Improving the employee experience: how to build a usable internal web portal
Creating a user-friendly, time-saving and efficient internal portal isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a worthwhile step in the battle for employee retention. Here are some recommendations to building an intranet that employees actually find useful.
When we think about user experience, we usually think about customers. This is because web design is so closely entangled with marketing that it’s hard to separate designing sites from selling products.
Of course, optimising the user experience isn’t just important for selling stuff…
Making the process of donating to a charity simple and intuitive will increase the amount of donations. ‘Imagineers’ spend decades designing theme park ride queue systems so visitors don’t find the wait off-putting. And making the experience of working for a company pleasant will keep your staff from running off to other companies.
Us darn millennials
In years gone by, an employee would happily sit down to their brand-new Macbook and download some music to their state-of-the-art iPhone so they could listen to it on their commute; but when they got to the office, they wouldn’t think twice about logging into a clapped-out old monster of a PC and working on a twenty-year-old version of Windows with some systems that only worked in DOS.
That’s no longer the case. Us privileged millennials have turned up at the office and started asking why we can’t have a work iPhone, why we can’t have a Macbook, and why none of our workplace software is compatible with either. Fail to answer these requests and we’ll be off to a trendy, Google-ish start-up who can.
New employees nowadays expect to sit down at their desks on their first day and find a single website that serves to:
- Log their HR details
- Monitor their pay and holiday
- Keep them informed about what’s happening in the company
- Allow them to book work-related travel
- Let them look up their colleagues and see an org chart
- See information on processes and get help
- Find contact details for relevant people
- Gain discounts and other perks
- Even share blogs and advertise clubs and social events
…all in one place, with a simple interface and easy login process.
This makes a fantastic first impression and everyone’s daily life easier.
Save staff, save time
Even if you don’t see the advantage in staff retention, there’s a genuine saving here in terms of time.
I, for one, have spent entire days of my working life hunting around for the right person to speak to about sorting out something on my payslip and I’ve spent literally six months trying to get security clearance to download the trial of a piece of software.
Automating those processes so an employee can simply click and allow everything to sort itself will let them concentrate on their jobs and achieve far more.
So how does one go about setting up a portal? Well, in essence, the same way one goes about any UX project: the first stage is user research.
This is both simpler and more complex than consumer research. On the one hand, your user base is at hand for you to interview and access in its entirety. They are also part of a community with their own culture and values, meaning there will be far more consistency in terms of their needs and priorities.
For an in-depth and entertaining guide to getting started with user research, read our free-to-download, comprehensive ebook ‘User Experience Research 101’
However, this situation has its own problems.
The management of any firm will insist it knows its employees better than you do, no matter how much research you have done. Breaking misinterpretations takes far longer than finding the truth from scratch, even without the interference of political agendas and troubled histories.
In addition, internal stakeholders will be looking for far more than just a simple profit; success with your portal will not just be determined by achievement, but also who gets the credit and how visible that success is to the right parties.
In both cases, diplomacy and brinkmanship are as important as your usual UX talents. This is where it can be extremely useful to gain sponsorship from someone senior in the company and partner up with an influential and charismatic liaison who can smooth the way for what you need to do and point out coming pitfalls in advance.
When engaging these people, make constant references to their personal devices and phones; ask why they’re willing to accept sub-standard experiences in the workplace when they don’t at home, and remind them of what’s at stake for their company in terms of losses and staff churn.
Whatever you do, keep them distracted from their prejudices against new technology and practices, as they will instantly be averse to investing in anything new for fear that the consequences of failure will fall on them.
Choosing a platform
Never is this more the case than when choosing the right platform to host your site, as you won’t just have to consider the right choice for the user, but the capabilities of the company’s devices and systems, and security concerns. In this case, the simplest choice is often the best. Find a flexible, idiot-proof tool that works everywhere and requires very little investment.
Free options like WordPress are often just as effective as a custom package and they’re a lot easier to sell. Though, it will be worth championing these as a minimum viable product that can be invested in more heavily later on, as your stakeholders will often be hounded by slick salesmen trying to sell them flashy packages for a lot of money. They will often do nothing the free option won’t, but you’ll need to overcome the prejudice that free = bad.
Tell your client to make a free site for now to test engagement and learn lessons, then advise they can invest in an expensive package to wow senior management later on, once the concept has been proven. If you do your job right with the free version, the investment will likely never be needed, but this attitude should answer every objection and calm every fear.
With your platform chosen and stakeholder approval gained, you next need to involve the entire company in the process of creating your site and content. The more employees you can involve in the site’s construction, the less resistance you will feel along the way and the fewer pitfalls you’ll find later on.
Lastly, when your launch day approaches, your biggest challenge will stand in your way. The portal can be as minimal and provisional as you need it to be, but it damn well better work perfectly.
Launch day is effectively going all-in. With a consumer site or app, you will only engage a fraction of your user base on your first day and can label the product ‘beta’ without lasting issues. Reputation still counts, but the value of your product can outsway a few teething troubles.
The 2016 launch of the Pokemon Go mobile game was a disaster with a vast underestimation of the user uptake preventing many users from even accessing the game, but it still went on to be one of the most successful mobile games of all time.
On the other hand, I once worked on a user portal that had been live for two years before I was recruited. At launch, the search function didn’t even have an algorithm and was widely criticised, an opinion that remained popular, even when I was getting regular reports on the success rates of the site’s searches.
The first impression is often the only one that counts, so make sure it is good, even if it is a small one – far better no-one notices an effective app, allowing you to market it with success stories, than for every employee trying the app to find it doesn’t work at all.
Overall, it is likely easier to launch a successful consumer project than to create an employee portal, but you can’t underestimate the value to a company of a tool to take care of all their everyday needs while they concentrate on succeeding and enjoying their work. It’s not for the faint hearted, but it is a worthwhile pursuit.
If you’d like to know more about how UserZoom can help test, measure and improve your own site’s UX, please get in touch!
Neil Sheppard has been a UX copywriter and content strategist for nearly a decade. Starting out as a pharmaceutical stock markets journalist, Neil quickly moved into digital copywriting, managing a team optimising product content for a busy commercial website. Nowadays, Neil helps companies create easy-to-use internal websites and digital employee manuals that make complex processes simple for everyone from CEOs to service desk agents.