Digital Workplace Design Needs a Human-Centered Approach


Quick fixes only serve to put band aids on real productivity issues. PHOTO: Mike Wilson

For knowledge workers dealing with non-routine problems or projects, the effectiveness of the tools they use to work together plays a key role in their productivity. 

While a poorly designed system that automates or streamlines tasks can also impact productivity, those issues are generally solvable with better fit for purpose solutions. 

But when people use technology to collaborate, we are faced with a more complex dynamic between groups of people and the digital tools they use.

Work Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Email is one of the most commonly found productivity tools in the workplace and it illustrates the challenge well. 

People can be almost tribal in their preferences to use either Outlook, Gmail or IBM Notes. Just try asking a long-term user of one tool to swap to another and they will complain bitterly about the change you’re forcing on them. They will likely talk specifically about the impact on their personal productivity.

But if Outlook, Gmail or IBM Notes all perform essentially the same function, how much does the specific choice of the tool itself drive better productivity? Or is it the specific practices people have developed around using them? And how much do the behaviors of other users impact the quality of that user experience?

The answer is all of the above, because technologies designed to support or enhance productivity are never used in a vacuum. 

In my opinion, ignoring this fact — or placing unqualified faith that technology alone can drive effectiveness — is the major reason why our workplace technology is underperforming.

Understand the Context

As a human-centered designer specializing in enterprise technology, it is my job to help uncover sources of friction in the way people use productivity tools. This friction comes in many forms, ranging from tangible “hygiene” factors that cause frustration for users to more complex intangible issues related to differences in work styles and culture. 

Understanding this context is absolutely critical to addressing productivity.

For example, many years ago I worked with a business that spent significant time and money investing in a new management reporting system. They were about to launch when they encountered a problem: they realized just then that the new online system could not resize reports to format correctly when printed.

They saw these printed reports as vital to the management process, as managers used them during face-to-face planning meetings. 

The frustration created by this printing issue was significant enough that it risked diluting the promised benefits of the new system. In this instance it was a case of finding solutions for mitigating the problem after the fact, but a better way would have been to understand that important human dimension at the start.

Elements of Digital Workplace Design

This experience highlights the importance of a human-centered approach, rather than trying to fix the technology or changing how people work. Over the years I have learnt that to do this well, your digital workplace design process should include the following essential elements:

  • Be realistic about technology: You need to understand the affordance offered by the technologies being used or considered, otherwise you risk under or overestimating the real world use cases or productivity benefits
  • Have empathy for how people actually work: Develop empathy for the needs and wants of different people. Not to say you have to accept irrational and ill informed requirements expressed by users, instead seek to understand why
  • Solve productivity together: Use techniques like personas, co-design and an agile approach to bring people on the journey of optimizing work practices, personal preferences and technology capabilities

The big picture of the productivity paradox is a complicated one, but when we get down to the practical level of people simply trying to work together there is a lot we can do to improve that experience — if we take the right approach. 

A human-centered approach to designing and implementing workplace technology not only reduces the risk of technology projects failing, but is vital for achieving the intended productivity outcomes. 

But if you keep looking for quick fixes to the productivity paradox, you will continue to be disappointed.

Passionate about changing the way the world gets work done using digital technology, James has spent much of the last decade specializing in human-centered IT solutions that help people connect, communicate and collaborate with each other. His professional experience includes working in a variety of information and knowledge management roles and as a consultant with a wide range of government, professional and blue chip companies.


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