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What is “employee experience design” (EXD)? Definition, origins, examples.

employee experience

employee experience

Written by Ephraim Julius Freed, Internal Communications Manager & Intranet Manager, Employee Experience leader.

In a nutshell: Employee experience design (EXD) describes a holistic, audience-centric approach to delivering HR, internal communications, the digital workplace and physical office spaces. EXD combines user experience design and research, cross-functional collaboration and solutions, employer brand and values, and product management thinking to deliver consistent, aligned, and innovative solutions that transcend traditional organizational silos. It’s not a new thing, but it is highly valuable.

2017 is the year of employee experience design (EXD)

In the year 2017 “employee experience design” is the new hotness throughout the fields of HR and talent strategy, internal communications, intranets and the digital workplace, and more.

Evidence of EXD’s break-out year:

Whether or not the phrase “employee experience” is here to stay remains to be seen. It may just be a trending buzzword or we may not learn the lessons that led us to EXD. No matter what, there is great value in the concept.

But what does this fanciful phrase really mean, how did we get here, why does it matter and what are we doing with it?

EXD is basically an audience-centric approach to delivering employee tools and services

Definitions of emerging terms are testy things that always rankle someone’s nose. But perhaps this attempt will do more good than harm.

Employee experience design: An audience-centric, programmatic approach to delivering employee-facing tools and services.

Here’s a more complete definition: An audience-centric, programmatic approach to delivering employee-facing tools and services that combines user experience design (UXD) with cross-functional collaboration to deliver brand-consistent multimodal, multimedia solutions.

That’s a mouthful, but captures most of what EXD is about. I’d love to hear other definitions that are pithy and simpler, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

If that’s what EXD means, where did it come from?

EXD is design thinking and customer experience jumping the (firewall) shark

EXD hasn’t come out of nowhere. It has clearly evolved out of a few different trends from the past 5-10 years.

First off, EXD is a response to the common failures of employee-facing services. Most failures of intranet and digital workplace projects, HR and internal communications initiatives, IT services and physical workplace enhancements can all be traced back to three things: 1) A lack of UXD and research, 2) siloed thinking and planning, and 3) short-term project-based thinking.

Secondly, EXD is “customer experience” hopping the fence (firewall). Marketing, sales and customer service have all seen a shift towards a more holistic perspective of “customer experience.” Leading organizations have recognized that their customers build brand perceptions in a thousand small moments. These organizations have shifted from siloed and disjointed approaches towards delivering consistent, valuable interactions for customers throughout each and every customer journey. This approach has hopped the firewall and taken the form of EXD, led by the demands of the “war for talent” and a modern perspective on creating meaningful experiences of work.

Thirdly, EXD is “design thinking” applied to employee-facing services. I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “design thinking” because we’ve collectively imbued it with a magical aura that makes it overly complex. In a nutshell “design thinking” means thinking about the user experience from the outset, conducting user research all along the way, applying creative problem solving and iteration to find forward-facing solutions, and establishing cross-functional teams at the start of an initiative to maximize innovation and delivery.

Finally, EXD just leads to better delivery. It’s fairly common knowledge that huge number of IT projects fail, or at least come in over budget and under value. Other employee-facing efforts often struggle to deliver on their value proposition. By relying on research, user testing, the iterative approach of product management, and good cross-functional collaboration from employee-facing teams, EXD can deliver what employees actually need and do it in an agile-like way.

EXD requires 4 core interrelated elements

People have been doing EXD for a long time, but we’ve only recently started calling it a thing. It results from combining four core elements:

1: User experience design (UXD) and research

At the heart of EXD lies UXD and research. One of the most well recognized leaders in measuring internal communications, Angela Sinickas, always conducts research before setting project goals. She assumes that without research there can be no real strategy. Sinickas makes sure to understand what the problem is that an internal communications initiative is trying to solve and how outcome-oriented goals will be measured.

Similarly, virtually all the most prestigious award-winning intranets rely on extensive UXD. Perhaps the most innovative design firm in the world, IDEO, pioneered the realm of design thinking through its expertise in observing real-world customers in order to truly understand problems.

2: Cross-functional collaboration to provide multimodal solutions

Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. around a problem or effective collaboration among multidisciplinary teams. Effective change management within organizations requires comprehensive approaches that touch on communications and content, behavior, digital tools, learning and development, etc.

When HR, IT, Finance, Facilities, Legal and Internal Communications departments work well together, they deliver better, more holistic solutions to employee needs.

  1. Employer brand and values

To deliver consistent and comprehensive employee experiences, we need to root our work in a compelling, thoughtful employer brand. This means knowing what our organizational values are and how to live them out in our daily behavior, our communications, and the design of digital and physical environments. EXD without a strong employer brand is like a ship without a rudder. All the UXD, cross-functional collaboration and program management involved in EXD must eventually move through the filter of the employer brand.

  1. A product management and program management approach

Product management and program management both rely on:

Product management, specifically, often relies on an agile approach to experimentation and delivering value iteratively. We do need to be careful with product management, though, because it can lead to a kind of siloed way of operating as well: Some well managed narrow product slice might be exceptional while other products suffer, creating an inconsistent employee experience.

Greg Nemeth, Director of Knowledge Platforms at EY, recently wrote about thinking holistically about knowledge management, and the need for a broad, programmatic perspective. Having seen live tours of EY’s digital workplace over the years I can attest to the power of this ongoing approach.

When all four of the above elements of EXD come together, the results are magical and organizations can truly deliver on employee experience. Of course, this all sounds nice, but what does EXD look like in practice?

Examples of EXD: Elevating employee audiences above operational silos

Many organizations have implemented tons of examples of effective EXD. However, it’s not the norm. Here are a few theoretical and real-world examples to bring EXD out of the clouds and down to the ground.

Delivering a comprehensive employee onboarding program

Let’s start with the example of employee onboarding. A good onboarding experience can create a very welcoming feeling for newbs, as well as increase their efficacy and cultural alignment.

But the different parts of onboarding often are handled by disparate teams, using disparate systems, with a disjointed resulting experience. Many organizations lack a basic orientation program and those that do orientation may do a poor job of digital onboarding to introduce new employees to the digital workplace. Furthermore, a general orientation program may contrast with lacking or inconsistent divisional and team orientations.

A comprehensive onboarding experience program would include the following elements:

Delivering the above requires close collaboration between employee-facing teams as well as other departments to deliver communications, content, process improvements, technology improvements, and more. It also requires ongoing UXD and employee research; product management to map employee journeys, pain points and opportunities, along with planning for iterative improvements; and a measurement framework based on outcome-oriented goals like employee engagement, retention, process consistency, etc.

Designing office space based on usage data and employee research

This helpful article from HBR with two space planning case studies explains how companies integrate data and employee research to design effective office space.

Many companies have moved to open-space floor plans based with the idea that the layout will increase collaboration. The research is mixed on whether open-space floor plans deliver net positive impacts. But smart companies get higher value from their new office spaces by doing their homework and following up with measurement after moving in.

In leading examples, companies research usage patterns, survey employees, test designs and build modular spaces that can be adapted to changing needs. In these examples the implementation teams incorporate branding, IT, internal communications and other functions in the design process to create rich, consistent, useful experiences.

Additionally, companies plan the transition to new office spaces carefully. They communicate about an office move with a long lead-up time. They identify concerns and needs outside of the office itself, like commuting, transferring workstations and personal belongings, finding tasty lunch spots near the new office, etc. Addressing the overall experience of moving to and living in a new office space requires a comprehensive “experience” lens, which leading companies totally nail.

Finally, after initial implementation, teams follow up with ongoing analysis of usage and satisfaction.

Giving a name to good practice

We all likely have encountered many examples similar to the ones above. Many organizations have been doing EXD for a long time. In a lot of cases good change management is EXD.

The difference today is that we are collectively recognizing the value of EXD and striving to make it the new standard.

EXD is not rocket science. In fact, it’s the opposite of deep knowledge of one highly specific domain – EXD represents the integration of multiple domains of expertise, around an obsessively audience-centric approach.

And once again, EXD isn’t important because it represents a technology trend or industry buzzwords; it’s important because it delivers better results.

Most organizations struggle with EXD because they:

So the big question each of us faces is this: Does our own organization have a culture where an employee-centric perspective, cross-functional collaboration and ongoing program management can thrive?

This article was originally published on Linkedin Pulse.

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