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My 10 Principles for Designing Experiences Applied to Designing Organizations

It’s hard to believe that it was way back in 2011 when I first began giving my presentation Design Principles: The Philosophy of UX. Three years later, I’ve given that talk at more than a dozen conferences around the globe, from Hong Kong to Bogotá to Tel Aviv and beyond. It has been a tremendous honor each and every time.

I first wrote about guiding principles in 2009 in a post titled So You Wanna Be a User Experience Designer — Step 2: Guiding Principles, which went viral beyond my wildest imagination and gave a lot of attention to this blog that was less than 2 years old at the time. That I’m still being asked to share these same principles 4 years later is a testament to their timelessness and broad application across platforms, technologies and industries.

As my work has evolved over the years, I’ve been struck by just how applicable these principles are to each layer of business I find myself working in. Now as I am becoming a coach and helping to shape company culture at the deepest levels, I’m reflecting once again on the relevance of these principles to designing organizations.

Ultimately what these principles amount to is a philosophy of mindfulness and compassion across all realms of business. This is not just the philosophy of UX; it is shared by many disciplines that wish to bring greater consciousness to the way business is conducted at all levels.

So here are my principles for experience design, the same as they’ve always been, with updated explanations on how they apply to designing organizations.

10 Principles for Designing Organizations: The Philosophy of Mindfulness and Compassion

1. Stay out of people’s way.

Don’t be an obstacle to your customers — or your employees. When someone is trying to get something done, they’re on a mission. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily (micromanagers), don’t create messes for them to clean up (seagull managers), and don’t keep them in the dark (mushroom managers).

A servant leader provides guidance to add momentum rather than creating additional friction. Design your organization to have intentional and obvious paths to success, allowing people to complete tasks quickly and freely.

2. Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs.

…by giving the most crucial team members the greatest prominence. Not only must an organization be well organized so that it’s easy to navigate, but accessibility of information and assets ought to mimic real world usage scenarios. Don’t make the most commonly deployed resources the furthest out of reach.

Some organizations have opted for no hierarchy at all by dabbling in “holacracy,” where authority is distributed throughout the company rather than solely at the top. This lets employees be autonomous, but it doesn’t provide much incentive for career growth. Whatever style of hierarchy you design, make sure everyone knows what it is and how it reflects the needs of the people you serve — inside your company and out.

3. Limit distractions.

It’s a myth that people can multitask. Short of chewing gum while walking, people can’t actually do two things simultaneously; they end up giving less attention to both tasks and the quality of their work suffers. An effective process allows people to focus on the task at hand without having their attention diverted to less critical tasks. Assign tasks to be carried out consecutively, rather than concurrently, to keep people in the moment.

Before making requests of resources that are already strapped, consider whether it supports the organization’s long-term strategy. Management’s goal should be to keep people focused on the big picture. A peaceful work environment with minimal chaos can go a long way to increasing employee productivity and happiness.

4. Provide strong information scent.

People don’t like to guess. When they get to a place in their work where more information is needed, they don’t go look for it haphazardly; they try to follow their nose. But if they can’t easily find what they’re looking for, chances are they’ll give up and fall back on their assumptions, creating mistakes and inconsistencies.

Make it clear where your staff can obtain the information they need to do their jobs effectively. By sharing intel across the organization — either through business process automation tools, enterprise social networks, or traditional intranets — they can keep themselves moving rather than trying to recreate the wheel.

5. Provide signposts and cues.

Never let people get lost, particularly your own employees. Signposts are one of the most important elements of any experience, especially through an organization where there are an infinite number of paths leading in all directions. The employee experience includes navigating projects, navigating career growth, even navigating the office!

Design your organization to keep people aware of where they are within the overall experience at all times in a consistent and clear fashion. Good signage throughout your workspaces. A widespread habit of sharing progress reports. Clearly defined project milestones. If you show people where they came from and where they’re going, they’ll have the confidence to sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

6. Provide context.

Context sets the stage for a successful delivery. By communicating how everything interrelates, people are much more likely to understand the importance of what they’re working on. Design teams to be self-reliant, but only to an extent; information needs to flow in and out when teams working toward a shared purpose.

Transparency of senior leadership — the ability of all employees to see the same information that senior leadership sees — is a cornerstone of a successful organization. Findings and rulings should immediately be explained to everyone, whether they’ll be affected directly or indirectly. But just as strategic decisions need to be communicated down, it’s equally important for implementation decisions to be communicated up.

7. Use constraints appropriately.

Preventing error is a lot better than just recovering from it. If management knows ahead of time that there are budgetary limitations or even potential market restrictions, stop your staff from going down a dead end. By proactively indicating what is not possible, you help establish what is possible, and guide people to success. But make sure the constraints are worthwhile; don’t be overly cautious or limiting when it’s just to maintain the status quo.

Whether explicit or implicit, organizational policies (design principles, meeting protocols, HR procedures, etc.) should be a help, not a hindrance. Arbitrary deadlines, inflexible templates, antiquated tools. When employees feel like their free will has been taken away, they’re bound not to use it — to your company’s detriment. Normative control is far more effective, scalable and sustainable than bureaucratic control can ever be.

8. Make actions reversible.

There is no such thing as a perfect organization or a perfect human being. No one and nothing can prevent all errors, so you’re going to need a contingency plan. Ensure that if people make mistakes (either because they misunderstood directions, mistyped a command, or were misled by their managers), they are able to easily fix them. Undo is the most powerful control you can give a person.

Products must be repeatedly tested and iterated on before and after their release. Policy changes should be tested with a small group before they’re deployed organization-wide, and should never be considered the final word. Tolerating mistakes (whether made by someone junior or a chief executive) and having systems in place to catch them allows an organization to encourage experimentation while not exposing itself to too much risk.

9. Provide feedback.

Feedback is a process for delivering information about the past or the present with the intent of influencing the present or future. It can come in many forms: setting expectations, offering critique, sharing results. If you’re trying to change behavior, you have to help people hear the signal. If you’re making someone wait, make sure you’ve told them why and what to do in the meantime. Leadership is not a monologue, it’s a conversation.

Design your organization to make continuous feedback the norm rather than relegate it to performance reviews. Create a culture of conscious and compassionate critique at all levels of the organization, with assistance to provide it from the bottom up, not just the top down. Managers need feedback, too.

10. Make a good first impression.

You don’t get a second chance! Designing an organization is really no different than establishing a set of rules for how to conduct yourself in any relationship. You want to make people feel comfortable when you first meet them, you want to set clear expectations about what you can and can’t offer, you want to ease them into the process, you want to be attractive and appealing and strong and sensible. Ultimately you want to ensure that they can see themselves with you for a long time.

There are numerous situations when people will encounter aspects of your organization for the first time; just like a prospective customer’s first use of your website, there’s an employee’s first day, a guest’s first visit to your office, a job-seeker’s first glance at one of your job posts. When you consciously design employee onboarding, customer touchpoints, recruiting and outreach, even your office reception area, you set the tone for who you are and how you want to treat people. And that’s something no one ever forgets.

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What are the principles of your organization? Are they explicit? Do they reflect your culture and feel authentic? Who do you believe is responsible for designing the organization and bringing these principles to life? Please share your thoughts.

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