What the Heck is EX Design? Part 3 – Principles of Employee Experience Design

//What the Heck is EX Design? Part 3 – Principles of Employee Experience Design

Now that we’re past the introduction of Employee Experience Design (What the Heck is EX Design Part 1) and the heavy stuff (What the Heck is EX Design Part 2 — The Philosophy of EX Design) it’s time to get into the more practical aspects of my work — The Principles of Employee Experience Design.

The Design industry has a very large collection of principles that guide and shape its decision making and work. The field of People & Culture also has numerous principles for its practice. Depending on what you count as a principle, the list in the overlap of these two industries can number in the hundreds.

For this post I want to focus on 8 central ideas (presented in no particular order) that I turn to often to shape my work — obviously this won’t be a comprehensive list but it will start to show the cognitive lenses that we use to design employee experiences.


The 80–20 Rule, Pareto Law or the Matthew Principle are all names describing the principle that, in natural systems, we consistently find a few factors producing a majority of outcomes — roughly speaking 20% of inputs produce 80% of outcomes. Here are some examples:

  • 20% of stars hold 80% of the universe’s mass
  • 20% of your customers will produce 80% of your income
  • 20% of bugs in software produce 80% of the cases raised
  • 20% of issues are producing 80% of your team’s frustrations

In EX Design we use this principle extensively. When exploring a problem we look for the few key factors that are going to give us the greatest leverage. Who are the few top performers creating a disproportionate amount of value? What are the few variables that are going to lead to solving most of a problem? What few factors are the cause of most of the frustration employees feel in any particular situation?

In complex systems, it can be difficult to understand the cause and effect of issues, but the 80–20 principle is a great help to identify potential areas to test.

Moments and Transitions

Not all experiences are equal. Close your eyes and think back on the last couple of years of your work. Unless you’re some kind of savant, you will most likely remember some highlights, low points and times where significant change was occurring — all the rest and vast majority blends together into a blur (the 80–20 rule again).

These moments and transitions are important because they set the emotional tone with which an experience is remembered, which in turn impacts the emotional inertia experienced in an organisation (see below).

In EX design we look for, and purposefully shape and create these points of memory. What kind of experiences and memories will this moment create? What moments should have focus and be memorable?

Contrast, Repetition, Alignment & Proximity

These are actually four separate principles of visual design, but they also play a central role in Employee Experience Design.

Contrast creates attention and tells us “pay attention here”. It is the creation of distinct, noticeable change between one thing and the other. In visual design this can be done through colour, size, shape etc, but contrast can be created in a huge number of ways, environment, rhythm, volume/intensity, type of content etc.

Repetition creates familiarity and trust. Familiarity as in family sense — does this belong here. In visual design this is created by using the same font type, colour use, positioning, but repetition (and the sense of belonging and trust it creates) can also be created through voice, through ritual, through responsibilities.

Alignment creates order, balance, structure and confidence. Visually it is the arrangement into perceived lines and grids (typically to accepted conventions or natural standards like the golden ratio). In EX Design we use alignment to explore if components “are in line” with culture, communication or other broader aspect of the organisation.

Proximity creates a sense of meaning by chunking items close to one another into a perceived unit. Items that are close together are perceived to be more connected than items that are further apart. The easiest example to understand how this works visually is to think of a page of text, all uniformly spaced. Compare that to a page of with five paragraphs on it. The same content, but by placing certain sentences physically closer, you create little units of meaning making it easier to process.


Where possible reduce noise, options features, interactions. Cut away elements that distract from what is most important. Simplicity is the prioritisation of options to ensure what really matters has the focus and clarity it requires.

Simplicity is of central importance because it reduces the cognitive load on our brains making it easier to interact with the design and reach our desired goals.


Ideas or solution presented by designers are not final or expected to be perfect, but they do need to move us closer to addressing key and material issues we are trying to solve. It is the power of saying “yes, and”, of continuing to test and refine our work.

No idea or solution is king, each are tested, stripped of sharp edges and retested again.


Directly connected to the driving beliefs of EX Design, a focus on CoDesign helps us create solutions with our teams instead of for our teams.

The vast amount of knowledge about a problem is locked in with the employees, their active involvement in unpacking the problem and testing solutions unlocks their valuable insights.

Ownership is also an important human driver of motivation. For example, when people create their own avatars in apps, they are much more likely to engage with the app, if employees are part of creating a solution they are much more likely to engage with it.

Structure of Meaning

As humans we make sense of the world through schemas. Schemas are like a basic Lego block with which we build more complex schemas, allowing us to categorise and create a stable understanding of the world. This also helps reduce our cognitive processing each time we encounter an object or situation. Some of our earliest schemas are “mamma” “dadda”, but these then expand quickly. We then expand our schemas, for example we might have a schema for “dog” and when we see a Horse we think “Big Dog”.

What this tells us is that meaning has a structure and we can make it easier for people to understand and embrace new concepts and changes by using the appropriate schemas.

Let’s say your organisation is introducing a Kanban system. If this is new to you, Kanban has no point of reference to make sense of it, creating anxiety, resistance etc. Now if we said we’re introducing a system that’s like using digital post-it notes to keep track of a process, you’ve got some reference.

Emotional Inertia

Every human system has an emotional inertia or momentum which must be dealt with or harnessed. The emotional inertia provide the insights needed to frame efforts, communication and timeframes for creating change.

Being sensitive to the direction of this emotional momentum is most important of all to the efforts our work — whether employees feel stuck, or things are improving, or things are getting worse or they are at a peak will shape the frame and approach needed.

This inertia is a central determinant of the success and failure of any employee experience effort.

Done! (for now)

In What the Heck is EX Design Part 1 & Part 2 I introduced Employee Experience Design and shared the driving beliefs that shape our work.

In What the Heck is EX Design Part 4 I want to share with you what Modes of Working we use when designing. See you there!

Question for You

Think back on a project implementation that didn’t go well, were any of these principles missed?