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I must admit that some of my favorite projects are those where I design work tools. Over the years I have had the pleasure to design for various businesses and people doing very specialized work. And these projects always mean big amounts of domain knowledge to learn and some hard design decisions in the end. Because when it comes to work, nothing is ever really simple.

So, what have I learned about designing work tools as opposed to other digital products? What have I learned about the users?

In this post I would like to share some insights on how the users of business apps and work tools are behaving differently from those using consumer products – and what this means to the designer of the tool.

Business, not pleasure
Work tools are not used for fun or pleasure – like a lot of the other tools we use in our daily lives. In a work setting there is always a more or less specific goal in the mind of the user, and she typically needs to get something done. Work tools are used because the user “has to”, and is often being asked to do so by her manager. This means the user will use the tool it even though it offers a bad user experience. This could sound like a great opportunity for lazy designers (hey, the users will use the product even though it sucks!) but in reality users will probably try to avoid the badly designed tools and talk badly about them, so no one else feel like trying them.

But never the less, because work tools are used out of necessity, you can expect a higher willingness from the user to learn to use the tool than for other products. This circumstance should be used to make sure the user is met by a good learning experience when first starting to use the tool.

A professional setting
Work tools are used in a different setting than other digital products. It is mostly in an office, but could also be a hospital, a bank or a factory floor.

The physical work environment can impose challenges or specific requirements to the design. For example, the tool could be used in a place with a lot of noise or dust, with glove-wearing workers, or a place where little kids could accidentally get hold of the tool. Each of these physical conditions set a specific constraint or requirement for the design.

Interruptions is another common event in most people’s work. Work tools need to be able to handle when the user gets interrupted and start completely different work tasks in parallel. Surprisingly few work tools are actually designed to meet this requirement and are therefor seen as rigid and inflexible.

The user is also in a different state of mind when at work. This often means that they are in a more serious mood, being less tuned into fun and games and more into getting things done and achieving work related goals.

When designing work tools one must have a good understanding of the relevant work environments as well as the dominant “work culture”. The best way to get this is to visit a typical work place and see how it really is for yourself.

Deep domain knowledge
The third thing I would like to include is the user’s understanding of the work domain. Users of work tools very often have a detailed and rather extensive amount of knowledge about what they do and their professional domain.

These types of users are not novice users for very long. If you are using a work tool every day you quickly become an expert user. Expert users represent a challenge because they act upon a massive amount of knowledge and require effectiveness, speed and keyboard shortcuts, not just an intuitive and simple UI. Read more about how to design for expert users here.

This structure and logic of the domain should be reflected in the design of the work tool, which can be a difficult task given that business domains can be incredible complex. And at the same time, the tool should be designed for users who are no longer beginners, but have already gotten the expertise to allow them to perform complex and non-trivial tasks.

Conclusion
Insights about how work tools are used can serve as a basis for designing great tools that fits the mental state of the user, their goals, work environment and expertise. Because work tools differ from other digital products in this respect it is important to get to know the users in their specific work environment before the design gets done.