HR Management Software: Leveraging the Power of Cognitive Psychology in UX Design

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Using cognitive psychology in UX design lets organizations create tools that both meet user expectations and reduce lost time.

Poor user experience (UX) is costly. As noted by Forbes, 67 percent of customers say poor user experience caused them to stop using apps. Even more worrisome is that 91 percent of them leave without saying anything about what went wrong. For human resource teams looking to onboard or re-imagine current HR management software, this is a critical concern.

For UX expert Kevin Lu of ADP, building better software means understanding the key impact of cognition on experience — how easy does HR management software make it to acquire knowledge and complete tasks? How do they recognize when software isn't up to par? And how can they leverage cognitive psychology in UX design to improve productivity?

Design Challenge

UX is baked into every employee interaction with software, hardware and other staff members. As noted by the User Testing blog, that's problematic because UX overload results in around 11 million bits of data per second streaming at employees, despite their ability to process only 50 bits at the same time.

So how should businesses approach UX design? According to Lu, in work environments competing for user attention, it's critical to create "clear content" that users can understand. For example, Lu and his team might design an interface using the Von Restorff Effect, also known as the Isolation Effect, which occurs when similar-seeming visual cues are placed next to one that's obviously different. Users are drawn to the different object or color. Used correctly, this can help reduce complexity and improve productivity.

Principles of Cognition

Lu and his team built their own cognitive library at ADP, but public libraries such as Coglode offer design teams a solid starting point. The caveat? Lu says cognitive science contains a "set of principles treated as guidelines for UX design."

Common cognitive principles used in UX design include:

  • The Von Restorff Effect — Remember "one of these things is not like the other" from "Sesame Street?" That's the effect in a nutshell: Unique is memorable.
  • The Law of Proximity — Objects near each other are perceived as grouped together. From a design perspective, this means even subtle changes to text or object positioning can provide the impression of natural groups.
  • The Law of Uniform Connectedness — Visually connected elements are seen as similar. By grouping related elements with the same color, font and size, users will more easily recognize the intended connection.
  • Hick's Law — Decision-making time goes up as the number of choices and overall complexity increases. For UX designers, this means creating clear content elements that speak directly to single choices. Instead of providing a single option to request sick days, vacation days or days in lieu, make these three separate actions.
  • The F Scanning Pattern — Users don't read everything. Instead, they rely on the F Scanning pattern: Scan across the top, from left to right, then down the left until they find the right contextual clues. Want an example? You're reading one. This bulleted list is far more effective than a paragraph for F Scanning.

Building a Better Mousetrap

Building a better mousetrap starts by evaluating current HR software programs. Do they work as intended? Design teams need to take a step back and see how both front-line staff and managers handle task completion. Can employees figure out what they're being asked to do, and how to do it? Can managers complete key tasks, such as approving time cards or vacation, without asking for assistance?

Lu described several improvements he's made to the MyADP app to enhance functionality. The first deals with clocking in for shifts from mobile devices; users were often unsure if they'd properly completed the task. After testing two designs, the fastest response time came from the one featuring a bright green circle and check mark. Those visual cues clearly indicate that users have clocked in. He also improved the onboarding process by reducing the effort required to supply the mandatory Form I-9 information.

The prior process required new hires to read all possible response options and click a radio button beside their choice. The improved design greatly reduces the user's cognitive load by automatically presenting the most commonly seleced option, which is to provide their social secsurity number. A link to see other options is available for those to whom that does not apply. This improvement leveraged Hick's Law to reduce the total complexity of the process.

Quality and Quantity

Great design is nothing without measurement. For Lu, this starts with qualitative data gained by letting staff use the application. "Observe them completing tasks," he says, "don't guide them. Let them find faults or validate design on their own." Next, he leverages analytics tools to collect metrics such as time-on-task — too high per task and completion rates start to drop off. Lu uses the example of a Wizard-type setup program experiencing a sharp completion drop-off on step three of 10. Analytics may reveal the program asking employees for specific data they can't easily access, in turn causing them to give up.

For Lu, designing effective HR UX is about empathy and experience — understanding what users want to see in HR management software and then leveraging cognitive principles to streamline content awareness, decision-making speed and task completion.