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Are You Holding Your Users Hostage? A User-Centric Approach to Internal Products


Dec 6, 2023 - 8 minute read

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Anna Rozwadowska UX Specialist

With a background in social sciences and a passion for cognitive science, UX was a natural career choice for Anna. She likes to think that her work makes the work of end users easier or at least less complicated. When she's not riding her bike, she's probably lost somewhere in the woods and doesn't really want to be found. 

See all Anna's posts

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In the era of global UX rise and democratisation, why are users still subjected to complex processes, dark patterns, and confusing interfaces? 

The Value of UX in Product-Oriented Companies 

It’s 2023. Nobody questions the value of user experience (UX) in product companies. Delightful, fast, and accessible experiences have become the key selling points for many product companies on the market. Many start-ups centre their unique value proposition around providing a better, faster, more intuitive, and user-friendly way of doing the things we already have apps for. 

As users, we’ve become accustomed to the highest standards. We ruthlessly delete annoying apps from our phones and vote with our wallets in favour of those that meet our needs better. Faced with a cascade of intrusive ad banners, we swiftly switch to another media outlet, e-commerce solution, or service provider without a blink. We roll our eyes when we stumble upon a hurdle we cannot jump, be it a government service lacking accessibility standards or a rather unusable app or website that doesn’t offer a user-friendly alternative. At least, not yet. 

All of this is great news for UX professionals. We still argue about the democratisation of design, wonder how to fit discovery within an agile framework, and generally complain about being undervalued and misunderstood. Despite all that, one fact remains indisputable: customer-facing companies are pouring increasing amounts of money into user experience, and slowly but surely, it’s getting more and more recognition. It’s no longer an empty slogan, and it’s starting to reach deeper than simply sticking a user-friendly label on a product. Sure, there’s still a lot to be done in terms of embedding UX into business processes and increasing its impact on the final product. However, in general, there’s little doubt about the value of discovering users’ needs and centring product design around them — at least when it comes to product-oriented companies. 

UX for Internal Projects 

As I’m typing these words in Notion, somebody in their office is stuck using an outdated Libre Office instance because the company they work for didn’t want to spend money on licences, and its strict security policy prevents software updates. 

Somebody else is taking a deep breath before logging into a PowerApps application. It was cheap and fast to develop and generally does its job but requires a full day of training, and only one person in the office really knows how to use it. 

Some poor soul is checking inventory in a program with an interface that hasn’t changed since ‘98. It’s not part of a vaporwave music video or a nostalgic TikTok from a Gen Z representative; it’s part of the job they’re paid to do. 

Another miserable individual is just done explaining to their new colleague that, despite filling out and submitting a form, they now have to log out, log in again, open the form settings, dive five levels deep in there, locate a checkbox ‘Submitted’, sacrifice a goat, and keep their fingers crossed that the form has, in fact, been submitted. “It’s just how we do this thing around here,” they sigh, offering a weary smile to their new colleague who’s left in terror. 

Not to mention all the corporate pencil pushers and office workers (myself included) who engage in a daily roulette game of “Will Teams crush today?”, “What important emails have been filtered out of my default inbox view, and what consequences will that entail?”, or “Did I hit ‘reply’ or ‘reply all’?” — and yes, I know you can set the last one as default, but who has the time for that? 

The point I’m trying to make here is this: everybody loves UX when it comes to selling stuff to people, keeping shareholders happy, and driving ROI growth. Nobody gives a damn about the UX of everyday tasks people are paid to do. And that’s a shame. 

Employees ≠ Users? 

In corporate environments, discussions around UX, usability, or, very often, even common sense are virtually absent. The term ‘employee experience’ revolves around hiring, firing, and people submitting their resignations. In job ads, companies are tempting potential employees with benefits, relaxation rooms, extra holidays, insurance coverage, and the promise of a young and dynamic team. However, I have not yet encountered a job ad that would say “The apps you will use for your daily tasks won’t drain your soul” (I’d certainly apply for that!). 

I also haven’t heard about anybody who has quit their job because the work software was simply unusable. So, maybe I’m exaggerating? After all, these companies are already providing for their employees’ livelihoods, so why should they concern themselves with the user-friendliness of their work tools if they’re apparently usable enough to generate a profit? 

Yes, why should they? 


The most logical and almost intuitive answer to this question is the increase in productivity. With better tools (and by tools, I mean both apps and processes) employees will be faster, better, stronger… I mean, work more effectively. Obviously, this makes a lot of sense: if an app somebody is supposed to work on keeps crushing, not much work will be done. The same goes for terrible usability patterns and daunting procedures. Some companies are not even aware of how much more work their employees would do had they been given better tools. 

Easier Onboarding for New Hires 

Another upside of improving the UX of internal solutions is reducing the time spent on training. This might seem trivial, but in larger organisations, we can be talking about thousands of training hours saved. Your internal applications and processes should be both easy to learn and easy to master. This way, not only will you shorten the induction of new employees but also lessen the training burden on seasoned specialists. There will always be a learning curve, but you get to decide how steep it will be. 

Avoiding Human Errors 

People do screw up, or as Chat GPT would put it, "It's not uncommon for individuals to inadvertently create problems”. No matter how politely you phrase it, human errors will always be part of the equation. However, you can reduce their number significantly. An intuitive user interface (UI) with recognisable UX patterns can effectively guide users through even the most complex business processes. Providing clear guidance and navigation can improve data quality and lower security risks. 

Let’s stop there for a minute. Some managers might think that the people they hire are lazy and therefore prone to ignoring procedures, which leads to all kinds of errors, breaches, and even accidents. Usually, it’s the other way around: people ignore procedures that are too complex and ill-designed. Not because they’re lazy but because that’s how our brains work. Procedures established by negligent managers will inevitably be ignored, while those that are clear, easy to learn, and intuitive are more likely to be followed. 

It is human to err, but the worst kind of corporate oversight is to make humans err all over the place by giving them software and methods designed to facilitate errors. 

Increased Adoption 

Country songs teach us that you can’t make somebody love you. In contrast, labour law teaches us that you can make somebody use a specific app if you employ them. You can’t make them love it though. If the user experience of the app is terrible and employees must use it daily for crucial tasks, they’ll likely develop another kind of strong feeling towards it. 

On the other hand, if your internal app were nice, easy, and intuitive, you wouldn’t have difficulties onboarding new users. Good solutions don’t need extra marketing — if they genuinely meet your employees’ needs, they will be embraced and used. If they’re designed poorly, you can mandate their use, but don’t be surprised if your employees start looking for loopholes to avoid using them. 

Leveraging Employee Expertise and Ideas  

Removing usability obstacles from internal products and processes is not even a starting point. To eliminate these barriers, you first need to identify them, and the best way to do so is by talking to the users — the employees. And once companies start talking to their employees, magic happens. Managers can learn a lot about the daily struggles of line employees and capitalise on user research activities not only to pinpoint areas in need of improvement but even to get improvement ideas right away. These insights from people directly involved in the company’s day-to-day operations are priceless. 

(Better) Alignment with Business Goals 

Last but not least, focusing on the UX of internal applications can help you build the right solution for your organisation. Product companies periodically pause to think if the product they’re building is the product somebody will pay for. With so much on the line, it would be crazy not to do it. In contrast, when it comes to internal projects, companies (bosses, managers) will assume that they know what’s needed, leaving their employees with little say in the matter.  

I’ll tell you a secret: even the shiniest, fanciest app designed and executed with all the usability principles in mind won’t do much good if the underlying process is flawed. And very often, both the process and the app are far from ideal, leading users to experience frustration. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. If you decide to talk to your employees to identify their pain points and needs for internal software, you might be surprised how much can be improved. Sure, not all of these improvements will be top priorities, but some of the points your employees raise will align with your business goals. And that’s a great starting point. 

Employee Experience Is User Experience 

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention employee satisfaction as one of the advantages of embedding UX design principles into internal company processes and tools. Firstly, I’m aware that the goal of a company is to make a profit, not to make their employees happy (no matter what they say about this on their career page). I’m also aware that most employees, both blue and white collar, don’t have the luxury of being able to quit their jobs because they’re forced to use Microsoft Office or an old SAP instance. 

What I wanted to focus on are the real opportunities and missed chances that affect both the employer and the employee. It is not a zero-sum game — improving the UX of internal tools will make both sides happier, but it could also significantly improve business metrics. 

At the end of the day, the vast majority of employees want to do their job well. It’s up to the companies to give them the tools that will support and not sabotage them in doing so. 

2988 HC Digital Transformation 476X381
Anna Rozwadowska UX Specialist

With a background in social sciences and a passion for cognitive science, UX was a natural career choice for Anna. She likes to think that her work makes the work of end users easier or at least less complicated. When she's not riding her bike, she's probably lost somewhere in the woods and doesn't really want to be found. 

See all Anna's posts

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