Employee Experience Design and traditional CX: what's the difference?

Employees are customers... except when they're not.

Future of Work

Employee experience (EX) design is having a moment, and it brings vast potential to transform the workplace for the better. It treats every part of a worker's experience of the job - from first seeing a job listing to their last day, and even beyond - as a unified whole. EX design's insistence on putting employee wellbeing at the center of the work experience is a long-overdue evolution of the old industrial workplace model.

The basic idea isn't exactly new. EX takes the insights and principles of customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) design and applies them to work. CX and UX revolutionized technology over the last 20 years. EX design promises to do the same to our lives at work. Simple, right?

Well, not quite that simple. Here are three major areas where EX design calls for different approaches and emphases than traditional experience design.

Employees are customers... except when they're not

In one sense, it's useful and accurate to say that employees are the "customers" of the work experience "product". This framing helps center employees as the focus of the experience. And rightly so; they're the ones who will have to interact with it every day.

Thinking of employees as customers acknowledges their agency. It underlines the importance of their happiness and well-being. In a culture with deep-seeded assumptions about how "the customer is always right", this gives employees their rightful status at the center of the process.

And classifying the employee experience as a "product" helps demystify it, and remind us that it's a human creation that humans can change, if we decide to and do it right.

User Experience vs. Employee Experience: a matter of choice

But in other crucial ways, the archtypal customer/product relationship is very different from the relationship of an employee to their job. It comes down to the way each relationship reflects competition and choice.

In general, customers can shift between competing products relatively easily. The friction cost for employees changing jobs is much higher. Not only is it personally disruptive, but changing jobs can mean significant financial losses in terms of benefits, unvested stock options, etc. So there's more of an inbuilt bias for employees to "make it work" even when the experience is sub-optimal.

Loud customers, quiet employees

The employee-employer relationship is also a factor. Many people who strongly assert their consumer preferences are far less frank about the employee experience. One study found that 20% of employees do not report problems at their companies out of fear of negative consequences for them personally.

We can probably assume a much bigger group will soften such feedback for the same reasons. It's essential, then, for EX designers to allow for this bias. The employee experience design process demands more thoughtfulness about eliciting honest feedback than typical experience design.


Testing, testing: the unique challenges of EX design

Prototyping, testing, learning, iterating. It's the heart of the design process. And live A/B testing - when variations on the product are set free from the lab to see how they function under real-world conditions - is the most valuable test of all.

"It forces you to stop making design decisions based on your personal preferences, biases, and ego, and instead lets your users ‘vote’ via their behavior," as Zoe Gillenwater, lead designer at Booking.com, tells Adobe.

And that's where EX design needs special attention.

Holistic experience design, one piece at a time?

Effective EX design is built on looking at work experience holistically. The three crucial elements of employee experience - relationships, setting, and work - are all deeply dependent on each other.

We've all experienced situations where one team manages their work using one platform while other teams use another. Or where a change of process in one area of the business has unintended effects in others. Or where interpersonal relationships can redirect the most well-planned technological initiative.

So introducing one new element, in isolation, won't automatically reflect the true effect of that change as part of a holistically designed system. It's up to employee experience designers to allow for this inevitable reality. Thoughtful test design and realistic assessment benchmarks are essential.

Who's got time for testing? There's work to be done!

The unique urgency of the workplace also makes for a very specific live-testing landscape. Most of us are held accountable for getting results while we're on the job. Every bit of time and attention we give to something that might matter is lost to the things that we know do matter.

This is where company leadership comes in. If it's made clear that EX design testing is as much a part of their jobs as all their KPI-driven responsibilities, employees will be much more willing to engage with tests. That means tests will be more valuable and valid. It's up to managers and executives to give their staff that explicit "permission" to spend time on EX design tests.

But that's how we've always done it

We can't leave out the inherent resistance many workers have to new technology and processes. Many of us reasonably prefer the flawed system that we know to the perfect one that we don't. And in the moment, when we're just trying to get our work done, it's always less time-consuming to just do it the old way rather than try the new way, even if the new way will save us thousands of hours over the years.

Everett M. Rogers' classic diffusion of innovation theory says that about 16% of people are "innovators" or "early adopters", quick to take up new technology. Another 16% are "laggards", who are the most skeptical of change and the last to adopt new tools, if they ever do.

That leaves the middle 68% ("early majority" and "late majority" adopters) as the crucial swing constituency in implementing any new change. They need evidence that a change is for the better before they'll come along. And evidence, of course, is what you're trying to find by testing. It can be more difficult for this group to adopt the "let's try it and see" mentality necessary for testing.

Augmenting all of these tendencies is the fact that work is such a crucially important part of people's lives. There's a lot more at stake with these changes. The risks are higher. So it's important for EX designers to keep in mind that, to many people, you're messing with their paychecks, and adjust testing plans accordingly.

Seeing the whole employee: the wide scope of EX design

Finally, since employee wellbeing is such a central consideration of EX design, that means the boundaries of the employee experience could potentially expand far beyond working hours. Especially with the rise of virtual work, everything from a worker's furniture to their nutrition could present opportunities for managers to support their overall wellbeing.

Conversely, it's vital to consider the effect that workplace relationships and processes will have on the employee when they're off the job. The fact is, almost no "products" will take up as much of a person's time, and have as deep an impact on their life, as the employee experience.

That means more traditional UX designers might need to step back a bit and take a broader view of where the employee experience begins and ends. It's not just a 9-5, Monday-Friday thing.

And that's the central insight of EX design that could, in turn, influence the wider world of experience design: that no experience exists in a vacuum. As EX continues transforming workplace the world over, don't be surprised if its holistic, interconnected perspective makes itself felt in experiences in every part of our lives.

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