Designing for a Sense of Purpose

Designing for a Sense of Purpose

Four principles for creating better jobs.
Marta Cuciurean-Zapan
Jenina Yutuc
read time:
6 minutes

A few years ago, when I was working on a project to help a mortgage company improve the work experience at its call centers, we created a living-room-like space we called "The Oasis," a live prototype of a space to take a break and reflect between calls. In that room, we built an "Idea Catcher" wall, where employees could use Post-its to share ideas, questions, and answers with each other and with management.

We knew from previous studies that tough calls have a negative impact on employees for hours afterwards, and that constant monitoring can make call centers tricky places to work. But still, this Post-it showed up on the wall: “There’s positives in each call we take!” The energy that this space created showed us how involving agents in designing their jobs was a meaningful way to learn and grow.

Many of us spend much of our lives at work. We want it to be good and meaningful. But too often, workers don’t have the agency or satisfaction for that to be true. As work is increasingly monitored and automated, it’s critical that we design technology and tools to support workers' well being and sense of purpose. Over the years, we’ve pulled what we’ve learned from various projects into a set of four principles for designing good jobs.

1. Use new tools to encourage a sense of purpose 

Involving employees in creating the tools for their own work provides an opening for them to act on their own values, and reflect on what they like (or don’t like) about their jobs. During the mortgage project, our design team worked with call center agents and homeowners to understand both the “front stage” and the “back stage” of service delivery. For the agents, being able to make a personal connection with the caller was important to their sense of agency—their perception of their own capacity for making change and being creative at work. With that in mind, we prototyped a customer dashboard with a scripted conversation, along with customized cards that prompted agents to infuse their own words and experience into the interaction. Inspired by Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, the cards included questions like: “What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten from someone else on your team?” and “Who is your role model? How would they handle the next call?” The prototypes addressed the tension between scripting and creativity, without burdening agents with additional oversight. Agents appreciated that the prompts recognized and supported their expertise and passion to engage with customers in a professional but personal way.

2. Design for values and emotions

Autonomy and creativity are foundational to high job satisfaction. Technologies like customer dashboards, time and task tracking, and software systems shape how we spend our time at work, what tasks we get to do and how, and fundamentally alter how we feel about and experience work. By designing for people’s values and emotions, new tools and systems have the potential to make work better. But that wasn’t the case when we first started working with a cruise line.

Employees (and also potential customers) thought that booking a vacation felt difficult, and compared the repetitive experience to the movie Groundhog Day. They constantly took their own notes, because the system didn't always log their entries, and had to search online to answer questions about their own services. To fix their frustration, the design team created a new dashboard that aggregated the information they were missing or currently keeping track of with pen and paper. By eliminating redundancy and cognitive load, the dashboard also made agents feel confident and informed—in their own eyes, as well as customers’. This marked a stark contrast to the earlier phase of work, in which agents had to look up the latest products and offerings on the company’s website, which gave them no more specialized knowledge than the customers calling in, deflating their image of themselves as confident service professionals.

The agents’ managers had a different problem: They hated using this tool on a desktop. They preferred to walk around and coach agents face-to-face. It was actually one of their favorite parts of the job. So, the designers moved the tool to a tablet, in order to preserve it.

3. Keep the work ecosystem in mind

Work is a true ecosystem; no worker or technology functions in isolation. Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day, social scientists formerly at AT&T Labs and Xerox PARC, define an information ecology as “a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment.” It’s extremely effective for thinking through how technology can’t be implemented in a vacuum. Instead, technology should be deployed in service of individual and group goals. In the mortgage project, we were also responsible for creating a brand new role that combined service and sales. Since sales roles were mainly based on commission, and service roles on efficiency-based metrics, there was not a lot to incentivize collaboration and a new approach to homeowner relationships. Because agents had a sense of fulfillment that came from growth and financial success based on their personal skills and charisma, which was baked into the compensation structure, it was important that they be comfortable with new metrics and incentives. So, the team designed the new role to encourage long-term customer relationships by increasing base pay and the weight of customer experience metrics, along with more typical efficiency measures like length and volume of calls.

4. Co-create with employees to build trust

Trust is foundational to ethical research and successful design. By working side-by-side with employees to co-create their roles and the impact of technology on their day-to-day work, companies can model openness during times of change. In a project to redesign the patient experience for a new hospital building, the design team identified a key technology in need of innovation: appointment and medication scheduling software. Making custom medications accurately and on time in a hospital environment is crucial, because a small mistake can be fatal, and delays can be painful.

At the time, medications could only be processed in the order in which they were received—not by the level of urgency. For pharmacists, being able to process medications to fit patients’ schedules would improve workflow and ease stress. For patients, it would mean more visibility into upcoming care, and less pressure on families to keep track of medications. The lack of information between departments forced family members to play the role of mediator, communicating vital information in terms they weren’t familiar with. Pharmacists were motivated to provide the best care, but the siloed operating systems that governed appointment and medication schedules created a disconnect. So, the designers created a software refresh that would provide visibility into patients’ schedules, making the pharmacists’ relationship to the software more mutual and rewarding. They no longer felt they were missing the information they needed to do their jobs well. The ability to have a more holistic view into a treatment and current state of health also allowed them to better connect with the patients, one of the most meaningful parts of their job.

Designing for job satisfaction isn’t just a nice to have; not only is it the right thing to do, it leads to increased performance and lower attrition, and employees that are better able to deliver high-quality services to customers.

Rethinking roles, or how new technologies might affect jobs at your company? Get in touch to hear how IDEO can help.

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Marta Cuciurean-Zapan
Senior Design Research Director
Marta is a design researcher and Senior Director based in IDEO’s Chicago studio. She leads teams that design products and services rooted in innovative research approaches, futures strategies, and the intersection of content, belonging, and culture in teamwork.
Jenina Yutuc
Senior Design Researcher
Jenina Yutuc is a Kapampangan design researcher and visual storyteller who places rigor, care, and informed optimism at the center of her work. She leverages her background in architecture, public health, and inclusive design to lead research that contributes more thoughtful, actionable, and equitable designs in people’s everyday lives.
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