Workplace Self Hacks

In the SXSW Panel "The Productive Workplace -- UX, Technology and You" I discussed the power of UX in workplace design. I touched briefly on a term we have come to use a lot, the "perception gap." Here I would like to explain more about this concept, the impact the gap has on experience, whether any good can come from its existence and how UX can help.


The "perception gap" is that grey area that occurs in design when the people creating the solution believe that they have met their requirements and that everything is perfect (or "green" on their scorecard). However, after implementing the solution they later find out that it is unsatisfactory and doesn't work well for the people who are actually using it.

Classically, we see this occur in office design where the designers think that everything is fine; the space is cost effective (on budget), it looks good (aesthetics and ambiance) and it meets the requirements (includes everything needed). So why then, if it all looks so good on paper, are people unsatisfied with the space, or not using it?

Simply put, the answer is usually one of two reasons (sometimes both).

  1. The space doesn't invite the user in and make them feel like they want to be there. For example, a break space might feel sterile, more like a doctor's waiting room than a place to relax and unwind.
  2. The space doesn't enable them to do what they actually want to do in there, e.g. a break space that lacks comfy seating so really isn't enabling them to relax, or a meeting room where the content sharing mechanism is a tiny flat panel so far from the table that no one can see it (yes, this happens more than you think) inhibiting them from holding the meeting they needed to effectively.

How do these scenarios occur? A common cause is "checkboxitis." The designers check off the list of requirements for the space, but do not necessarily spend the time to piece together how everything will work collectively.

For example -- let's take a collaboration room -- you can easily say:

"Yes, there is a whiteboard. Yes, there are some creative looking chairs. Yes, there is a table. Yes, there is access to power, and yes, there is a way to share content."

Everything is there, right? We can all pat ourselves on the back and go home happy. Wrong. While all these things can be present, what you can end up with is:


A table so low that people cannot actually put their laptops on it. Power sockets located in places that no one can reach. Chairs that look great but are actually super heavy to move around and sit at an odd angle to the screen.

The experience for the user is formed by the way in which the physical and digital components of the space come together, therefore a more holistic design approach would enable the experience to be cohesively designed.


When things do not work for the people using a space, they will more often than not find a way around it. We see examples of these "self-hacks" in offices all the time. Remember when you used to email yourself a website address from your PC so that you could continue looking at it on your phone?

"Well, so what?" you may think. "So what if people 'piece' together their own solutions to make something that wasn't working the way they needed it to work for them?" Well, depending on the type of hack used, there are some knock on effects to both the business and the hacker.

Wasted Money

Businesses care about money (I know, shocker). They have limited money to do everything they need to do, including investments in their employees -- be that tools that the employees use, spaces they work in, the list goes on. When the user experience is bad, or things simply do not work for the employee, they will just not use the solution provided, and will find another way to achieve their goal. But this means that the business then loses out on its investment. Unused tools and spaces they have spent money on are simply wasted dollars. One example that springs to mind was an investment in a room booking system. The employees were having a hard time finding and booking conference rooms for meetings so a new system was invested in to make things easier. Even though the system had the supposed requirements (room booking, cancellations, delegates etc...), it was actually quite hard to use and was not really speeding up the process at all so the employees simply reverted to what they knew worked well -- a piece of paper and a pen. What a waste. All it would have taken was for the business to investigate how the proposed system would likely fit in with the way the employees worked to avoid the mistake in investment.

Productivity Loss

When employees have to "fix things" the search for a solution takes them time and effort. This then takes them away from the activities they were actually trying to do. For example, in the meeting room previously mentioned, the employees could easily move the chairs closer to the screen or the power sockets, however, now they need to add an extra 10 minutes of set up time before their meeting. Anyone in a meeting heavy environment knows these things usually run back-to-back, not to mention who really wants a physical workout before a meeting?! In this example there was also a lack of understanding; in designing a workspace, you need to think not only about the technology you put in place, but also about the technology that people may bring into the space. How does the fact that we now have new postures in the world due to our use of technology, or the fact that "text-neck" is a word, affect how you think through the physical furniture and the placement of that furniture?


The more "fixes" and hacks employees have to make to fix what should just be working for them, the more annoyed they get. Dissatisfaction in their workplace leads to lower feelings of engagement -- and a higher likelihood they will simply choose to work from elsewhere (if the company allows it) where they can be comfortable and able to do their work. This point is really important - research has shown that actively engaged employees can bring much greater profits to the business.


Of course, there are some hacks which are not going to cause too much disruption -- sometimes employees fix the situation, then the fix remains in place. If there is not enough power, they can add a power strip (although even that has a slight knock on effect as it looks a mess, and yes, there is even a term for it in industry -- cable management).

But, are hacks always so bad? The truth is that paying attention to these hacks can provide great and valuable insight into your employees.

Looking at how people work in their environment will allow you to see the gaps in their experience. You will come to understand how you can truly make their lives better when you go to improve their tools or workplace. Fixing things that employees may have just learnt to live with can have a really big impact on their engagement, enabling them to work much more effectively. One example we found in a video conference room was seeing people move their chairs to almost a semicircle at the top of the table (the table was rectangular). This positioning made the interaction feel much more natural and engaging. When we used a slightly curved table in a new design the users were much more engaged and happy with the experience.

Noticing these hacks can lead to really good ideas and innovations that you hadn't thought of before. Actually going and seeing may teach you a better way to design.


UX can help you design spaces better by really looking at all the components and the ways in which they all work together in alignment to attain what the user is trying to achieve. Using the experience design thought process you can bring all parties to the table, helping you to understand how a person will "flow" through the space, or tool, from start to finish. This enables those implementing, those designing, user needs and stakeholders to understand how each piece they are responsible for interacts with other parts of the design and allows you to design for the achievement of needs from the start, increasing productivity, reducing wasted investments and stopping "checkboxitis" in its tracks.