As more and more companies begin to embrace design thinking to better serve their customers, the value of user research as a core design activity is becoming increasingly clear. When it comes to building great consumer products, understanding user needs is critical. But what happens when the product you’re building is destined for the workplace? How do you uncover the needs of employees within a cultural organization to guide the development of enterprise applications?
Workplace products are all about driving adoption by understanding employee attitudes and behaviours. These are greatly influenced by the organizational work culture that surrounds them, and this culture requires special consideration. If you’re about to embark on an employee research effort, you might be wondering how to handle the idiosyncrasies of the workplace. Since the majority of our work deals with the enterprise, we have curated a list of some of the top methods we employ when it comes to conducting research in the workplace. Our focus here will be on attitudinal research — in particular, interviews, panels, and surveys. With a few simple tweaks, research methods can be vastly improved for workplace-specific contexts. And with better research, we can build better solutions for our colleagues, employees, or employers. Let’s dive in!
1) Choose your words wisely
When you are preparing to conduct interviews, lead a panel interview, perform contextual inquiry, or even when you’re putting together a survey, it’s important to think carefully about the words and the phrasing you will employ. A very simple, but powerful strategy is to use positive language. As one of our research leads at Myplanet, Cara is all too familiar with this scenario: “Using positive language allows users to be more forthcoming with their answers while minimizing opportunities to gratuitously vent.” In workplace contexts — where things like office politics, worries about public perceptions, and a reluctance to critique others’ work may make people hesitant to give candid answers — focusing research questions on areas for improvement instead of on failings can allow users to be more comfortable in identifying enhancement opportunities.
For instance, the design of many workplace collaboration tools today can come with its own litany of user complaints. As a researcher you might ask, “What are the problems with the way you currently hold meetings on platform X with remote team members?” While useful in identifying the key pain points of an experience, it is also a slippery slope towards an endless array of user grievances, providing little forward momentum. In contrast, asking, “In using platform X, what would an ideal experience in collaborating with remote team members look like for you?” focuses on the desired future and offers users a light at the end of the tunnel. More importantly, responses become more revealing in understanding the value systems of employees looking for a more robust collaboration workflow. Finally, framing questions optimistically also elicits a more generative user mindset giving us as researchers a larger playground to derive solutions from.
2) Adopt the native language
Another way you can use language choice to your advantage is through incorporation of native language questions. Popularized by anthropologist James Spradley in his book Ethnographic Interviewing, it is stated that using the same native speak as the person being interviewed can facilitate a more comfortable rapport between the researcher and the interviewee, ultimately leading to more meaningful insights.
Relating this back to the context of the workplace, one of our customers with international retail locations had developed a vocabulary to describe different store zones. For example, management used “upstage” to describe customer service areas, and “downstage” to discuss backend storage facilities. When we began our user interviews, we were mindful to include this language in our line of questioning, and employees instantly credited us with having a deeper understanding of their workflow. This also gave us opportunities to hear about other aspects of their workplace experience.
As a caveat, the gratuitous and misguided use of industry vernacular can also have a counterproductive effect. The technical nature of designing a file transfer management system for a web workplace, for instance, may infer a heavy use of technical speak as part of the discovery process. However, poorly applying technical jargon to your interview questions may also break your credibility among the SMEs you are in conversation with. A more transparent approach might be to defer to them as experts, thus, emphasizing your respect and trust in their domain knowledge.
3) Establish and communicate a clear confidentiality policy
As you begin conducting user research with employees at a work organization, boundaries in anonymity and privacy concerns need to be considered. For instance, when conducting research to build an employee schedule management tool, we uncovered that employees were using Facebook to exchange their schedule information as a workaround to the limitations of their existing product. This contravened company policy and, if discovered by management, could compromise the employees’ positions. A level of discretion had to be maintained that allowed the critical insights to come to the surface, while providing a buffer against the risks of sharing identifying information about the employees that could have been potentially damning to them. “It was important that we did not ask questions whose answers might incur a penalty to employees”, says Cara who was involved as project research lead, “More importantly, early expectations had to be set that ideas and opinions would remain anonymous when results of the research were communicated back to project stakeholders”.
4) Keep your approach objective
When working with a group of competing stakeholders, be aware of crafting questions that bias the research outcomes towards a certain stakeholder group or organizational department. For example, the design of a company-wide HR information system for a growing employee staff might elicit strong opinions from the IT team with their own priorities for the ease of maintenance. The HR management staff may have personal objectives in being able to push certain company content and HR announcements to the employees, while the team staff’s primary interest might be in the ease and efficiency of accomplishing their own administrative goals. As a researcher, it is important in any scenario to be knowledgeable of divergent stakeholder agendas, but it’s also critical to be aware of subtle biases in your research questions that may steer toward one particular viewpoint.
“According to [Stakeholder A], it was mentioned that any notification and alerts for your approved time off should be checked only on the system? What are your thoughts on this?” could influence an employee based on their relationship with or opinion of the stakeholder in question. A better solution would be to generalize, opting for “It’s been mentioned that seeing vacation approvals should only be accessed within this system. What are your thoughts on this?” Taken one step further, you could even eliminate the suggestion of a solution at all by saying, “Once you submit your requested time off within the system, what would you expect to happen next?”
5) Ensure a variety of research participant types
In tackling projects where we ask for a cross-section of employees to interview, we sometimes find stakeholders lean towards recruiting only certain types of users, often choosing employees that are the most “positive” representation of their company. But as researchers, it is our job to guard against this, and including a variety of user categories can help in this effort. At times, this may mean pushing for interviews with actual employees even if your stakeholders are willing to settle for proxy users. Other times, it may mean employing some guerrilla research tactics to gain access to user groups.
Having experienced a similar situation first hand while conducting research, Cara reinforces this point: “It’s important to be explicit with stakeholders concerning the diversity of users you are looking for. Note that this includes both their superstar employees and strugglers.” To extend this point further, when building an internal employee access portal, we asked to recruit cafeteria staff as part of an interviewing sample. Stakeholders for the client organization did not feel this group of individuals was relevant even though they were still in fact using the same tool. However, by securing their involvement we were able to make a case to include their insights. This helped safeguard against biasing our research results by only focusing on a curated segment of user groups.
Our experiences with enterprise organizations have taught us how crucial it is to conduct meaningful user research. Whether you’re testing for an audience of 50,000 users or 50, stakeholders are keen to see the results reflected in the final outcome. Balancing the need for thorough inquiry with the realities of strained timelines and budgets and a potentially reticent user base is difficult. But with careful planning and thoughtful structuring to the process and the way the inquiries are phrased, the results can be astounding in their relevance. Just as a great consumer product requires deep user research of customers, a great workplace product needs a deep, nuanced understanding of employees and their ability to guide you to insights that will steer your concepts in the next stages.
Just as we are excited by the evolution of the workplace through new systems and tools, we are excited to evolve our practices in building them and to continue our contribution to the ongoing discussion of designing for the workplace. Accordingly, if you have any feedback on what we’ve shared today, we’d love to hear it.