/ Your Coworkers Deserve Good UX, Too

Let's face it—when it comes to providing great internal service to your colleagues, it can be easy to fall into a frustration trap.

Imagine this scenario. Your phone rings, and it’s a coworker in another department at your library. "What do I need to do to get my email address updated since I just got married?" they ask.

You know this information is on your organization's intranet. You know that for any email-related questions or issues, staff should send a request to the information technology (IT) department help desk. You also remember that your coworker asked you this exact question fourteen months ago when they got engaged, and you quickly search for and find the email reply you sent to them.

Your response to your coworker might fall somewhere along a spectrum ranging from answering the question to shaming the person for not knowing the answer, depending on your existing relationship with the person, your mood, and your current supply of patience. In many organizations, when we talk about improving the quality of our internal service, we often focus on the frustrated end of that spectrum, where our discussion might turn to examples of poor responses:

  • "Well, it's on the employee intranet."
  • "Did you submit a request to the help desk? That's what you're supposed to do with anything email-related."
  • "I'll forward my response back to you from when you asked me this before that tells you what to do."

If we look at this kind of situation through a user experience (UX) lens, we might find pain points on both sides that can actually be addressed, lessening frustration for everyone involved. First, though, let's look at why this kind of problem tends to crop up more frequently in internal service situations than it does externally.

If you got a similar question from a patron or customer, your responses would—hopefully—be different. For example, if a customer asks, "What do I need to do to update my address for my library card?" you're probably not going to say:

  • "Well, it's on the library's website."
  • "Did you submit a request to Circulation? That's what you're supposed to do with anything account-related."
  • "I'll give you another copy of our new borrower brochure that you got when you signed up for a card that tells you what to do."

No matter how many times you've heard the question, no matter how many other places the information might live, if this question comes to you externally, you're going to happily, helpfully answer it—depending on your library's policies and procedures, of course: "I can help you with that right here" or "You can update it yourself online from your library account—let me show you how" or "Just bring your address information to the checkout desk, and they'll be able to help you with that." You may be experiencing the same kind of frustration—which you keep inside your head or share with colleagues in the workroom later—but your response is moderated by the fact that you and the customer implicitly share the definition of your roles in this interaction. You see yourself as the provider of a service and the customer as a customer; the customer sees themselves as a customer and you as a provider of a service. Because you share the same view of your roles, it's relatively easy to set aside your frustration and provide great service. See Table 1.

Table 1. Internal vs. external service responses.
Patron, Student, Client, Community Member, etc. Coworker, Colleague, Staff Member, etc.
A _____ asks the same question three times in one week. Politely and professionally answer the question as though it were the first time I heard it. Get frustrated and complain to an officemate about why this person doesn’t remember the email I sent out about this a month ago.
A _____ approaches my desk and interrupts a conversation with a teammate to ask a question. Tell the person it’s not an interruption—it’s my job to answer your questions. Wonder why the person couldn’t just email me or wait until I finished with my conversation.
A number of _____ seem to be confused about how to operate a piece of self-service equipment. Create clear step-by-step signage in the short-term; look for a product with a more intuitive user interface in the long-term. Suggest to supervisors that some of their staff need re-training on how to use this piece of equipment.
A noisy air handler makes it hard for _____ to hear during large group conversations in a meeting room. Ensure the conversation is accessible by providing amplification. Tell participants to speak up.
A _____ filling out a web-based form provides date information in the wrong format. If we haven’t already set the form up to mask that field or normalize data on the back end, make it super clear how we want the date. Send out an email to all staff saying, “Please make sure you enter the date like this:...”

The difference in an internal service interaction is that you may not share the same definition of roles with your coworker. If you're the person asking the question, you probably see yourself as a customer and your coworker as the provider of a service. If you're receiving the question, however, you might see yourself and your coworker as fellow library employees with access to the same information resources and hampered by the same time limitations. That mismatch of expectations can lead to less-than-optimal interactions: your coworker expects the same kind of response as the external customer does, but you might express your frustration more directly to your fellow employee.

From a service skills standpoint, anything we can do to cultivate the same patience and generosity we show externally will help improve our coworkers' experiences. From a UX standpoint, there may be other ways to minimize or avoid the potentially frustrating situation in the first place.

One of the UX techniques with the most potential impact on internal service is to find new ways to provide critical information at key decision points. Let's take our email address example again, and think about possible reasons your colleague chose to pick up the phone and call:

  • They know you have the answer because you answered the question before.
  • They have two minutes before they run to a meeting, and it's easier to pick up the phone and call you than it is to log back into their email to ask or to search for your previous answer.
  • They think you're a nice person and a call gives them an opportunity for a positive interpersonal interaction with you after they just spent an hour dealing with cranky patrons on the desk.
  • They already spent ten minutes browsing the employee intranet to find the information, and it's not in any of the places they looked.
  • They know you answered it before, but they're uncertain about their ability to find old messages in their email. Asking you means they can avoid the discomfort of feeling lost.

I have simply imagined some of the possibilities, but UX data-gathering techniques can give you more specific information about your own coworkers. Here are some techniques you can try:

  • When you identify frequently asked questions, interview the coworkers who asked the questions about their actual approaches to finding answers.
  • When it comes to intranet and other internal digital resources, apply the same UX tools you do to your externally-facing websites—card sorting, tree testing, first-click testing, etc.—to find out whether you've really made it as easy as possible to answer common questions. Is the person asking the question because they expect to find this information in a particular place, and it’s not there?
  • Map the user journey for common internal workflows, and you may find circumstances under which coworkers must jump through unnecessary hoops to accomplish a task.

These and other user-centered approaches can lead to major improvements in internal service, but there is one facet to the relationship that can make solving UX problems more complicated. When working on internal processes, we have to balance coworker needs with organizational needs, especially when it comes to choices of tools and procedures. Full pain-point elimination for the end user is a fine goal, but when it comes at the cost of workflow efficiency, the result may not be a net positive for the organization.

For example, over the last several years the technology team at my library has made a number of changes to our process for reporting problems that have undoubtedly improved our coworkers' experiences as users. Starting from a point where you had to know which individual IT staff member to talk to about the specific problem you had, we moved to a single email distribution list that went to all IT staff. Instead of relying on the user to know all of our team's specific responsibilities and areas of expertise in order to get their problem solved successfully, we asked staff to just send everything tech-related to the email address for our Help Desk—which is, helpfully, helpdesk. In addition to making the notification process easier for staff, it also helped our supervisors to handle requests more equitably.

We took another improvement step when that single email address became the mechanism for submitting an issue to our more formal ticketing system, rather than distributing an email message to team inboxes. With the ticketing system, staff get more information about who's working on their issue and what's happening with it, and IT has more information about repeat issues or common problems. What we found, though, is that no matter how many times we ask people to provide as complete information as possible, a large number of emails and tickets came in without some necessary detail. "The workstation on the left" doesn't give us the unique ID of a computer, which is what we need in order to remotely troubleshoot a problem at a branch. "A patron is having a problem with X" doesn't give us enough specifics about the patron—or the problem—for us to replicate what's happening. When we need to follow up with the staff member, it not only adds a delay to the process, but results in frustration on both sides.

To try to address this issue, we've created a form that we've asked people to use when submitting their problems. On the IT side, the difference between those last two iterations—creating a ticket from an email versus filling out a form—is that we get more complete information. On the user side, we're asking staff to use different behavior to submit their question—instead of writing a quick email, they have to go to a form that has a number of questions and some required fields.

From a strict UX perspective, especially now that staff are accustomed to just sending everything to a single email address, we’re introducing a barrier that makes it somewhat more cumbersome to submit an issue. If a staff member already has their email open, sending a message is a much more direct way to communicate than to go to our intranet, navigate to the form, make some decisions based on drop-down menus, and fill in required fields. From a broader service perspective, this approach should provide improved tech service in the form of faster ticket assignment based on the type of issue reported, less need to go back and forth with the staff member to collect additional information about the problem, and faster time to a solution.

So when it comes to internal service, where is it acceptable to draw that line? I would argue that it's best handled as a negotiation. Employing good UX strategies naturally opens up a dialogue between the customer and the service provider, and being able to frame this conversation in terms of finding the best solution for the organization will, at the very least, help everyone understand the issues and priorities involved. In our situation, we've been successful in convincing staff to send the majority of technology requests through the form. We are getting more consistent information about problems, and assigning and clearing those tickets faster, so being able to report an improvement in service helps. We also communicated our plan to survey staff about the usability of the form, so we can make it as easy as possible to use. This kind of communication also reinforces our belief that we are all on the same team and that we want to be responsive to our colleagues in the same way front-line staff are responsive to our patrons and community members.