Putting Your HR Self-Service Solutions To The Test*
By: David L. Young , Tim Stentiford who can be contacted at www.mercer
When it comes to HR technology investments, there’s a new and powerful driver of return on investment that may surprise you: Your employees. With Web-based, self-service applications sitting in front of even the most complex HR technology systems, employees are driving the success – or failure – of moving HR online. This goes far beyond your intranet to your entire HR technology strategy and implementation; employees are now directly linked to back-end operations for payroll, benefits administration, and HR service delivery.
Far too often, however, employees fail to embrace the new technology because they find it difficult to use. As a result, many organizations have added a new layer of cost and management, but have not been able to realize a return on this significant investment in HR technology in terms of greater employee satisfaction and productivity, reduced administrative demands, and a redeployment of HR resources. And with HR portals and corporate intranets getting bigger and more complex, the problem is only going to escalate.
The answer to this growing problem lies in better design, testing, and measurement of self-service solutions to ensure that they are effective for employees – the end users.
2. The importance of employee acceptance
Imagine your company has launched a new benefits website and announces it to employees via e-mail. An employee clicks on the link in the message, watches as the browser launches, then follows the instructions for logging in. When the home page finally loads, the employee briefly explores the site, but quickly gets lost in the dizzying array of links, photos, graphics, spinning icons, and news tickers. Frustrated and overwhelmed, the employee closes the browser and gets on with his or her day.
The employee will come back and try again later, right? Not likely. According to research conducted by the Gartner Group, 40% of users who have a negative experience the first time they visit a website will never come back. When it comes to the Web, the old adage rings true: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
The obvious business implication is that a significant portion of your investment in Web technology is at risk. This includes not only simple sites but also Web-enabled employee and manager self-service applications included in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, such as PeopleSoft, SAP, Oracle, and Lawson.
Equally serious is the risk that your staff will end up doing double duty – conducting "business as usual" plus trying to resolve the new issues created by the unsuccessful technology launch. Instead of using self-service to cut costs – for example, by redirecting tier 1 call center calls to your website – you simply add a new process on top of an existing process and new costs on top of existing costs. Plus, your employees remain trapped in the old ways of doing things, unable to reap the productivity and satisfaction gains promised by the new technology.
3. Creating an effective user experience
Success in self-service depends on creating an effective user experience. Jakob Nielsen, the world’s leading authority on usability, puts it this way: "Usability rules the Web...he or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything." Your employees have the power; that means your site needs to be intuitive, interesting, and easy to use. According to a Knowledge Systems, Inc. survey, 78% of users rate ease of use as a website’s most important feature.
To create the optimum user experience, keep the following six criteria in mind as you design – or redesign – your website, and be sure to thoroughly test your effectiveness on each one before launching the site.
When designing your website, consider the full range of accessibility issues:
>> Do all of your employees have access to the site at work? Employees in manufacturing or retail environments, for instance, may have limited access to computers, and not all employees in remote locations may have dial-up access.
>> Are you providing employee self-service or family self-service? Many benefits and work-related decisions are made by the employee at home with a spouse or partner. As a result, employees need to access information from home after work hours.
>> Can your site accommodate differently-abled users? Persons with visual impairments, for instance, may use text readers and may be frustrated when their computer can’t interpret what’s showing on the screen.
>> Does your site work on other applications? According to research by IDC, by 2003 more people will own a cell phone with Internet access than a Web-enabled PC at home (Red Herring, October 2001).
The more streamlined and text-based the site, the better it will perform on other types of applications.
# System performance
Slow performance is one of the main reasons users drop websites from their "favorites" list. The key areas to test regarding system performance include:
>> Functionality. Do all the individual site components function as described in your requirements document?
>> Integration. Does the site work seamlessly with any sites to which you want to link users?
>> Accuracy. Are personalized data, including calculations and projections, displayed accurately? A sure way to kill an HR site is to display incorrect or stale data or, worse, another person’s data.
>> Bandwidth. Can the site process anticipated volumes of data at acceptable response times? Also be sure to monitor bandwidth during times of peak usage.
Information architecture is about how you organize content on the site: What main sections should you include? What is the logical hierarchy of the information? How do you ensure that the site is scalable so it can grow as your business changes and you add new content?
Based on experience with more than 200 organizations, we believe that most HR intranets and portals are over-engineered by almost 40%. In other words, nearly four out of every ten pages, links, and graphics could be eliminated without affecting the site’s integrity.
Creating streamlined information architecture will actually lead to a more satisfying user experience because users will be able to find what they want quickly and intuitively. Research shows that the majority of users will only tolerate four clicks to find what they’re looking for.
Navigation refers to the design model that you use to help employees make their way through the site. There are three main navigation schemes:
Hierarchical designs enable users to drill down through a series of levels, which become increasingly more detailed. The common "left navigation" menus you see are hierarchical but are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as home pages and sites add more content over time.
Flat navigation designs rely on robust search engines, instead of layers of links, to find information.
Hybrid navigation designs include both drill-down navigation and search engines and work well for complex sites. Because not all users think or navigate the same way, this is often the best approach for HR portals.
A problem common to many sites is that each section has a different navigation system. This means users must continually learn (or relearn) new systems as they move from section to section. This can be frustrating and confusing, especially for users who don’t visit the site often.
Comprehension refers to how well users understand and interact with the messages and information. To ensure comprehension, pay special attention to the intended audience. What’s the average age and education level? Will retirees access the site? Do you have a global audience? Do your users speak different languages?
Answer such questions to help tailor the communication messages and focus your site so it delivers the greatest value to your audience. According to a Nielson study, 79% of readers scan, rather than read, content. Physiologically, the eye processes information 28% slower on a screen than on paper.
So, in writing for the Web, use simple terms. Avoid long sentences, big words, and jargon that might cause users to stumble as they scan the information. Layer content so users get the highlights at the top and the details as they drill down.
# Branding and visual appearance
The appearance of a website is as important to the user experience as the content. Ask the following questions about your site:
>> Is your website inviting? Does the home page make users want to explore what’s beneath?
>> Do the graphics serve a purpose, or are they strictly for decoration? Adding art for art’s sake eats up valuable real estate and increases load times.
>> Do the visuals support your company brand? Because an effective site has the potential to reach employees across the organization – and even job candidates – it can help support your company’s business objectives, vision, and values.
4. Gauging your effectiveness
Usability testing can help determine how well you have succeeded in meeting your objectives on each of the six criteria described above. This testing is performed after the initial design work is completed, but before rolling out the website broadly to employees. The purpose of usability testing is to:
>> Evaluate how easy the site is to use;
>> Identify any trouble spots that require changes to the site design, information architecture, or navigation; and
>> Create or refine communication messages that will help employees understand how to access and use the site.
Typically, usability testing involves up to 12 users of the website (for example, nine randomly selected users and three "super users," such as HR staff or members of your information technology group). The testing involves presenting employees with specific scenarios, such as finding and printing an announcement brochure, then monitoring them at a computer as they navigate through the site, recording both their actions(e.g., mouse movements) and comments.
HR/benefits staff and the Web design team often observe the testing from a separate room using a video monitor connected to the user’s computer. It’s also advisable to videotape such testing sessions. A facilitator provides direction and assists any user who gets lost or stuck. Often, this indicates a design or navigation issue that requires attention. At the end of the testing, the facilitator conducts a closing discussion with the users.
Usability testing is an indispensable step in the website design process. While it’s best to conduct such testing as part of the initial design and launch of a website, it also can be used for existing websites that are experiencing difficulties.
Be forewarned, though: Fixing a website after release can be painful and expensive. It’s best to do it right, right from the start.