Think about your absolute favorite program or app that you use. Chances are it’s not something you use at work, but that may soon be changing.

Enterprise technology is shifting away from just automating processes to becoming a way of enabling people to more easily and efficiently complete their work. Given that people have so many different needs and preferences, how do we build technology that effectively serves them? How can we be sure that we’re building the tools around the needs of our users — whoever and wherever they are?

Ensuring this is exactly what Dr. Mani Pande, director of UX Research and Design at SAP SuccessFactors, does in collaboration with her team of researchers. Mani designs and leads research projects to better understand how people engage with technology, facilitating designing HR tools that truly fit the needs of the people using them.

So how do we translate research findings into powerful capabilities and productivity-driving design choices in the SAP SuccessFactors HCM Suite? Learn about the process and lessons learned from Mani herself.

Q: How do you and your team know when a design is perfect for our customers’ employees?

A: True user research is a multi-step process — and it’s never finished. At the core of user research is a simple idea: If you want to create great designs for employees and managers, you need to ask them how. Design and user experience (UX) research is all about understanding your users — what their roles are and how they use technology within and outside of those roles.

But this is only the beginning. There are so many different classes of user, or personas, that exist in the HR technology space. In order to truly understand your users you have to talk to everyone, from factory workers to executives to white collar professionals, at all organizational levels. But if that’s all you do, you may be missing the mark. As a researcher you should not assume all of these personas can articulate what they really need from their technology. Whenever possible, we try to conduct ethnographic research as well, which involves going to where people work and observing them. We need to see them in context to understand how technology can help them.

After this data has been collected, our research team ideates and prototypes, brainstorming and sketching as many creative ideas as we can. After this, we validate our concepts with users, engaging in usability studies to determine whether the solutions we’ve come up with are truly solving problems for our users. Only then do we actually take this information to the engineers to incorporate it into our SAP SuccessFactors HCM Suite.

Because the nature of work is changing so rapidly, technology needs and requirements change as well. The tools and features that served people’s needs five years ago are probably not the same ones that will work to solve problems today.

How do you know whether a design choice is successful?

There are many metrics that show us whether a design choice is successful or not, and it’s not always user sentiment. If people don’t like using a certain feature or function — if it feels clunky and uncomfortable — we know we’re headed in the wrong direction. After all, legacy enterprise solutions were all about automating processes, regardless of how cumbersome they felt for the people using them. But whether people like using technology is only one piece of the usability puzzle.

When SAP SuccessFactors introduced Action Search, a search bar on the solution’s homepage enabling people to search for information and key actions using their own natural language, our team measured not only how much people preferred this new process, but also objective indicators of success like speed. We had a group of managers perform a series of tasks, first using Action Search and then without the aid of Action Search. We measured the time it took and found that managers enabled by Action Search were able to complete the tasks 21 percent faster. We also asked them to rate, on a scale of one to 10, how easy each task was to complete, and found that Action Search-enabled tasks received 10 percent greater scores in ease of use. The metrics are often correlated — people tend to like things that are easier and faster.

But the important thing is that we have to go beyond what people like to understand whether design choices are successful. Truly enabling people with technology is about more than creating screens that look and feel pretty; it’s about making sure people can complete the tasks they need to complete in a way that drives efficiency and ease, ultimately freeing them to focus on the more strategic aspects of their job that don’t involve, for instance, searching for information.

What is one of the biggest changes you’ve seen related to design in enterprise technology in your career?

Asking people to think about traditional enterprise technology conjures up images of a person in a suit, tethered to their desktop. But as the nature of work has evolved, so too has enterprise technology, and that includes the different physical locations and ways people need to be able to engage with it.

Mobile access to a range of HR and self-service tasks is hugely important for today’s workforce, across industries and organizational levels. Mobile apps are so pervasive in our everyday lives, and this gives us a great blueprint for building enterprise apps that have characteristics similar to well-used consumer apps. But even though consumer app guidelines exist, like Apple and Google’s Material Design Guidelines, there can still be some variability in the best design choices for an HR app.

When we were redesigning our iOS app experience, we conducted A/B testing to better understand what people needed from the navigation across the app. We compared a flat navigation approach where people could switch between tabs across the bottom of the app, to a hierarchical approach where people could go deep into a process, but then had to return to the home screen in order to navigate somewhere else. Both follow Apple’s iOS Guidelines. The results showed both methods were roughly equal in terms of ease of use. But the flat navigation format enabled people to complete key tasks 34 percent faster and anecdotally, people commented that they like the ability to switch between tasks quickly. So we knew that for our particular app, the flat design was going to be a better choice.

It’s interesting that you bring up consumer-grade guidelines in the context of enterprise technology. Tech companies are increasingly adopting consumer innovations to deliver better employee experiences through technology; for instance, enabling spoken interaction in which engaging with the solution itself will eventually no longer require a screen. How does user research keep pace?

As workplace technology increasingly takes on characteristics of consumer technology, user research must continue to unearth the design choices that best fit what people want and need from technology.

SAP SuccessFactors digital assistant functionality, enabling direct conversation between employees and the SAP SuccessFactors solution, has launched in beta this quarter. One of the use cases we are testing is around onboarding, the extent to which this functionality helps new hires better and more easily access information related to their new role. Initial usability tests show that new hires find this tool easy to use. But our work is only beginning in terms of determining how this kind of functionality impacts efficiency and sentiment around the HR solution, and across the user’s career. And as we evolve this concept to be truly conversational and screenless over time — i.e., people will be able to access HR information and make commands directly to an Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant device — we have to consider that what we’re “designing” becomes a bit different than traditional “look and feel.”

SAP SuccessFactors is leading innovation to create an HR solution entirely focused around the people who use it. Join us at SuccessConnect Las Vegas in our breakout session to learn more about how user research influences our design across web, mobile, and conversational channels.

Gabriela Burlacu works in Solution Management for User Experience and Mobile at SAP SuccessFactors.