Successful data-driven products require user-based design

As HR relies more on data, developers should design products around user needs instead of process needs to alleviate the pressure on HR to work smarter and faster.

Ever since the term people analytics gained popularity in the mid-2010s, the use of data to attract, manage and retain talent -- and to plan workforce strategies for years into the future -- has rapidly spread through the world of HR. Meanwhile, technology has become easier to use and cheaper to access. When those waves crossed, they created an environment in which developers could put increasingly sophisticated data into the hands of more people.

Despite all of this, the average HR professional had little exposure to analytics. Thus, even as data-driven products became more powerful, knowing how to take advantage of them was still a challenge.

The gap between those two dynamics is behind much of the innovation seen in today's HR software. Managers at almost any level can now use analytics to uncover dips in productivity or to predict a retailer's staffing needs in different locations during different seasons.

However, accessing analytics means one thing to a data scientist and another to a dispatcher or warehouse manager.

"Analysis requires some significant mathematical capability, [while] consuming the product of analysis and taking action on it does not. That's a management skill," said Kathleen Brunner, president and CEO of Acumen Analytics, a consulting firm in Blue Bell, Pa.

"Data isn't for quants and wonks anymore," said David Ricciardi, CEO of Proximo Consulting Services, a data services company in Jersey City, N.J. "It's for the business unit manager who needs it to make decisions." Data shouldn't be presented as "a dense set of numbers or mathematical models" anymore, he said.

"We've all seen those graphs that show sales are up through yesterday or retention rates and such," Ricciardi said. "The data's story should be able to -- and I mean this literally -- project that line so you can see where it's headed tomorrow and the day after."

In HR, the demand for analytics tools is certainly there. Peter Tiliakos, a principal analyst at research firm NelsonHall, said analytics tools are the most popular modules available for HR technology systems. According to him, 92% of employers have adopted them and 80% have them deployed already. While most organizations gave their analytics modules high marks, "some of the key issues that came from the lowest scores were around the user experience," he said.

'Data plus design'

As more HR and recruiting tools use data, developers must think about "a foundation of data plus design," said Raj Mukherjee, senior vice president of products at Indeed Inc.

The global job listing site is home to huge amounts of data: 120 million resumes, 500 million salaries, and 100 million company reviews and ratings. It uses AI and machine learning to uncover insights from all that information. In turn, those insights "help create more personalized experiences that cater to the skill sets of our users," Mukherjee said.

"Data products are complex, and design is a fundamental concern in order to make the data interpretable, actionable and transparent," said Ted Tomlinson, a senior software engineering manager at LinkedIn, whose Talent Solutions products use data to help employers identify, attract and recruit talent.

For example, LinkedIn's Talent Insights includes only a portion of the profiles represented on the site, Tomlinson said. "So it's important that we show users how we are calculating metrics like attrition, tenure and growth rates using the data we do have."

To do that, Talent Insights presents a detailed description of each metric, including the counts used to compute averages, percentages and other information without requiring users to switch away from their current work.

The different users of data-driven products

Of course, different people use data to different ends. Job seekers may have no idea about the processing power and AI that matches them with the appropriate roles.

At the same time, recruiters want to know that screening systems are discovering the most qualified candidates. Employee engagement specialists want to track the impact their efforts have on the business. That's why understanding the needs and capabilities of different users is fundamental to successfully designing data-driven products.

"You cannot ensure user-friendliness when designing a technology solution without knowing who your users are," Brunner said. "We are at an important workforce demographic juncture, with the baby boomers retiring or working into older age and Generation Y gradually starting to fill management positions at the other end of the scale."

Members of Gen Y, she pointed out, are often called digital natives, and they are much more comfortable with -- and dependent on -- technology than were earlier generations. This is a key consideration in the design and development of HR technology, she said.

According to Tomlinson, LinkedIn analyzed specific talent populations and companies for several years before it began building Talent Insights.

"The feedback we got from customers about what data was most actionable and the best way to present it had a huge influence on our final product design," he said.

Most developers of data-driven products agree that while their underlying technology may be complex, the user experience shouldn't be.

"At Indeed, we're focused on developing products that make the job search and hiring process as simple and efficient as possible," Mukherjee said. "[We are] creating user experiences that help job seekers find their right-fit job easily and helping employers reduce cost and time to hire the right-fit candidates."

"The design challenge we always face is making sure that we don't sacrifice usability for complexity and that we create transparency around our use of data," Tomlinson said. "Our goal is to always balance these factors."

Closing the consumerization gap

Going forward, designing data-driven products will only become more of a priority as economic growth and the tight labor market increase the pressure on HR, according to industry professionals.

"These demographic and economic dynamics will push HR to be better, faster and smarter about how it finds and develops the talent their organizations will need to execute their business strategy," Brunner said.

That's changing the way many developers approach their product's design and development, Tiliakos said. Platforms and tools are now being designed to focus on user needs as opposed to process needs.

"Before, we had a lot of process-driven systems. Now, it's more user-driven with process optimization built-in," he said.

"You're seeing that consumer-grade gap get closed between HR and work tools and our personal lives," he continued. "There's a definite emphasis on not just analytics, but the entire experience from end to end for the employee. That's what we're seeing."

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