Tech Insights: The Trick in Making Easy-to-Use User Interfaces

Jun 24, 2014

Talk to any grandparent and they will regal you with tales of their brilliant grandchild who is a whiz with technology.

This brings us to the inevitable HR question: If their 5-year-old grandchild can master an iPad, why can’t our 45-year-old Director of Operations figure out the performance management software?

The obvious explanation is that many HR applications are inherently more complex than iPad apps. However the more important reason is that designers of iPad software have been a lot more concerned with the user experience than have the designers of HR tools.

Why we get a mediocre user experience

Of all the common HR tools, Applicant Tracking Systems seem to be the poster child for difficult interfaces. This is quite a discouraging considering that ATS’s are in the hands of expert users who have the time to learn the system.

For employees, manager and candidate self-service applications the demands for ease of use are much higher; for these systems were really need to get the UI right.

Why have we ended up with a below par user experience? I see three reasons:

  1. It takes a lot of work to build the engine of an HR application; to go on to build a great user interface takes a lot more work and a different skill set.
  2. Simple, intuitive user interfaces are evolving rapidly; what was seen as good enough a couple of years ago can feel distinctly old-fashioned now.
  3. It is hard to retrofit old software, even with the right skills and a desire to upgrade the “UX” (user experience). Pushing a new style guide through legacy systems to improve the UX takes a lot of work and a lot of time, if it’s even possible.

Will things get better?

Yes; new players are busy disrupting the world of HR tech with software designed off fresh code stacks with a modern user interface top of mind. When Workday launched, a big part of their pitch was a user interface that was much more appealing than the older HRIS’s.

Similarly Jibe is counting on their modern looks and feel, and in particular their mobile readiness, to draw the attention of recruiting managers. And SilkRoad, even though it is a relatively young company, has seen fit to rebuild their interface. So HR tech companies get this, it just will take time to get there.

What is interesting?

  • Expectations of user interfaces are being driven by the consumer market. What happens on the iPad doesn’t stay on the iPad, it influences what managers and employees expect from corporate software.
  • Software is getting easier to use; so collectively we are making progress. Apple and Google are the trend setters and they are very much consumer oriented companies.
  • The goal of a good UI, explains SilkRoad VP Chris Lennon, is that it shouldn’t make the user think about how to operate it. If they have to think they won’t like it; they will make mistakes and they will require more support.

What is really important?

  • Software that seemed “good enough” a few years ago, may now turn off users and damage the reputation of HR. I was struck by a story from Jibe’s Jed Hamilton. He recalls a time when a company wanted him to submit a resume by fax; this just seemed so archaic that he moved on to the next job opportunity. You do not want your software to be the equivalent of asking someone to send a fax.
  • There is a serious trade-off between features and ease of use. More features means more clutter and more to learn. SilkRoad’s Chris Lennon says vendors need to understand how adding features can actually degrade the user experience. We may be better off to choose a vendor with fewer features that has really got the UX right.