Creating Internal Digital Products Your Team Will Actually Like to Use8 min read
When we talk about creating better online experiences for real people, we usually focus on public-facing sites, apps, or software. But all too often, user experience thinking stops right there. And that’s a big problem.
Many, many companies—maybe yours included—use multiple, highly specific internal applications and administration systems. These are important tools for running your business smoothly. Most often they’re adopted “out-of-the-box” with minimal changes. Other times, your IT team might develop custom tools to manage similar business processes.
Most of these internal systems have something painfully in common: They are horrible for the people who are forced to use them. These tools are almost always unintuitive, archaic, and hopelessly complex. It’s obvious no one who made them even gave a passing thought to suitable user experience.
Bad Internal User Experience is Bad for Business
Ever been to a “user rant” meeting? We have. We regularly sit in meetings where clients’ internal teams voice unending frustrations about making updates using poorly designed interfaces. Driving members of your team to want to spit in your coffee is bad enough. But building internal digital products without a thought to UX leads to more than just disgruntled employees. These hard-to-use internal apps only fill a functional void. They don’t truly serve the business purposes they were created to serve. They are made quickly with little planning and at minimal cost. In this model, mediocrity is the standard and it costs companies big time. Hard-to-use internal apps don’t serve the business purposes they were created to serve.
The Costs of Bad UX
- Increased Training – Time is wasted training and retraining employees how to use the tools.
- Poor Efficiency – Bad interfaces make common tasks overly cumbersome. Two-minute tasks take ten minutes to complete.
- Rework – Hours are lost entering duplicate data because two systems that should talk to each other can’t.
- Lack of Consistency – When each system behaves differently, users slow down.
- Faster Obsolescence – Apps get outdated and eventually only work on one old, depreciated browser you keep on a single company machine.
- Extra Maintenance – Extra time from IT for maintaining poorly designed systems.
- Work-Arounds – People will avoid badly designed systems like the plague. They will spend an inordinate amount of time creating and using hacks for systems, apps, or processes they hate.
- Opportunity Cost – Time wasted on managing frustrating interfaces could be better spent doing something productive.
Creating Something Better
If you’re experiencing these common headaches and pitfalls, it doesn’t have to be that way. Your internal systems and apps can serve your company’s business goals and processes rather than impede them.
In fact, one of the biggest secret weapons for creating successful digital products is to create great UX for internal users just as you would your public users.
Focusing on creating easy, intuitive user experiences for your internal tools is a sure way to save time and money while forwarding business processes, operations, and goals. Take it from someone who creates and uses internal interfaces every day (me) – the easier they are to use, the better life and business will be.
Creating Internal Tools People Love to Use
There’s a lot of overlap in creating easy-to-use internal systems and great user experience for public-facing sites. But there are some differences. Having created internal tools in both the why-does-this product-stink way AND the great-UX-people-are-happy way, here are some things I’ve learned:
Secret 1: Talk to and observe users.
Internal users will be completely different from your public or external users. Talk to the people who maintain and update your internal apps and systems. Watch them use each system the way they normally would. Don’t assume you know the answers just because you work with these people.
Ask your users questions that focus on tasks: What is their workflow like? What are the things they do every day? What tasks take way longer than they should? What information do they have to enter in multiple places because the systems can’t share information? Do they have any hacks for getting things done faster?
Don’t assume you know the answers to these questions just because you work with these people. You will get it wrong. Say with me, “I must interact with real users.” If you don’t do this, don’t bother trying to improve your internal digital products. It won’t happen.
Secret 2: Don’t let developers create systems for, well, developers.
You have complex internal user groups with different needs and abilities. Some of your users may be much more tech-savvy than others.
I can tell you it’s tempting for us developers to design something that works for us. But there’s a huge problem: Developers are POWER users. What works for them probably won’t work for anyone else. Help them by defining the problem through an unfaltering user lens.
Help developers think through screens with users in mind. Demand they observe user tests and speak with users. You’ll find that developers can do solid UX in their everyday work. This focus takes extra time up front, but will save you cost upon cost further down the road.
Secret 3: Create a suite of apps.
Internal systems and apps are often bought or created in a vacuum without any thought for how they could or should interact with each other. Don’t do that. Instead, you should take a high-level look at your internal digital products as a group. It’s possible this will be the first time anyone in your company has looked at your apps as a whole.
Which ones should talk to each other that don’t? Which ones use the same processes? Can those be more consistent or even combined? Where are users asked to enter duplicate data? What does each one do and how does it fit in with the whole? How can color, layout, and interaction be more consistent?
It’s entirely possible this will be the first time anyone in your company has looked at your apps this way. It may even be the first time all your internal products have been included on the same list anywhere. That makes it all the more crucial you do it now.
Even while you’re looking at these apps as a group, don’t feel like you need to come up with one solution to rule them all. Create a suite of apps, where each one functions in a similar way but is also dedicated to helping users complete a specific set of tasks.
Imagine how horrible Microsoft Office would be if there were only one app that did it all – word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, AND email. A suite of apps doesn't need to be all things to all people, it just needs to be purposeful and consistent.
Secret 4: Test your solutions.
Internal apps are no different than any other development project in that you should test what you’ve built with real users. Ask people to perform real tasks (the ones you saw when you observed them working). I know it sounds crazy, but failure here is a good thing. If a user has trouble with a task, you know you need to fix your work (and there will always be something you need to fix).
Test early and often. At truematter, we create a paper or software prototype to test so we can make major fixes before we move into code. Then we test with users again after the site is up and running to see what we missed.
Secret 5: Design for multiple devices, no matter what.
Only targeting desktop computers is a thing of the past. More companies are providing employees with smartphones, tablets, and touchscreen laptops. Even if your company doesn’t use mobile devices yet, designing for these screens future-proofs your digital product. There will come a day everyone gets a tablet and they will expect to be able to use it for internal admin jobs. This sounds like a lot of work. It is. But it will save you hundreds of hours (and a ton of money) later.
Secret 6: Don’t slap on updates.
When you want to add new features, use the same thoroughness you used creating the products themselves. It’s never okay to email your developer and ask them to implement a solution without going through the process of talking to users, planning, and testing again.
This sounds like a lot of work. It is. But it will save you hundreds of hours later when team members can make updates easily. It will save rework in trying to make your tools consistent again down the line. It will save maintenance time and keep your internal digital products from getting buggy and obsolete.
Secret 7: Your team members are people too.
Sometimes users are far away or otherwise hard to reach. The people who maintain internal sites and apps are right next door. You have no excuse not to talk to them. They deserve a wonderfully easy-to-use app, just like your public customers. Make it your mission to make their lives as easy as possible. The company will save serious money from it in the long-term. And as an added bonus, if you stop making your coworkers’ lives miserable, they won’t want to spit in your coffee.
So Go Do It
You can probably name several of your company’s digital products that need UX help off the top of your head. Don’t wait around—it’s important to begin improving them as soon as you can. Focusing on user experience for internal users is at least as important as providing good UX for external users. They’re both crucial to business and product success. The fact that an app is internal is NOT an excuse for slapdash user experience. Well thought out internal digital products will save you big money in areas like maintenance, efficiency, modernization, and change control.
When internal systems are easy for team members to use, they enhance your business. They’ll save you big money in areas like maintenance, efficiency, modernization, and change control. Well thought out internal digital products serve the business processes they were made to serve. They free up your team members’ time to plan and work on other mission-critical projects. And when your team members see how much better life is with great UX, they’re likely to adopt those practices as a standard moving forward, both on internal and public-facing projects.