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Microsoft x BrainStation Hackathon

Improving
work from home experiences

As the city of Toronto quarantines during the uncertain period of COVID-19, organizations scramble to set up effective ways of facilitating remote work for their employees. Microsoft's design brief asked participating teams to discover some of the most pressing pain points for this user base, and propose a viable design solution.

Other team members:
Design: Chloe Evoy, Oscar Paulsson,
Data: Arash Khosravi, Carlo Jiaxu Chen,
Development: Anna Mastoris, Nelson Mendez, Phillip Kellogg
Platforms
Web (coded on netlify)
Roles
Research
UX Design
UI Design
High Fidelity Wireframes
Presentation Deck Design
Tools
Figma
Zeplin
Microsoft Teams
Google Slides

Overview

Problem Space

The COVID-19 pandemic and institutional responses to it have largely relegated people to their homes. Out of necessity, work and socialization have become remote, through various online platforms. Among working professionals that have made the transition to remote working, the effects on efficiency and comfort have been dependent on whether or not their work had already established practices of remote working. We investigated the common problems reported by people working from home and how a design intervention could help relieve some challenges in a pivotal time for remote work.

Design intervention

Interviewing users and running a sentiment analysis test on 14000 tweets using #WorkFromHome showed that many users were subject to feelings of negativity, stress, productivity decline and loss of routine as work from home has been made mandatory during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, working from home for has been equally challenging for organizations as it has been for its employees. Many organizations have little to no remote work guidelines or accommodations for their teams. Synthesizing the collected data from our research, we distilled down our findings to three high-level themes to solve for:

1

Reduced
Accountability

Being removed from a perceived work environment removes social cues to maintain a routine during the day. Missing stop cues such as co-workers having lunch or leaving for the day can be an important factor in regulating one's own habits.

2

Social
Isolation

Reduced in-person communication can lead to excessive back and forth between teams during task allocation which overwhelms individuals working from home.

3

Task
Confusion

Not being held accountable by the presence of other people working towards their goals seemed to negatively impact productivity, thus, pulling employees into a vicious cycle.

design solution

Our proposed solution uses the nudge theory to enhance employee productivity while working from home.
Simply put, a nudge is a helpful tool in assisting people to make better choices for themselves without restricting their freedom of choice.

Here's an overview of how our solution works: Each day a user is randomly assigned to a colleague as their accountability buddy with whom they are expected to check in during the day (through Direct Messages). The random assignment means that they won’t know whether they will be paired up with a colleague they know very well, a colleague they don’t know at all, or their direct supervisor. As such, we believe this random assignment maintains accountability merely by changing the perceived choice architecture of the user, without any direct enforcement from supervisors. Moreover, if the user works in a large team, chances are they don’t know all of their colleagues too well. The daily random assignment increases the likelihood of the user being matched with someone they previously haven’t spoken much with.

Daily Task List

Being able to create a task list within the organization's regular use software helps keep tasks and communication in one place. Additionally, having the option of a supervisor simply adding things to your task list reduces the need for unnecessary e-mail back and forth/forgetfulness.

Accountability Team

Assigning the user to a new accountability partner each day ensures they stay on track with their task list without feeling micromanaged by a direct supervisor. This can increase productivity while encouraging employees to stay connected during a time of global stress.

Social Interaction

Checking in with a new accountability partner reduces feelings of loneliness and increases social engagement while working remotely. This creates a sense of belonging and strengthens in-organization ties. Additionally, keeping in touch with others can act as a way to keep a routine, take regular breaks and stay mindfully productive during a workday.

Try it out yourself!
https://brainstation-microsoft-hackathon-2020.netlify.app/

Design Process

Day 1

Research + Planning

User Interviews
Competitive Analysis
Ideation
Day 2

Wireframes + Dev

Sketches
Figma High Fidelity Wireframes
Zeplin Asset Sharing
Day 3

Presentations

Presentation Deck

Day 1: Research + Planning

Research

What does the current state of WFH look like?

As part of our research, I interviewed 4 employees who were new to working from home over a video call. In my interviews I hoped to gain insights about questions such as:

What are some challenges employees face while working from home?

Do employers have a system to communicate and track KPIs with their employees remotely?

What functions are required to keep business processes running seamlessly while working remotely?


The interviews were kept conversational and any information shared in this case study was consensually agreed upon prior to discussion.

While the designers conducted user research, our data science team created a model to take a set of 14000 tweets with the hashtag #workfromhome to gauge the frequency of words used negatively, positively and in neutrality. After running an NLP model (with 79% prediction accuracy) we found that 7500 of the tweets were neutral in affect, less than 5000 were positive and 1000 were negative.

To understand what was causing negative emotions, we took the set of 1000 negative #workfromhome tweets and created a word cloud based on this data alone. The most prevalent word stems were things like “miss”, “challenge”, “problem” and “time”.

Research Insights

User Persona

What do our users need help with?

On a mission to empathize with our users, we decided to put ourselves in the their shoes and emulate how our user might think, feel and behave when working from home. We came up with our proto persona, Calvin:

User Stories

How can we translate our findings into product solutions?

By exploring the needs Calvin has to feel productive, we constructed user stories from his perspective: 

Design Principles

We then used Calvin's pain points to group the user stories into three distinct design principles to keep in mind while solving our design problem mentioned in the overview:

1

preserving
accountability

Daily task lists within the regular system used by the organization for communication can help employees start their day off right and stay within the same interface

2

incentivizing
social interaction

Pairing employees can introduce a sense of accountability towards each other which can assist in alleviating social isolation

3

Stress-free
communication

Being able to communicate tasks without unwanted email clutter can help employees working from home maximise their productivity

Day 2: wireframes + development

Main Features

Helping employees work effectively from home

Our solution was meant to help employees working from home plan their days better, stay accountable for their tasks all the while reducing the negative mental health impact of distancing at home for extended periods of time. To address all our goals, we came up with the idea of having a daily work buddy.

The following sketches illustrate the addition of a new tab on the Microsoft Teams platform called 'Productivity'. This tab can host each individual's daily task list as well as the details for each work buddy they're assigned to.

Sketches

Based on the core functionality of this tool, I created sketches and my team members helped me convert them to digital wireframes that could then be tested on users for rapid iterations.

High Fidelity Wireframes

With time as a limited resource, the design team dove headfirst into high fidelity wireframing following design guidelines set by the Microsoft team. Digital wireframes were created in Figma by the designers while the developers coded the framework using Figma Artboards.

Day 3: presentations + submissions

Wrap Up

Our developers coded away for most of Day 2 and Day 3 while the rest of the team worked on the final presentation. With only about an hour before presentations were due, the designers were sent a link for the live prototype. Unfortunately, by then we didn't have enough time to incorporate extensive user testing into the mix. However, we did assign a two members of our team who were not involved in the design or development process and asked them to perform certain tasks. The results were overall positive and we decided to go ahead with our submission as is.

Why Microsoft Teams

With many organizations already using Microsoft products as well as Microsoft Teams, the learning curve to understand the interface for a new tab will be critically low. Using the design guidelines set up by the design team at Microsoft, we designed the interface to look minimally disruptive while expressing new functionality.

Established user base = gentle learning curve

Presentation

Our developers coded away for most of Day 2 and Day 3 while the rest of the team worked on the final presentation. With only about an hour before presentations were due, the designers were sent a link for the live prototype. Unfortunately, by then we didn't have enough time to incorporate extensive user testing into the mix. However, we did assign a two members of our team who were not involved in the design or development process and asked them to perform certain tasks. The results were overall positive and we decided to go ahead with our submission as is.

reflection and key learnings

1. Remote collaboration is a great resource for productivity.  In an entirely remote event, online collaboration with data scientists, designers and developers online taught me the importance of clear communication to keep meetings short but productive.

2. Developers need time. As a designer, it is my responsibility to ask the right questions before we settle on a direction so that developers have the time they need to build the product. Changing directions when time is a limited resource doesn't often bode well for the team or the timeline.

3. The future of working from home is evolving.  With this new norm, there comes an opportunity to change the way we communicate online as individuals and organizations alike.

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You made it! Thank you for reading through this case study! Hope you enjoyed learning about my design and thought process. If you have a moment, I'd love to hear your feedback and learn from you!