user experience

Help Joy help you. On the unusability of internal systems.


I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be ME out here for YOU. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok? Help me… help you. Help me, help you. – Jerry Macguire


This is Joy’s notebook.

At the airport earlier today I had to switch my ticket from one flight to another. Joy was the customer service person who helped me do this.

Joy’s notebook is about two inches thick, she’s created an A-Z index for it, it is packed full of handwritten notes about how to do different tasks in the various system she uses – steps that need following, codes that need inputting. It sits beside her every day, beautifully decorated (with stickers) evidence of the horrendous usability of the software she uses to get her job done.

Joy has been working for this airline for years. She told me that some of the stuff that is in her notebook she doesn’t need anymore – either because they’ve upgraded to a new system or that, after years, she’s finally managed to memorise it.

She told me that each time they upgrade the system it seems to get harder, not easier, to use. Joy told me that all the customer service reps have a notebook like this. You can’t use the systems without one. Joy is digitally literate and confident with the computer, but it is impossible to use without the notebook.

Joy is frontline staff for a major international airline. She is delightful and doing her best to do great work and look after her customers, but this is what she’s got to work with. I wonder if I’d be so cheerful if I was in her seat. No wonder so many others are not.

Internal systems are the tools we give our frontline staff, the people who are in charge of the customer experience for the face to face and telephone channels. If you pay attention to people using these systems (either out of general professional interest or because you’re fortunate enough to work with the on a project), you’ll find that notebooks like Joy’s are not uncommon. They’re everywhere.

They are everywhere because the people who bought or made the system didn’t even think about the experience for internal staff. The internal staff who are stuck using it are so far away from the people who bought that expensive crap that they’ll never know how awful it is (or their jobs are in peril so they don’t dare complain).

Internal systems allow an organisation to deliver great customer experience throughout the customer journey. These systems let people like Joy be fast (or not), accurate (or not), joined up to the rest of the organisation (or not).

And yet, all the time, we say ‘It does’t matter, we’ll sort that out with training’, ‘Call the tech writers, we’ll make a manual for this system’,  ‘Don’t worry, we’ll inflict this piece of crap on our employees, unlike our customers they’re stuck with us’. Except they’re not really, are they.

This might have worked with Joy but as our employees begin to join our workforces as digital natives, familiar with the well designed exteriors of organisations, how well do you think they’ll take to the tools we offer them to book the tickets, create the content, manage the accounts.

I kind of fancy that they’re going to start telling us to lift our game, to stick our crappy internal systems up our jumpers, and to give them so decent tools so that they can be as efficient as we want them to be. So that they can offer the kind of customer service everyone wants to experience.

I really hope they do. I hope that they will demand that we do allow time to work on the usability of the content management system, not just the website. That a company will be able to win on customer service because they actually bothered to hire design team that lets the customer service people offer faster, better service. That the news company that optimises the content management interface wins because their journalists can write more, better content rather than battle the content management system for hours a day (true story).

And I really hope that one day Joy will be able to stop battling the interfaces she uses to give such great customer service and leave her notebook at home.

If you’re going to do this user experience thing properly, you’ve got to look at all the angles. If you respect for your employees and your customers you need to care about the user experience of internal systems. Challenge yourself to solve the often more difficult design problems of internal systems, and know that by doing that, you’re creating a better user experience for all.

11 thoughts on “Help Joy help you. On the unusability of internal systems.

  1. Lots of interest in this cautionary tale. I’ll add a few random thoughts.

    Sometimes the need to get things done trumps the need to do things right. Unchecked, the resulting misery is liable to cascade.

    Internal systems don’t compete in a market place in the same way as many external systems – often they don’t get the chance to die a natural death.

    Although it’s reasonable to expect staff to invest time in improving their skills, time spent adapting to poor systems is time wasted. Frustration is a transferable skill, but not usefully so. Where there remains a perception of value to effort already expended in adapting to inferior software, that perception can itself be a barrier to change. And of course it isn’t always clear cut.

    The best internal systems quietly educate their users. As a public example, Matthew Somerville’s has a simple API – users can easily bookmark regular journeys. Furthermore, the site’s results show the
    standard three letter code for each station. Eventually you start learning the codes: /btn/vic being much quicker to type than /Brighton/London Victoria.

    1. Leisa – this is a great post – really hits the nail about how most workers just want to do the best job they can and every borked system we give them is a block to them doing that.

      Tim – your points are good – but there is a difference between a system that educates its users and one that allows them to learn. Educating users make them the recipient of a proscribed ‘right’ way to use the system whereas expert interfaces allow users to discover their own ways to use a system. Watch an expert user entering data using the keyboard only on Excel (tab, type, tab, down, tab, enter), and yet how many of our browser based internal system bother to include keyboard short-cuts.

  2. I think this is one of the most fascinating tensions in the workplace and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out in corporate tech in the next 5 years.

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  4. Well spotted, Leisha, and great post. But, as you point out, it’s the same almost everywhere: having to fight unnecessarily complicated systems instead of doing the actual work.
    I’ve been working for several years to make people aware of the sad state of internal and enterprise it systems. It’s quite clear that it, in fact, is an occupational health issue: stress from bad it systems is huge – when you look for it. Unfortunately, just a few researchers have realized it yet.
    In a Swedish survey in 2012 (of +3400 people), 41 % said that they had problems with it at work every week. An additional 19% said they had problems *every day*. In another survey, doctors and nurses say that they lose in average almost one hour every day on crappy systems. Of course, this eats them, causing stress and dissatisfaction: they want to spend that time with patients. With a new it system for the Swedish police, the number of clicks needed to grant a gun license increased from 145 to 313. Etc…

    Fortunately, we are now seeing some change. Last fall, we had the first conference about the problems of the digital workplace in Sweden. A number of Swedish trade unions have picked up this challenge, and have put the issue high on their agendas for the coming year.

    Perhaps you’ll enjoy this story:
    (More stuff in English at my English blog,

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