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The Design of Workplace Experiences

Don Norman, in his classic book “The Design of Everyday Things”, talks about the 6 basic fundamentals of design;

  • affordances,

  • signifiers,

  • constraints,

  • mapping,

  • feedback, and

  • the conceptual model.

What are these six elements of design?

Affordances are, literally, the opportunities the design affords you.


Signifiers are deliberate, or accidental, signals about what to do with the designed object.

Constraints are absolute limits on the use of the object.


Mapping is the way parts of the design interrelate to reinforce each other.

Feedback is, obviously, feedback from interacting with the design.


And the conceptual model is the resulting mental picture of the design or object in the mind of the user.


Recently on holiday I watched my late teenage kids interact with the kitchen sink in our holiday rental.


A sink obviously affords you the opportunity to either rinse crockery or, with the plug in, wash it in warm, soapy water. However an empty sink also affords you the opportunity to just use it as a storage place for dirty cups and plates.


And once one dirty mug gets placed in the empty sink (by child A) that acts as a signifier that, actually, the sink is a place for storing used drinks containers. Until the sink is so full of mugs that it’s reached its size constraint and no more fit.


At which point I gave them both some feedback and they worked out that another opportunity mapped directly onto the sink - the dishwasher containing actual racks for holding plates and cups right next to it!


The end result of all that being, I think, a conceptual model in their minds that the sink/ dishwasher system works like a temporary crockery storage facility coupled with a cleaning system. I’m not sure that’s what was designed but that’s the end outcome.


I think these six concepts apply just as well to the design of experiences as it does to objects. Including the design of the work experience - from recruitment to onboarding, performance management, development, career progression, pay reviews, coaching and exit.


What are you affording your people the opportunity to do, what signals are you or other employees sending (deliberately or inadvertently) about expected behaviour, what rules or systems constrain behaviour, are you providing enough feedback to people about how they are going and does the system map together in a way that’s coherent?


Finally, how do all of these elements come together in people’s minds, their conceptual model of the organisation which when shared by enough people becomes your organisation’s culture.


Viewed in this way it becomes much easier to unpick the system and understand what element you need to change to drive towards a better shared conceptual model and therefore a more constructive culture.

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