I think I'll sit down and watch some television now. Let's see… hmm… What am I in the mood for? Am I feeling guilty about watching TV? If so, maybe I should check PBS and see if Nova is on? Maybe I'm a little depressed and I should check out Comedy Central and see if Louis CK is on. But wait a minute… there are comedy shows on other channels and there are educational programs all over the dial as well!

Analog Metaphors Framing the Digital World

"All over the dial" is a metaphor past its prime from when analog tuning systems were the only ones present in TV and radio. Channel surfing is another one approaching obsolescence now that TV watching is really dominated by a few primary experience frames:

  • The list of movies, shows and programs you have recorded in your DVR
  • OnDemand watching of a curated list of programs and movies
  • Internet-based viewing of curated content from a service such as Netflix or Hulu
  • The last resort of the bored: The channel guide

When was the last time a new channel got added to your cable or satellite package and you thought "Oh joy! The cable company just gave me a new and separate stream of content to watch! I'll have to figure out some time to watch it or I'll have to know what kind of mode I'm in that would make watching it enjoyable so that I can run to my TV the next time I'm in that mood."

What's that? You don't remember ever thinking that? At least, not since services with customized and personalized content were mainstream. Then why is it that so many current employee experience and intranet models are stuck in the nineties' and the early naughts' way of adding new channels to an already overwhelming work experience?   

Don't Mode Me In

How many of you are currently working on intranet or employee experience projects that support or rely on the outdated concept of modal behavior for engaging with employees? Psssst... Hey buddy.... If you are working on provisioning MySites in SharePoint, or if you are building a specified use case portal (e.g., innovation and/or collaboration micro-sites or portals for your enterprise), this is you.

Larry Tesler's biggest claim to fame, aside from working at Xerox PARC, Apple and Amazon, is that he basically invented cut, copy and paste. The grounding behind Larry's extensive portfolio of ridiculous levels of influence is his raison d'être: Eliminating modes from user experiences (see Larry's license plate below to see how serious he is!).

Larry's quest to eliminate modes has been more "micro-focused" in the single channel experiences such as word processing programs, e-commerce sites or search portals but his passion (or is it his bane?) can also help to explain the dearth of engagement in the wasteland that is the current state of employee intranets.

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Going Deep

So many realizations of intranets and other employee experiences result from a surface view of the problems. Executives, project owners and business owners come to the table with what they think is a problem to solve: 

  • "How can I help people collaborate more?"
  • "How can I focus our efforts on innovation?"
  • "How can I make employees more aware of important corporate messages?"
  • "How can I make our intranet more social?"

What these questions miss is a combination of a lack of understanding of the actual problem and a lack of understanding about human behavior. The problem is that employees suffer from communication overload. The behavioral issue is that enabling a behavior is not synonymous with engendering it.

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

In a world where employees are drowning in a sea of communication channels, how will adding additional channels or fragmenting existing ones serve to increase engagement? The answer is obvious: It won't. It will only serve to provide a greater amount of interference that prevents an employee from tuning in and responding to signals that are important and relevant to them.

Enabling a behavior is not sufficient. To engender a behavior, we must seek to understand flow and tap into it by getting inside existing behavior patterns. Flow is perhaps one of the most basic and grounding concepts inside so many performance optimization disciplines from which a large portion of UX strategy and design principles are derived. Flow is essentially the opposite state of cognitive dissonance, which is among the primary causes of task or channel abandonment.

Rather than adding channels that enable new behaviors, the champions of intranets and employee experience should be carrying the banner of channel elimination and experience integration where an employee's engagement flows from one activity to another. If an employee, while working on receiving or sending one communication, is struck with a moment of inspiration, they should not have to shift modes and channels to go to a collaboration or innovation center to document it. This mode-centric experience model is an interference pattern with an inexorable conclusion, the inspiration fading to nothingness like a transponder with no receiver.