Thinking about the user in usability for a more effective workplace

December 14, 2017

Effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction: it’s what Leesman is all about.


It’s what we test, probe and evaluate. And the majority of the research I now undertake across one of the largest global datasets of its kind almost always hangs on one or more of these strands.

There is an ISO standard (9241) on the subject with the catchy title Ergonomics of Human System Interaction. It defines usability as “the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments”. So, while “effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction” are the outcomes, you have three variables that can either make or break it: the user, the specified goals, and the environment. Usability is the very reason why one solution doesn’t fit all, and why in the context of a workplace, one setting can’t possibly be expected to support all activities. It is also why you need to know your employees to create a high performing workplace. Let me explain.

Specified users are the persons using the environment. It also relates to the fact that we’re all different; we have different characteristics, skills, experiences, expectations and preferences, all of which affect how we experience our workplaces. 

Specified goals are the things we do. It’s the activities we perform and the outcomes we’re aiming to achieve.

Particular environment is the workplace and the different settings we use. Borrowing from usability theories in user interface design, key elements include functionality, navigation, learnability, memorability and flexibility. But these attributes mean little if they’re not viewed from the perspective of the user.


Splitting focus

To understand and achieve high usability, you need to take all three dimensions into consideration, at the same time. But, often, the focus is placed on functionality – which is really only about the characteristics of the workplace and the functions it provides. Looking only at the workplace in isolation, we might find that it has all the functionalities in the world, but unless they’re paired with the right activities and specific user, it might not be fit for purpose, making it a complete waste of space.

Even when a workplace is designed with a certain activity in mind, it still might not lead to high usability. Across our database, 93% of respondents consider ‘individual focused work, desk based’ to be important. When designing a space for this activity, you might intuitively think it should be something calm and quiet. But we don’t all focus well in quiet environments – I certainly don’t as silence distracts me. Different users doing the exact same activity might have very different experiences of the same environment. You might discover that while one person finds a certain setting suitable for a particular activity, their colleague might not – because they’re different people.

Another common challenge in many workplaces is the lack of variety. Across our database, only 30% are satisfied with the variety of workspaces that are on offer. Variety is important because the same setting cannot support us in all the activities we do. Remembering the three elements in the usability definition – user, goals, environment – you can see that even when the user and environment are constant, the outcome will be different when the goals change. No matter how well a particular setting supports you in your individual work, it might be completely wrong for you when you’re collaborating or taking a phone call.


Individual versus organisational

Now let’s take that to an organisational level and consider the user in the usability definition as an entire organisation. The same thinking applies: while one workplace solution might work very well for, say, a particular bank, it might not work at all for their competitor, even though the context and goals initially appear the same. The user – here meaning the entire organisation – is different. The two banks might have opposing cultures and structures and use a unique mix of products or tactics to compete for identical segments, which will lead to different requirements.

So why is this important and what does it mean from a workplace development perspective? Essentially it means you cannot achieve high levels of usability without understanding all three components and ensuring they are aligned. Usability is easiest to notice in its absence. But through thorough investigation and assessment of all three dimensions – user, context and workplace – it is more likely to be achieved.

Understand your employees – and understand the differences in your workforce. These might be personalities, skills or even previous experiences. A person working in a private office will have a completely different understanding of transitioning to Activity Based Working (ABW) for instance, compared to someone who is working in an open environment. Understand too the context and the goals that your organisation and employees are aiming to achieve. What is it that they do for you? Does the environment and infrastructure proactively support them to achieve their specified goals? Then assess whether your workplace is aligned. How do your users perceive the environment, considering the work they do and the way they do it?

If they are not aligned, if you’re experiencing low levels of effectiveness, ask yourself why it’s not working. It’s easy to assume the problems are in the workplace design, but sometimes the root cause is not the space itself, it’s how it is being used. Small un-bookable rooms designed for ad hoc meetings won’t work if individual employees occupy them all day, treating them as their own private office. And phone booths won’t support conversations if they’re used as storage.  Sometimes you’ll find the solution to the problems elsewhere. You could actually have created the perfect mix – a variety of settings that support a wide range of different goals – but to increase usability, you need to work on user mindsets or how the workplace is being used. This is particularly true in ABW environments, as was shown in the study we published earlier this year.


Every little helps

Looking at our entire database, we can conclude that there are still too many spaces where users, goals and workplace are not aligned – both on the individual and organisational level. In a third of UK workplaces we’ve measured, less than 50% of respondents can agree that the design of their workplace enables them to work productively. The usability of these environments is falling well short of user needs.

And in some of these cases, small adjustments are all that’s needed. If the workplace has been developed based on the right assumptions and the right things are already being done, but perhaps just not done in the right way, user feedback data will reveal stress-points and indicate small changes in either workplace or behaviour that can improve the outcome. Single-loop learning is all that is required. But in other cases, you will need to do more than that to really make a difference and enable the organisation to use the workplace as an asset. User feedback will need to be used for double-loop learning, where the basic assumptions are challenged ahead of a bigger workplace transformation.


About the author

Peggie Rothe

Dr. Peggie Rothe is Leesman’s resident academic. Before joining the team in September 2014, she worked as a researcher at Aalto University (Finland) with a focus on corporate real estate, workplace management and short-distance office relocations, publishing her findings in several peer-reviewed academic journals.

Source: Leesman Index



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