Being human in the workplace: understanding human complexity and using it in design

Simon Andrew

Categories: Tech

We’re complex beasts. And sometimes we can’t even predict our own behaviour. But if we’re so complicated, how do we even think about designing HR technology?

Humans are more complex than we give ourselves credit for. Our bodies are constantly whirring away, keeping us going. Then when you add in the societal rules and nuances of being human, it’s overwhelming how much we are processing in any one moment. Which is why Benefex have been doing some research into how our complexity affects user behaviour, and the impact that will have on how we design our tech.

People are amazing (and complex)

Let’s just start by saying humans are incredible. Look at what we’ve created – from the amazing structures we’ve built, the medicine we’ve discovered, and lives saved, to the technology connecting us. Or even this four tonne elastic band ball made in Florida! We’ve accomplished a lot of (mostly) great things.

When you consider how complex the human body itself is, it’s no wonder we’ve gone on to do amazing things. 37 trillion cells are working round the clock to keep us functioning without us even noticing. Take the stress response – in split seconds the hypothalamus sends a signal to the nervous system, which tells the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and the adrenal medulla to make epinephrine. Our heart rate increases, our breathing speeds up, blood capillaries dilate, additional glucose is produced. In a single moment, our body fuels itself with the energy and oxygen it needs to survive. Whether it’s fighting off a predator or tackling 200 emails, the response is immediate and intense. The unconscious complexities of our body and brain are amazing.

We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do

So yes, we are pretty awesome. But with that awesomeness comes complexity, and with complexity comes less predictability.

Did you give up anything at new year? Commit to changing a behaviour? How are you doing now? UK Business Insider states that over 80% of people who commit to a New Year’s resolution give it up after six weeks.

Research shows that 50% of New Year’s resolutions are health-related – and it seems simple enough, right? I’ll just exercise more, or eat healthier. But when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of steps between the idea and actually achieving it. You may have to adjust your shopping, spend more money on better ingredients, cook something different for the rest of the family, find an extra 30 mins for that jog, it’s no wonder 80% of people fail.

Consider another example. If you see an elderly person fall, would you rush over and help them? Of course you would, because you’re lovely. But what if you’re late to a meeting? What if there’s ten other people around? What if they’re all nearer than you and you’re going to miss your bus and… well, you get the idea. When asked if you would help an elderly person in need, you would probably say yes. But whether that would be true would come down to a number of factors.

(If you’re interested, this is called the Bystander Effect - a socio-psychological effect we all experience, which results in us being less likely to help someone, the more people that are around. If there is one person in the room and you ask for help carrying something, they’re almost guaranteed to help; but if the room is full of people, it’s likely everyone assumes someone else will help).

There are countless psychological and behavioural studies that have shown while we may believe certain reactions from ourselves, the results are often different or more complicated than we expect. We need to understand how human behaviour works if we’re to predict people in a useful way.

We simplify everything

We are in a state of constant overload. Our brains have so much to consume and process that they simplify things and condense them into groups. People, topics, images, shapes – we do it with everything. Gestalt psychology suggests that the human mind fills in gaps in an attempt to see things as whole, rather than just a sum of their parts (processing one thing is quicker than ten right?!). This effect plays an important part in user design.

Look at the images below, what do you see?


You can identify what the pictures are, but, they’re really just a collection of shapes. No connecting lines, no outline, no colours. Yet our brain has grouped them together to assume an image that isn’t really there.

But here’s the thing, by applying these principles we can create more intuitive user interfaces.

People approach a webpage the same way you approach the panda picture. You cluster things together for easy processing. You link this photo with that text, that video with this paragraph; you group elements together not by association, but by subconscious assumption. When designing tech for humans, we must take these nuances into account to design the best experience.

Our research

The point here is this – we need to understand how people work in order to help them as much as possible. That means an understanding of psychology and a constant need to research.

Benefex recently collaborated with our partners EDF to understand why some users don’t engage with HR systems. The results were universal: seconds count. Not minutes, not hours – seconds. In the 21st Century, we measure tasks in seconds. We’re surrounded by immediate gratification – social media, Amazon, Netflix – so bulky benefits systems just don’t cut it anymore.

Work is falling behind the consumer-grade tech that employees are used to. At home, if you can’t use a website within seconds, you just move onto the next option. At work, you are stuck with technology that isn’t always fit for purpose.

If we want employees to engage with their benefits, we need to provide a great technology experience.   

The future of reward

We don’t know everything about human behaviour. But we know a lot, and we’re always learning. Through our very own technology, OneHub, we’ve brought benefits and recognition into the 21st Century - all through better user experience. The next stop for us is the reward side of recognition. We’re doing research into what employees want from rewards. That means reviewing academic research, performing behavioural testing and getting employee and industry feedback. We want to learn what rewards work and how can technology support them.

If we are truly going to ‘put the human back in Human Resources’, then we need to keep behavioural and psychological insight at the forefront of HR tech. Technology doesn’t have to be inhuman if we can keep the user at the centre of our design process. People are complex; let's use science to understand them, and technology to help them. 

Interested in other ways that tech interacts with user experience? Check out our recent blog about how technology can reduce the burden of HR admin.

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