I’m often asked what’s more critical for internal communication: writing or design? People are surprised when I reply that it’s impossible to choose because the most important element is neither — it’s understanding the employee user experience.

If you’re not familiar with the term, here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “how a user interacts with, and experiences, a particular product, system or service. It includes a person’s perceptions of utility, ease of use, and efficiency.” User experience has its roots in computer design, but today it’s used in the development of everything from mops to medical devices.

How is this relevant to communicating with employees? Too much of traditional internal communication is based on what the sender wants to convey, not what an employee needs to know. For example, communication is often formal and complicated when employees seek simple, direct and relevant information.

That’s why it’s important to learn how you can put the user experience front and center in your communication program. Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions I hear on this topic.

Where does the concept of user experience come from?
While some people date the concept of user experience to 4,000 B.C. and the development of Feng Shui, I’m a little skeptical. But I think we can all agree that our current understanding of user experience began when computers started popping up on everyone’s work desk.

Not surprisingly, Apple was a leader in putting the user experience at the forefront of its product design. Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist, joined the team at Apple in the early ’90s as its User Experience Architect — making him the first person to have user experience in his job title.

Norman came up with the term “user experience design” because he wanted a phrase that covered all aspects of a person’s experience interacting with a computer system.

How does this translate to internal communication?
No matter what content you’re developing — blog, podcast, email, poster — you need to start by thinking about the experience you want your employees to have.

Three good questions to ask yourself when starting a project:

1. What does this mean to employees?

2. How will employees best absorb this?

3. What should employees take away from this?

Once you understand employees’ perspectives, you can write and design content to achieve that experience.

What makes a great user experience in internal communication?
A great employee user experience is not just about writing and design (1+1=2). It’s about the power of writing and design to work together to elevate the experience of your communication so it’s easily understood (1+1=100!).

Think of the famous Italian dish Pappardelle Bolognese. On the face of it, it’s just pasta with some tomato sauce, ground meat and a bit of cream. But when you put them all together, those ingredients transform into a world-renown meal that diners swoon over.

When cooking up content, that same sort of magic occurs — but only when writers and designers collaborate about what information needs to be emphasized. Ask yourself: What is the information employees need first? Which content is interesting but not essential?

What are the top tips for creating a great user experience?

1. Develop an information architecture
Humans have a natural desire to have information organized so they can quickly and easily process it.

While the term information hierarchy might sound complicated, it’s really quite simple. Decide on one of the following structures for organizing information: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Hierarchy (commonly known as LATCH).

For example, say you decide to stream a movie. What genre are you interested in today: a rom-com, a science fiction adventure or a courtroom drama? Because you care most about genre (another word for category), you’d like movie titles to be grouped that way.

But let’s say you know the title of the movie but nothing else about it. You’d then want films to be grouped alphabetically so you could easily find the title.

The five LATCH methods aren’t the only ways to organize information, but they are the easiest for people to grasp. That’s why they’re used so often in internal communication.

Whatever method you choose to develop your information architecture, remember that your goal is to reduce cognitive friction so it’s easy for employees to understand and navigate the information you’re providing.

That means your writer and designer have to work together at every step — think of it as a three-legged race rather than a relay. When you take this approach, the copy and design reinforce each other to create a well-defined information architecture and a vibrant employee user experience.

2. Provide employees with a clear path
Once you define information architecture, consider how the user is likely to move through it. Is it a linear experience, like a story that has a defined beginning, middle and end? Or will the user want to make his own way through the information?

Most employees won’t read a benefits brochure from cover to cover. Instead they’ll skip around and only read about the programs that impact them the most (e.g., medical coverage or wellness).

A printed piece makes it easy for employees to jump back and forth between the relevant sections. But in every format (including digital), writing and design work together to structure content so that employees can choose their own paths.

One way to provide a path is to break content up into smaller segments so that employees can easily navigate them. When my team and I created a digital performance management brochure for a client, we made sure to first break the year-long process down by quarter. Then we developed interactive elements like pop-up boxes that allowed us to chunk the content into bite-size pieces.

The end result was an interactive experience that guided employees through specific actions they needed to take during each phase of the process.

3. Create an outline
Just as writers should develop an outline to keep copy focused, designers need a similar approach to organizing primary, secondary and tertiary information in their design schema.

Think about the content in a town hall slide deck. Would you make everything the same size and color? Of course you answered “no.” When everything is the same size and color, there’s no way for employees to recognize what’s most important, what’s next and so on.

Instead, good designers make sure that the principal information is what employees see first — whether through the use of font, color, size or graphic element.

Your starting point? An outline, of course. Before you pick up a pencil or open your design software, decide on the structure of your piece.

4. Stay simple
Over the past 35 years, my firm has conducted thousands of employee interviews and focus groups. And one of the most consistent requests we hear for improving the employee user experience in internal communication is to simplify it.

That means focusing on the basics:

· Keep your copy straightforward and clear by eliminating jargon.

· Write and design content in scannable chunks so it’s easily digestible.

· Use graphics and photos to convey complex information at a glance.

· Never underestimate the importance of white space to improve readability and comprehension.

If all this advice sounds like common sense, well, it is. But mastering this approach — and using it consistently — creates a great employee user experience for internal communication.

Originally published on Medium.com

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