As a UX designer and marketer in the tech industry, I have been onboarded for a number of software and design projects. During these onboarding processes, I have noticed that software, apps, and user flows are not always conveyed in a simple, readily-comprehensible manner.
As software and apps become more complex, the ability to define and explain technical concepts in simple terms has become an increasingly valuable skill for project leaders. In noticing this, an adherence to universal design principles would improve accessibility for all who take part in the onboarding process.
The Value of Onboarding
For those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘onboarding,’ it’s the process of helping new team members adjust to new surroundings. For some, they are having to learn new names, processes, and even responsibilities. Depending upon the team role and the size of the team, the time it takes for someone to be onboarded can vary greatly. But one thing is for certain: you can’t throw an elephant into the ocean and expect it to know how to swim.
Onboarding is a valuable process for multiple reasons. One reason is that you’re more likely to retain employees that underwent onboarding. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 69% of employees are more likely to stay with a company if they experienced positive onboarding. Imagine if you didn’t have to hire new designers for three years!
Another reason that onboarding is valuable is because it helps align team members on project goals, organizational goals, team protocols, and more. When members of a team are not aligned before a project begins, time and money can be wasted. I have seen projects that produce the wrong functionality or head in the wrong rhetorical direction when team members are not all on the same page.
A final reason that onboarding is valuable is it helps people understand each other and produce better work. Maybe one member of a team is best at client-facing, while another excels at creating InVision prototypes. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the people you work with will allow your projects to get done faster, and be more successful.
An Introduction to Universal Design Principles
In my experience, I have found that some of my design peers only see how universal design principles can help them improve ADA compliance. In actuality, ‘universal design’ is not just about designing for people with disabilities; it is “design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
To me, universal design is about accessibility and scope. The appeal of a design should intrigue the masses, and the functionality of a design should be available and usable for all.
To provide a greater context as to what universal design truly means, I have listed below the seven principles of universal design:
- Provide an identical experience for all users.
- Provide an experience that accommodates individual preference and ability.
- Design for simplistic use no matter the user’s language skills, prior experience, or concentration capacity.
- The design communicates information effectively, regardless of ambient conditions and a user’s sensory capacities.
- The design should minimize accidental and unintentional actions.
- Design should not fatigue users.
- Design should accommodate users of different size and physical capacity.
Notice, there isn’t a single principle of universal design that limits its definition to people with disabilities. This is because universal design is a broader concept that extends to all people, as all people have different skill sets, abilities, attention spans, and so on.
Universal design principles help all people receive an identical, positive experience. If first impressions really do matter as much as psychology says, wouldn’t it make sense to build an onboarding process that is usable and relevant to every new employee?
Using Universal Design Principles to Improve Onboarding
Whether you favor universal design principles or not, there is much to be learned from their study and application. As one of the purposes for their existence is to improve accessible design practices, I feel it is reasonable to use these principles to improve accessibility in the onboarding process for all UX designers, not to mention all new employees.
Of the seven principles of universal design, I believe all of them could be used to improve the onboarding process. However, I have chosen three of them to help me illustrate how applying universal design can dramatically improve a company’s onboarding program..
Design should not fatigue the user.
Fatigue and stress are nothing to joke about. Employee burnout is real, and it actually contributes to over 120,000 U.S. deaths each year. For this reason, it’s important for onboarding to be manageable and accessible so that the stress of new hires can be minimal.
Let’s say you’re onboarding a new design team and explaining the UX remodel project they will be completing. If one of your designers does not know the language you are using in your onboarding presentation, that could be extremely fatiguing and set that person behind the other designers. If your designers have to stay late on their first day to Google and make sense of the software they are to redesign, that could be extremely stressful as well. To improve the accessibility and impacts of your onboarding, make sure that you try to think of everything that new designers may need, how they require new information to be relayed to them, and the timeline for which they need to know important information.
Provide an identical experience for all users.
If one member of your design team is stressed out, doesn’t understand project goals, or doesn’t understand their roles for the project, it’s going to impact the rest of your team. Either an employee will be unable to complete their work, won’t complete the right work, or another employee will have to assist them substantially. This is why onboarding needs to be identical for all users.
Different members of your team process information in different ways, communicate differently, and/or have different capacities. If you give one onboarding experience to an in-house employee, and a different onboarding experience to a remote employee, you’ll have a team that is not well-aligned. As the project leader, onboarding each employee in a ‘universal’ manner will limit team confusion once workflows begin.
The design communicates information effectively, regardless of ambient conditions and a user’s sensory capacities.
Some people are great at blocking out distractions, but they shouldn’t be asked. As the project leader, you need to provide an onboarding environment that is conducive for the learning of every employee.
While onboarding can be fun, it still needs to be effective. Onboarding at a busy coffee shop or during happy hour may not help all team members get the information they need from onboarding. To improve accessibility in onboarding and to set employees up to succeed at their duties, limit the environmental distractions of your onboarding.
More Accessible Onboarding Tips
While the principles of universal design can help designers do more than design software or websites, I have found other concepts that may help you improve your onboarding process. Though it’s no longer widely believed that humans have ‘learning styles’ there are learning strategies that could help your UX designers remember what they were told during onboarding.
One learning strategy that I have found to be particularly successful is called chunking. Chunking is the process of grouping similar concepts or ideas for the purpose of improving the potential for recall. In onboarding, one could use chunking to help designers recall what they are learning. If you have to describe a software that you feel is very complex, reduce cognitive load for your designers by breaking down your description into more-easily consumed parts.
Through the use of chunking, you’d actually be adhering to multiple principles of universal design. For one, you’d be decreasing potential fatigue for your designers. Also, you’d be minimizing the unintentional action of creating areas of confusion.
In the software and tech industry, most people believe that adherence to universal design principles is only meant to help decrease the risk of a lawsuit for their client or their organization. However, accessibility is important for all people, not just those with disabilities.
During the last five years of my professional career, I have heard people say that they love to design because it’s fun to solve problems and not have to do it the same way every time. The process of onboarding doesn’t always feel like it brings joy or excitement in acclimating, engaging, and retaining talent. By mixing delightful design principles into mundane or repeated processes, you can start problem-solving in a new way and simultaneously prep your new employees to be as successful as possible in their work, regardless of ability.