exponential frustration. As an employee, if I’m unable to send a message, submit a form, access necessary information, or if a system is generally slow, I experience a sinking feeling that my promotion is being dragged down with every system outage. As a Product Manager, it worries me when these types of demoralizing blocks are built into a company’s own in-house software.
I’ve found that oftentimes employees don’t even realize how far they’re bending over backward to achieve what they need to do at work and how much weight they carry when systems aren’t well designed for them. I’m here to make the case for cognitive ergonomics, or the art of making your enterprise software systems healthy for your workforce.
It is by no means controversial to say that enterprise software has fallen behind consumer software in terms of experience. This often happens because good UI is seen as an optional added expense rather than as an investment. It’s an easy error to make if you don’t understand the consequences.
Let’s say that you are a decision maker responsible for updating your company’s software systems. The old legacy system is so out of date that you’re having trouble finding engineers who can even work on it, so practically anything is bound to be an upgrade. You start talking to providers, and once you see the price tag of a new enterprise suite, you begin to think about the corners you can cut in the new system without sacrificing efficiency.
You see one response to your RFP where the first phases are “Discovery” and “Design.” As for design, this system is going to only be used internally, you think. Does anyone really care about how it’s going to look? It just needs to get the job done. You pass on one proposal from a software firm that’s “user experience focused” and move on to another that’s heavy with lingo like “efficiency” and “optimization.”
You have a meeting with Quickie Coders Inc, and they promise new enterprise software in six months without any unnecessary bells and whistles. You detail your list of requirements, and the firm comes back five months later with a demo of a system with a lot of gray, vaguely reminiscent of the city’s online DMV portal. It’s nothing fancy, but it meets your requirements.
Your employees attend the new training meeting on the system. Quickie Coders reviews each functional area with your team. The left sidebar navigation has 48 options — and it contains every single feature you requested — but your employees’ eyes glaze over.
At first, your employees are quiet as the new system rolls out. Productivity is down for two days, and then the questions start coming in.
“How do I find…”
“This is broken…”
“I miss the old system.”
You send a summary of your employees’ complaints, some code is rewritten, a new training session is booked, and a wizard is introduced.
Your employees use the wizard and start to learn where options exist. A couple of employees pick it up faster and become explainers. When new employees join the team, an explainer sits down with the newcomer to help them navigate the enterprise software for the info they need to do their job. “It’s not your fault,” you overhear one employee to another. “The system is not exactly intuitive.”
Employers supply ergonomic equipment to their workforce so that no one has to contort their body to do something it isn’t meant to do. The result is a happier, more productive workforce. Why shouldn’t the same concept be applied to software? UX-rich product thinking should fuel enterprise software development from the outset; it should not be an afterthought. And it certainly shouldn’t be a “nice to have” that’s cut from digital transformation project budgets. Investing in cognitive ergonomics means investing in the health and energy of people using those systems: your employees.
As a Product Manager, I am asked about the best ways to build cognitive ergonomics into an enterprise software platform. For this, I look back to my junior year of high school, in AP Psychology, when I first learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which describes the process of human advancement through five stages: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization. His framework was sequential: Once your physiological needs of shelter, water, and food are taken care of, you might then think about joining a book club, learning the clarinet, or hitting up Tinder.
When we think about building healthy enterprise software as comfy as a high-end office chair, there are basic system needs that need to be met before other options become possible. Here’s what a great team builds for and how you avoid the heartbreaker, “The system is not exactly intuitive.”
The UX Hierarchy of Needs
Physiological: Does the User Interface lead to longer than necessary screen usage? Is all of the writing and information accessible to people, with varying levels of eye health, reducing strain? Is the navigation intuitive? How many clicks does it take for someone to complete a task? How much typing? Is their energy depleted from having to remember where to find things?
Safety: Does your software contribute to a sense of psychological security when your employees are using it, or does it make them feel watched over or under scrutiny all of the time? Is your platform up and reliably online, so employees know their time will be protected? Is their personal information protected? Is your platform hackable?
Love/Belonging: Is your system increasing connection between people at your organization? Is it freeing up more time for them to connect to one another? Are different departments using shared vocabulary, or are they talking past one another? Is everyone working toward the same goals collaboratively, or are they being pitted against one another through the systems you’re employing?
Esteem: Does your system include signals that your employees have done a good job? Jobs that are complete and work that has been accomplished can confirm a sense of satisfaction, whether they indicate meeting minimum expectations or exceeding them.
Self-Actualization: Is your software contributing to or detracting from your organization’s mission, and enabling you to successfully measure that impact? Do your employees have opportunities for creativity, growth, and meaning in their work?
What was skipped in the Discovery phase, you never realized, was an up-close analysis of the problems your employees face on a daily basis, and a rich design process that translates those problems into creative solutions. Efficiency never meant having an overwhelming number of options at your fingertips — but delivering the right number of options to the right people at the right time so they can focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than the system meant to support it.
Embrace cognitive ergonomics
Enterprise systems with stellar cognitive ergonomics not only help people achieve their necessary goals, but also enhance their overall enjoyment in completing a task. Investing in the time to understand your employees’ goals and expectations, and what can help them obtain a sense of fulfillment in their work, can help reduce emotional, mental, and physical strain.
When you think about who you want to build your software, remember that employee health and the systems they use are often connected. Good UX design means that we are tapping into what makes us human when we are using systems inside and outside of work, increasing both efficiency and satisfaction.