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Rupert Hughes

Good user experience (UX) isn’t just for your website

23 November 2009, Rupert Hughes

Most of the companies I’ve worked with have focused large amounts of resource on getting their website UX right and of course this makes perfect sense when the site is a key customer-facing channel. Not only because customers are obviously vital to any business, but also because it’s easy to build a business case around measurable KPIs (key performance indicators) such as increases in traffic, engagement or revenue.

Businesses, especially large ones, love measurable business cases which can make it hard to get resources to do work where measurement is less easy, as is very often the case with internal systems. This is doubly so when it comes to justifying UX work on these systems as UX in this case acts mainly to reduce hidden costs, which are by their very nature hard to measure objectively.

As a result, internal systems are almost always spec’ed from the viewpoint of the functionality required to do the particular job, with little thought given to the interface, apart, perhaps, for a web designer to be involved as the project nears completion to “do the colouring in” (as a software architect once said to me), by which time, it’s way too late to make it useable.

Like website development, internal system usability works best when it’s designed in from the start, rather than grafted on as an afterthought.

Hidden costs of poor UX

Perhaps the most obvious hidden cost is that of training. No matter how good an internal system is, users are going to need training before they can use it and, once trained, it’s going to take them time to become expert at it. So, improving a system’s usability will reduce the amount of training required and the time it takes for users to reach full productivity. This in turn feeds through into all sorts of other benefits, for example freeing up management time from inducting new staff and firefighting system issues.

Good UX also reduces the time taken to do particular tasks and the difficulty of doing them. The nature of internal systems is that the tasks users perform on them are often repetitive, so small changes in UX can have a big effect on staff productivity. That 4-click user journey that the project team picked over the 3-click one in order to minimise development time is a whole different prospect viewed through the eyes of the person who has to follow it 500 times a day.

Task duration and difficulty also feeds through to staff morale, which can in turn affect customer confidence. How often have you rung a call centre only for the operator to tell you, with barely disguised exasperation in their voice, that “their system is running slowly at the moment”? Staff morale is also a significant factor in staff retention and doing things to improve the one will help improve the other.

Poor data quality

Poor UX can also affect the quality of data in the system. I once came across a system where disabling an item in a list didn’t remove it from the list. As a result, the operators had come up with the ingenious workaround of adding the letter “z” at the front of the name of the item when they disabled it.  Since the list was sorted alphabetically, this caused disabled items to be moved to the bottom of the list and therefore out of the operator’s way for most of the tasks they needed to perform.

Although this worked well for the operators’ day-to-day needs, this low-level degradation of data caused no end of problems when it came time to upgrade the system and a chunk of development time had to be allocated to cleaning the data.

Ultimately, the people at the sharp end who are actually using these systems often have a hard enough job keeping themselves engaged with the mundane and repetitive nature of their work, without having the constant low-level frustration that accompanies a poor user experience.

Improving the UX of these systems will not only boost their morale, but also reduce a business’s cost base and in the current economic climate, that has to be a good thing.

This article was written by Rupert Hughes of Firehorse Digital.