Engineering Department employees for the city of Seattle, 1962. A standing man takes a piece of paper from a sitting woman.
PHOTO: Seattle Municipal Archives

Employee experience design is a practice by IT, human resources officers and other leaders of the digital workplace to infuse a design-thinking approach in the workplace to help employees do their jobs better. It combines using digital workplace tools and easy-to-use interfaces that help promote the digital literacy of knowledge workers, according to CMSWire author John Zimmerer

Organizations are faced with an imperative to provide employees with a solid digital experience. The percentage of "engaged" workers in the US is now 34 percent, according to Gallup findings. Although that ties its highest level since Gallup began reporting the national figure in 2000, Gallup still found a ratio of two engaged workers for every actively disengaged one. There is work to do, here we look at how you can use the core principles of employee experience design to improve low employee engagement numbers.

“The idea of employee experience design is that it is ‘design thinking’ applied to the experience employees have at work,” wrote Kirsten Robinette, senior vice president of marketing for GQR, in a piece on employee experience design. She reported the stages in design thinking include: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. "For the best results," Robinette said, "you want to take your time going through each step and be thorough about it before moving on. After all, the goal is to genuinely improve employee experience, not just see a temporary uptick in employee engagement.”

Related Article: 7 Ways to Get Started With Employee-Driven Design

Principles of Design Thinking

Before you invest in employee experience design to improve employee experience, it’s a good idea to understand some of the key principles of design thinking from a user experience (UX) perspective. 

UX design is the process of building relationships between products and prospects or customers through a digital or physical experience that involves engineering, marketing, graphical, industrial and interface designs, according to a CMSWire report last March. It’s an “interactive brand experience that takes the place of establishing credibility and connection in the way that logos and taglines did in the past.” UX designers are charged with creating and helping organizations deliver user experiences, or how we interact with that organization’s product in a digital or physical world. 

Related Article: What Is User Experience (UX) Design?

Employee Experience Design Needs Investment in UX

Bottom line here? Stacey Blissett-Saavedra, CIO of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, said designing solutions is “where we suffer the most” because “when we look at solutions we want to get the solutions out there. And we forget sometimes that in order to make it really successful we have to spend the money in design and UX. We do some research in usability, but the investment in UX is always after the fact. It needs to be incorporated through the entire process.”

4 Essentials of Design Thinking Applied to Employee Experience

The HR Trend Institute shared four essentials of employee experience design thinking in its September report:

  • Empathy - Who are you trying to find solutions for? You need an in-depth understanding of your employees, according to the HR Trend Institute. You can start by asking people how they feel about things — frustration, anger, joy, fun — Rachel Happe, principal and co-founder of the Community Roundtable, told CMSWire. Asking people how they feel about things, and which things cause emotional extremes, tell you where to zero in, Happe added. "I love digging in to how people spend their days: understanding their routines, where their time is spent and, critically, where they would like their time to be spent,” Happe said. 
  • Co-creation - What are you ultimately trying to do? Connect different perspectives and disciplines, according to HR Trend Institute. Work in multifunctional ways and have groups come up with creative ideas.
  • Learning by doing - Make your efforts a feedback-driven approach because it will be iterative by nature. 
  • Holistic thinking - By viewing your environment as an all-encompassing approach to product, service, process and cooperation you will have a holistic view of employee experiences and therefore be able to incorporate that into your design approach.

According to Staffbase, you should consider these three elements on the path to employee experience design: overall set of employee perceptions, a collection of environmental factors (cultural, technical and physical) and a broadening of traditional HR functions. 

Related Article: 4 Tips to Apply Design Thinking to the Digital Workplace

Mapping the Employee Experience Journey

According to a 2018 survey by West Monroe Partners and the Customer Experience Professionals Association “experience design detects roadblocks within processes or policies and empowers employees to succeed.” The researchers — West Monroe Partners Paul Hagen and Eric Freshour — found many organizations can use design capabilities from their customer experience (CX) organizations to design experiences across the employee journey. In other words, take a page out of the CX book.

West Monroe listed five key steps to building a strong employee experience design program:

  • Map employee journeys and life events - Journey maps “illuminate disconnects in underlying processes, handoffs and systems as the employee crosses different internal departments and silos.” They provide insights to design better experiences by eliminating disconnects across departments or processes. Be sure to look at typical employee lifecycle as employee “life events” and company “life events” because each have a “significant impact” on the employee journey, according to West Monroe researchers.
  • Co-create and prototype the future with employees - Co-creation and prototyping can create better results than traditional “bookending” that “uses employee interviews at the beginning of a design process and activities such as user acceptance testing at the end,” West Monroe researchers found.
  • Eliminate rules and policies that hamstring employees - Researchers noted that HootSuite, Vail Resorts and TD Bank have hosted “worst policy” contests that ultimately “empowered employees to use their best judgment and adapt policies as needed to do what’s right for customers.”
  • Embed “defining moments” - Life events, career progression and location moves are all ripe moments for redesign, West Monroe researchers reported. “Some companies create an amazing welcoming experience for an employee’s first day on the job,” they reported.
  • Support new ways of working through organizational design - Implement modern organizational design and management principles. These include, according to West Monroe researchers, “cross-functional teams focused on delivering outcomes rather than projects and roles that empower employees with some level of freedom to make decisions related to their work.” 

Related Article: Employees Shouldn't Be the Focus of Workplace Design, They Should Be the Designers

Empowering Employees to Be Brand Ambassadors

Bottom line? How can employees be brand ambassadors without the strong support of employee experience design that supports the way they do work? Matthew Baier, CMO at Contentstack, said the single biggest cost of any business, analog or digital, is labor — your people. “And it’s imperative to invest in their knowledge and tools to empower them to do their job quickly, efficiently, to deliver great results for your customer and great results for your business,” he said. 

He related successful employee outcomes to successful content created by marketing. “What enables employees to be engaged, educated and evangelical ambassadors for your brand is compelling insights and campaigns by your marketing team fueled by compelling, authoritative content,” Baier added. “Content is the single biggest expense for any marketing team and any line of business function. But to what extent do we analyze the utilization of our content? Or its effectiveness on employee productivity and our line of business metrics? And how to know how our investments in content today fuel the knowledge of our employees to drive our customer experience strategy?”