Getting Your Arms Around the User Experience

December 2, 2015 Steve Boese

Steve Boese is the Co-Chair of the HR Technology Conference and creator and Co-host of the HR Happy Hour Podcast. His recent column for Human Resource Executive Online focused on the importance of User Experience (UX) when evaluating HR technology solutions. We thought the piece was interesting and relevant, and wanted to share it with you.

Understanding the User Experience of HRIS and Canadian Payroll Software

I get to see lots of HR software demonstrations as part of developing the program for the HR Technology Conference and Exposition®. From brand-new HR-tech start-ups whose products are just emerging in the market to some of the world's largest software companies, these demonstrations and conversations with founders and executives are a great way for me to keep up-to-date, as well as to tease out the emerging trends in the market.

In almost every demonstration, someone from the provider organization talks about being focused on something called the "user experience" (aka "UX"). This term almost always follows the descriptor "great," so what I hear all the time from providers -- and you've probably heard it, as well, during a recent HR software demo -- is, "We are focused on creating a great user experience." Literally every vendor says this exact same thing.

The reason they all say this is that UX is actually really important. You probably realize this -- even if you are among those who have never heard the actual term before -- because you are making decisions and choices around technology at least partially based on UX. The apps you like to use on your phone, including those for email, weather, sports scores, shopping, listening to podcasts, etc. -- were likely chosen for two main reasons: One is based on the actual functionality of the app (aka, the "what"); and the second is based on the input methods, characteristics, work flow, design, look and interaction style of the app (aka, the "how").

That How is the most significant part of the concept of UX

It is important to note, as well, that user experience is more than just colours, fonts and buttons. It encompasses a wide range of aspects and elements that define how users feel about the technology.

So now that we have an idea of what the user experience consists of -- and that it is key when evaluating technology -- what are some of the questions that you should ask your current or prospective HR technology solution providers when evaluating the UX of their solutions?

Here are a few ideas. First, some questions about the organization itself:

What does UX mean to your organization?

This is mostly about getting solution providers to talk about UX generally and share their philosophies of the importance of UX to their organizations. It's also about trying to get a sense of their approaches in building their solutions. When they talk about their products and future road maps, how much time is spent on UX topics compared to basic functionality and capability? Essentially, you are trying to get an overall feel for, and comfort level with, the provider's commitment to UX.

  • What is the title of the most-senior person in the organization who is dedicated to UX?
  • How many staffers are on the UX team?
  • Has that part of the development organization grown in the last two years?

These questions are meant to help you dig a little deeper to see if the solution provider is backing up its stated commitment to UX with the proper investments and resources. Most of the larger solution providers will have a dedicated team on the UX side, usually led by a director or senior director of UX. Ask about their UX teams -- and not just the size of the team, but the backgrounds of team members. You want to get a feel for the skills, experiences and points of view that the people doing the UX work are bringing to this important role.

Next, here are some ideas for questions that are specific to the actual solution or application being evaluated:

How easy or hard is it for the application's intended users to complete their actual tasks using the technology?

This seems like such a basic question, but it strikes directly at one of the most crucial components of UX -- usability. While usability and UX are sometimes described as being interchangeable, they really are two distinct concepts. Usability is an element of UX, but not the only element, as we will see in the next few questions and examples. Nonetheless, the relative ease to complete transactions and have interactions with the technology is of primary concern when assessing for UX overall. Here you will examine the number of screens or clicks required to complete a task along with things such as application performance and response time. Users will have better experiences when what you are asking them to do in the technology just seems "easy."

How does the application create value for end users/managers/leaders?

This question is meant to elicit a somewhat deeper answer than say, "The application lets employees enter their hours worked." An answer like that is simply the description of a capability, and not an indication of the more important user, team and business value that the application can help support and provide. Whether it is a system for time entry, performance management, payroll or another of the myriad HR technologies that are on the market, the tech's value proposition, expressed at different levels, is also fundamental to overall UX.

Users and HR leaders have to see the connection between the adoption of this new technology and the organization's overall business objectives.

So the time-entry system is not just about allowing users to enter their hours worked, it is a tool that allows users insight into their work patterns and helps the organization better align capacity with expected need for staff. It doesn't really matter what the technology does. If the value derived from using that technology is hard to quantify or even describe, the overall UX suffers (Editor's note: check out Adam Czarnecki's People Management Superhero post for even more on this insight).

How easy or hard is it for new users to begin to use the technology?

Does the technology require formal training for end users? How much training is typically needed? How expert does one have to be in order to train and onboard new users? How often do users fail to achieve proficiency with the technology and just give up? What you are looking for here is not necessarily a "training-not-needed" answer, but rather, a feel for the learning curves required for all the different user types (employee, manager, executive, administrator, etc.).

In the absence of some really compelling value (see above), most employees and managers will quickly become frustrated and dissatisfied with any technology solution that can't be adopted for use quickly. No one has the time or patience for 39-page user manuals, three-hour in-person training sessions, or the notion that they need to be some kind of an IT expert to master the technology. Ask your solution providers what they are doing to make their systems more easily adopted by all kinds of users -- be they professional, manager or executive (or someone just using it on a casual basis).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

How fun and engaging is the technology for users?

I know I have written about the importance of "fun" in the context of enterprise software a few times over the years, but it still seems to me that HR technology providers often don't consider the element of "fun" as they create and market their solutions.

HR and workplace technologies have to be used by actual people.

It sort of seems out of place, right? I mean, why should HR technology -- or any workplace technology, for that matter -- be "fun" anyway? Well, because HR and workplace technologies have to be used by actual people, and most actual people would prefer -- and be more enthusiastic about -- using a new technology if it was, indeed, fun.

By that, I am not talking about "Angry Birds"-type fun. The technology needs to be enjoyable and engaging in the context of users getting their work accomplished and deriving value. So it is important, even if it seems a little far-fetched, to see how a solution provider creates a sense of fun and user engagement with its technologies. It may seem hard to believe, but some workplace tools are fun to use in the context of accomplishing tasks, and these are the ones that tend to get adopted more readily, and deliver value more quickly.

In many process areas, the market for HR technology solutions is pretty well understood and mature, resulting in a situation in which most providers can equally meet the basic requirements of a process and have at least broadly similar capability. This is the "what" part of the technology-evaluation equation I referenced earlier. So when differences in the "what" are hard to find, or are nonexistent, the differences in the "how", i.e. the UX, often become the deciding factors for HR-technology selection, and ultimately, success.

And for HR leaders, it is becoming more and more important that your HR technology evaluation criteria include as much emphasis on these UX elements as the basic, fundamental capabilities of the technology.

In other words, the "how" is becoming just as important -- if not more important -- than the "what."

This post was originally published in the Human Resource Inside Column of HRE Online.

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About the Author

Steve Boese

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE’s HR Technology® Conference and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast.

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