The Making of a Good User Experience

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By Brad Kaloupek

When I started at PlanSource just over a year ago, I was given one of the most invigorating challenges of my career: to redesign the PlanSource employee user experience. The goal was simple but very important: to create an experience that would help people use our software in the easiest, simplest way to find benefits that are right for them.

The goal was finally met in March, when we launched Andromeda, PlanSource’s spring product release containing the new user experience. It was a long road, and I thought I’d write a bit about how we got here and why the new UX looks and behaves the way it does.

You don’t need to explain good design
There’s a saying that goes: “good design is like a joke; if you have to explain it, it’s not good.” Design is best when the user doesn’t notice it; it just works. If people had to ask for help, or if we had to explain why an icon or some other element was there, it wasn’t working. Benefit decisions are confusing enough already, so we had to present them in a simple, concise and consistent way for employees to understand.     

So each aspect of the user experience was thought through and each step of the benefits enrollment process was examined in painstaking detail. For example, to help people narrow down benefits choices, we looked at when to use sliders versus dropdown menus. After multiple iterations and user testing, it became clear that sliders worked well in certain situations. When there are many plans to choose from, sliders are a great interaction. But in cost-based benefits with dozens of pricing tiers, dropdowns worked better.

Don’t reinvent the wheel (or the shopping cart)
A fundamental issue with benefits enrollment is the unfamiliarity people have with it. It’s a process most people only do once a year. So, how can we make unfamiliar familiar? By repurposing a familiar experience such as online shopping. Not only is it helpful to our users, but there are ton of design patterns to observe that informed our design decisions.

Our new design leans into these familiar concepts such as Pinterest-style cards to compare benefit plans, and a shopping cart and checkout process. The shopping cart responds in the same way you would expect: as you pick your benefits, the cart is updated with a running total of your selection and the cost is updated with the cost per pay period.

Work on a phone or go home
How many times have you been required to download an app only to find that you’re out of space on your phone? So then you’ve got to sift through your storage, sacrificing apps, pictures and videos to make room. Well, we didn’t want to make our users choose between baby pictures and an app for enrolling in benefits that they would only use a couple times a year.

So, from day one, we built the site using responsive design. This means that employees can enroll in benefits on any device, whether it is on a laptop, tablet or phone. And unlike a mobile app that consumers have to download, the site will simply adapt and look great on any size screen.

A flexible system, that migrates gracefully
There is an entire additional article we could write on the number of variables and possible configurations our new UI has to accommodate. Behind the scenes, the PlanSource administrative engine allows for benefits as diverse as the companies that use it. It’s not simple enough to design a well thought-through benefits page without thinking of all the potential use cases. Most benefits pages have upwards of 9 iterations, as we found out as we tested the design and configuration.

And while supporting these benefit configurations, we needed to support our customers’ customized content. Balancing a new design with a graceful migration of the old is no small order. Our last employee UI has been in production for roughly four years and supports hundreds of thousands of active employers. Nobody wants to spend time rewriting content or reconfiguring their plans to upgrade to the new system. For our existing customers, transitioning from old to new is as simple as one checkbox. It just works.

Test it, test it, then test it again
You are probably realizing by now that designing a UX involves making hundreds of decisions, some big, some small. We didn’t want to make all these decisions in a vacuum, so we had a very thorough testing process. In every phase of the design creation, it was important for us to find out if what we were creating actually made sense. And when you work with something everyday, it can be hard to be objective, so outside input was desperately needed.

Some of the most valuable input we received was in person, asking people to navigate around in mock-ups and watching what they had trouble with. We did this during Eclipse, our annual conference, and with select groups around the country. And yes – everyone’s favorite persona “New Hire Natalie” will one day meet that nice guy in Vegas and get to change her benefits through a life event (inside joke – you had to be there).

We also used a cool online tool to do testing on the fly. UserTesting.com allowed us to ask questions about specific design elements or actions and get feedback from average users within hours. Designers, hang your ego at the door. Nothing stings more than watching a video of a millennial tell you what they really think about your design. But often, the answers are literally as simple as watching someone read over your prototype.

All in all, through testing online and in-person, more than a thousand sets of eyes have looked at and gave input on the new experience.

The testing, research and hours of designing has paid off: the PlanSource employee user experience has been deployed and will hopefully help thousands of families find the benefits that are right for them. Now on to the next challenge: redesigning the administrator experience. Stay tuned.  

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