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Whether you are using a “free” excel spreadsheet or a multi-million dollar HRIS to manage your performance process, you are probably running into the same three problems:


  1. It’s not a positive user experience i.e. simple to use and easy to understand
  2. It’s not promoting a positive interaction between a manager and an individual
  3. It’s not positively changing or improving performance

All three problems tend to originate in the design process that tends to be HR- and IT-centric, rather than user-centric. HR needs to “get something in place”. This means giving managers a form to fill in that they share at the beginning of the cycle, scoring it at end of the cycle, and using the data for performance bonuses or salary increases. IT needs the solution to fit within their application and infrastructure requirements in terms of deployment, maintenance and support.

So what do managers and individuals need?

Adopting a User-Centric Design Process

We interact with technology all the time, we’ve become aware of what a ”good” user experience is like. If we try a new application, and it’s confusing, difficult to navigate or not useful, we delete it. Immediately. The single biggest hurdle when designing software is to overcome the “expert” trap. Experts understand the context, the connections, the background and theories within their field of expertise.  Much of what they know is implicit, they no longer think about it at a conscious level. Experts want as much functionality as possible because they know how it can be used, when it is useful and why it is important.

Lesson 1: Design for simplicity

A study of 148,500 employees using Microsoft Office, found that 91% of users either never used Word, or would be considered “light” users (29% and 62% respectively). The majority of people want, and only use, the basic functionality of any application. The more it does, the more difficult it is to use.

Focus on the Pain: “I’m so looking forward to my performance review” said no person ever. There is a reason why the prospect of a performance review creates anxiety and discomfort with both managers and individuals. There is an in-built conflict of interests.

As a Manager: The thing that “costs” me the most is to tell you how good you are, because then you’ll want a raise, or realize your value and leave.

As an Individual: The thing I need to hear the most is where I can improve, but if I accept that feedback, you’ll penalize me and not give me a raise/bonus/promotion.

The challenge in designing a performance process, and supporting system, is to be able to create a shared and common interest.

We discuss common interests, but we argue about different interests.

Lesson 2: Design for Interaction

In a recent study only 2 out of 10 managers felt comfortable having performance conversations. BUT, 92% of employees agreed that corrective feedback, if delivered correctly, is effective at improving performance. The performance process should be about more than recording goals and collecting ratings. It should create a common purpose, “how do WE achieve YOUR goals?” and support that conversation.

TalentTalker, for example, is conversation technology that helps managers by guiding them through development conversations with their teams, through simply, easy to navigate technology.

Look Both Backwards and Forwards

You can only ever measure what has happened so all measures are backward looking. While that is useful for measuring performance, it is useless for managing performance. A performance process should achieve 4 things:

  1. Communicate goals and expectations
  2. Motivate and reward the achievement of those goals
  3. Predict the likelihood of a successful outcome
  4. Diagnose problems along the way

Managers seldom have a problem specifying the goals that want a person to achieve, although how you measure those goals is more challenging. They are often bound by company policy in terms of how achievement of those goals will be rewarded.
The ability to predict a successful outcome, and diagnose a problem if it occurs, are two forward looking factors. They can change what will happen.

Lesson 3: Design for Impact

Imagine if your performance system could tell a manager that an individual is unlikely to deliver their work on time, and what they could do about it. That is information that changes the future. It also creates a common or shared interest (lesson 2). You don’t need a crystal ball to figure out how behavior impacts outcomes. If I don’t manage my time well, or plan my work, or prioritize the right actions, I’m unlikely to deliver my work on time.
The ability to connect real-time analytics to real-world problems is one of the greatest opportunities HR has to make an impact on business results.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

Performance management processes, and the systems that support them, need to be re-designed from a user-centric perspective. Compliance-driven administrative processes do not have a positive impact on business results.

Design thinking has three lessons to offer that can make the process simpler, more interactive and increase it’s impact on performance.