How to design software for remote working

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, employees are working from home in numbers previously unseen – and despite a slight easing of restrictions, this looks unlikely to change any time soon. This has brought about a whole new set of considerations for employers, who are grappling with everything from how to communicate sensitively with remote staff, to ensuring they have the right software design for remote working

The current situation has also revealed a lack of preparedness on the side of UK businesses, with recent research suggesting that a third lack the technology infrastructure for mass remote working. As lockdown continues, and businesses consider the long-term effects, having software that enables this will become increasingly important. This will also impact enterprise software businesses, who will be compelled to consider how their platforms perform when used out of the office.

Working in the employee benefits sector, this has been a central concern for me for some time, as workforces are made up of a multitude of employees working in a range of different ways. With this experience, I’d like to offer some advice to people working in the product space on what’s important when it comes to making technology ready for remote use.

Begin with the user in mind

Software designers must think about how people intend to use their products and what they want to get out of them. There’s a reason why platforms like Netflix and Spotify recommend content upfront; the technology has been designed to take previous choices into account and find what people are most likely to listen to or watch to create a highly personalised and individual user journey.

This experience should be the goal for enterprise software too – particularly when employee engagement is key. Consider expense platforms, for example. Often making expense claims either gets done in one mass upload at the end of the month, or immediately after the spend when employees are likely to be out of the office. Software designers need to place themselves in the mindset of users and consider what will make a good user experience within their operating context.

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Employees may have similar requirements of their benefits platform. An organisation may have a mixture of office-based employees with access to company-provided hardware to make their selections at their desks, or truck drivers and warehouse workers who need to do so remotely, perhaps from their personal devices. Designers need to consider how to relay important information that will help inform benefits decisions, such as the employee’s total reward package, while thinking about the user journey for those who want to access additional detail.

Open the design process – and test and test again

Designers can put themselves in the end users’ shoes, but nothing beats listening to them. This is why the Thomsons UX team involves end users throughout the design process, right from inception, when we define the problem to solve or the opportunity to explore with design concepts and products ideas, through to the design details phase, when we test if the solution actually works. If it passes, we then enter deployment phase, when we test how the product performs “in the wild”. This is when we give it over completely to end users, to use whenever, wherever, and however they want – which might be not the way it was intended! After this, we collect the data to see how to improve the solution for next release.

It is also hugely important to collect feedback from different sources, as this is the only way to achieve a full picture of end user needs and product requirements. Aside from the end user, UX teams need to maintain communication with those purchasing the technology or accessing its backend. This is always beneficial, but even more so currently when many are working remotely. Obtaining regular feedback is crucial to ensuring employees are being enabled rather than frustrated by technology at home.

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The testing process can also provide important insight into the level of computer literacy within an organisation, a factor that has design implications. If the level varies person to person, then designers must find flexible solutions to cater for the population’s variance. It’s far better to have something beautifully simple that everyone can use, that alienate a proportion of your people.

Balance security and user experience

Finally, all organisations will have different security requirements. These will play into whether a company uses a VPN, cloud infrastructure, or both. While cloud computing is a simpler and more scalable solution for many organisations, VPNs provide an additional layer of effective security between the user and the company’s servers.

Software designers need to be aware of the security measures that individual companies have in place and the impact these may have on user experience. Indeed, while users would often opt for single sign-on, as this enables them to enter one username and password to seamlessly access a range of associated applications, this is not always possible. Although convenient, single sign-on can throw up more security risks, so designers need to consider a range of options to ensure one factor is not compromising the other.

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Final words

Employees who can, will be working from home for some time yet. Furthermore, commentators seem to agree that that COVID-19 will lead to a recalibration in the way we live and work, leading to a larger portion of the workforce opting to work remotely more frequently in future. Designers need to grasp the opportunity presented by our current situation to prepare. It’s no use waiting around and thinking that existing systems will be good enough once normality returns – because normality might be quite different.

Written by Daniela Aramu, head of user experience at Thomsons Online Benefits

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