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Know your onions: principles for designing internal communications

Head of Digital Alan Coates, explains how the principles of Service Design, Customer Experience and User Interface can all help create the perfect internal communications experience. And it all starts with onions…

Normally, when we talk about Service Design (SD), Customer Experience (CX) or User Interface design (UI) we mean an organisation’s digital platforms and websites. But the more digital projects we deliver at 44, the more it’s clear these principles extend much further beyond specific channels and touch on wider, far-reaching areas of an organisation.

By exploring what each of these three mean, we can understand how they are interconnected, how they can express a company’s values and vision, and how ultimately they can help enrich the colleague experience.

Service Design (SD)

Imagine an organisation’s way of working as an onion. The very outer layer you reach first is the Service Design. Put simply, this is what you think of when you think of the company; based on your experience with it.

Service Design is a relatively new concept, first introduced in 1991 by professors Michael Erlhoff and Birgit Mager at Köln International School of Design. In a nutshell, Service Design seeks to improve the quality of service between a provider and its customers or, in our case, the company and its employees.

A Service Design approach looks at solving problems that range from the organisation of people to infrastructure and communication. It should also include the why, defining the culture, values and authenticity of an organisation, plus the hows and whats of a communication strategy – everything that sits within the rest of the onion.

Once defined, a Service Design strategy can then map out an entire colleague journey, from recruitment, to induction, business-as-usual, development and beyond.

Colleague Experience (CX)

What comes next is to make sure these elements are effective. At the next layer of the onion, Customer Experience (or can we say colleague experience?) is specifically focused on the interactions at every stage of the colleague journey.

At recruitment, for example, how easy is it for them to submit a CV? At induction, do they have the right information to complete the initial training questions? Do colleagues always go to voicemail when they call the HR team?

The three pillars for great CX are attract, convert and advocate, and using these as your starting point will solve many of the problems mentioned above.

First you attract your audience by properly and visibly promoting the latest intranet, learning platform, colleague magazine, campaign, employee awards programme or HR tool.

Then you help them convert the actions required by making it easy and useful for them to do so (we’ll come on to this in UI).

And by making it so easy and useful for them, they will then attract other colleagues by becoming advocates of this new way of working, creating a culture where peers are promoting the company and its values.

User Interface (UI)

Onions are tasty, nutritious and they make me cry when I cut them up.

If Service Design is the outer layer, and Colleague Experience is part of the onion you eat, User Interface is knowing that you can avoid crying by chewing gum, freezing the onion, or using a very sharp knife.

When we talk about User Interface, we normally talk about how a thing looks – and to some extent this is true. But what we really mean by UI is how the thing helps us complete a task, because of how it looks.

Most digital platforms are built using three building blocks:
1. Structure – e.g. HTML
2. Styling – e.g. CSS
3. Functionality – e.g. JavaScript

The structure of the site/page manages the layout of the content; the styling of the pages adds the brand, fonts, colours and design; and the functionality lets people fill out forms, complete tasks, book holiday and more.

Good UI starts by understanding the functionality first. What do people need to do and how will they do it?

Design it clear, design it simple, and design with the user in mind. Or, as Jamie or Nigella might say, choose the right onion, get under its skin, and slice it up nicely with a sharp knife before serving.

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