A few weeks ago, I visited a company at which sales representatives were being inundated with emails and other communication from various departments. Reps were unhappy. They wondered why no one at headquarters was managing the chaos. Couldn't HR and Finance and Compliance and other functions coordinate to solve overload?
Just a few days later, I spent time at a large research hospital. The organization couldn't be more different from the other company I visited, yet the communication challenges were similar. The Communication team was responsible for some channels, but other functions managed their own communication. As a result, some employees were overwhelmed, while others were missing valuable information.
The key to transforming employee communication in both organizations? Approach communication from the user's experience.
You're probably familiar with the term "user experience," which was popularized by Donald Norman in the mid 1990s to refer to websites and other tech platforms. As Norman writes, "The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use."
Today, the term "user experience" (which is often shortened to UX) is used in technology, product development and marketing.
Writes Dan Tynan in Adweek: "Companies have realized that they're no longer just making and marketing products; they're really in the business of crafting user experiences."
For example, Tynan quotes Dan Gardner, CEO of Code and Theory, a digital-first creative agency: "When people think about Adidas, they don't think 'Here's Adidas the shoe, here's Adidas the box, here's Adidas the app, here's Adidas the retail experience.' They're just thinking, 'This is Adidas.'"
While most marketers realize they need to create a seamless customer experience, companies have been slower to adopt this philosophy to develop a consistent employee experience. Internal communication is often as ungoverned as the Wild West. No one is in charge. Almost anyone can send communication to practically everyone.
This is not merely inconvenient; it's also inconsiderate and unproductive. Employees' time is too valuable to waste. If leaders are serious about wanting employees to work hard to support the organization's success, they shouldn't condone an undisciplined approach to internal communication.
Instead, organizations need to do three things to use UX to improve employee communication:
1. Know your users/"customers"/employees
This seems so obvious to me, but many organizations don't take the time to analyze employees' communication needs. Of course, "know your audience" is one of the oldest tenets of effective communication. The concept, of course, is that the better you understand the demographic profile, needs and preferences of the people you're trying to reach, the better you can design communication that will actually get through to them.
Or, as Jonathan Goldmacher, managing director for Valtech, says in the Adweek piece: "Before you can design a pleasing user experience, you need to know what users actually want. You need to start with the audience you're serving. Understand their lives intimately . . . and the places where you have an opportunity to do things in an exceptionally better way."
And once you start to know your employees, you'll realize that their expectations for communication are increasing all the time. You might be doing a good job keeping up with internal communication best practices, but you also need to keep up with Amazon, Netflix and external media.
2. Use design thinking to approach communication differently
Jennifer Brandel, CEO of the tech company Hearken, describes design thinking as "a way of understanding the needs of the people you're building a solution for, and testing that solution with them before creating it."
The term "design thinking," which was coined back in 2003 by IDEO cofounder David Kelley, has become synonymous with taking a user-centric approach to creating products and services.
For internal communication, that means that after you have a full understanding of employees (see #1), you take a blank sheet of paper and design communication that works for them. That legacy newsletter? Scrap it and start over. Those quarterly town halls you've been doing the same way since 1997? Throw them in the dumpster and reimagine how leaders interact with employees.
3. Develop an internal communication system that's user-centric
Now that you've cleared the decks, you can design a system of communication channels that work together in harmony to serve employees. The idea, of course, is that each piece of the system--from the intranet to an app to leader communication--works together to provide employees with the information and connections they need to understand how to support the organization's success.