Few companies today would quibble that their customer-facing products – websites, apps, software, devices – should look good and be easy to use. Forrester Research found in 2012 that 93% of executives listed improving the customer experience as a top strategic priority.

But while the message is getting through about customer experience, the user experience of internal systems has lagged behind as a business priority. Many of the legacy systems still in use today were built at a time when the focus was purely on function. Systems were adopted wholesale from suppliers or subsidiaries and patched ad hoc as budget and necessity dictated. UX as a topic of serious research and a key element of business strategy simply hadn’t been born.

Even today UX can be a hard sell internally. The end users of a system often aren’t the same people who are commissioning it. The ROI of design is often seen as hard to measure.

Increasingly, though, the value of human capital is something else that businesses are coming to understand – and internal UX is a key part of that equation.

Morale and productivity

Call them what you like: internal systems, business applications, enterprise software. They’re the tools we use every day to do our jobs: the buttons, forms and fields we click, crank and occasionally thump to get keep the organisation running.

They allow the capture and retrieval of vital information, the delivery of essential communications and many other business-critical processes. And too often they’re ugly, outdated and painfully slow.

“These influential but poorly designed products live in the shadows, where design quality is often not an imperative,” writes Margaret Gould Stewart, VP of Product Design at Facebook. “Consequently, they can be bloated with features, suffer from complex and inefficient navigation, and fail to support core use cases. The resulting experiences are too often inefficient, ineffective, and disempowering.”

Some people have to use systems like this many hours a day, with no power or choice to change the situation. It inevitably takes its toll, both on morale and on productivity.

Your staff are consumers too

Super-successful companies like Airbnb and Uber deliver seamless user experiences. The apps we use daily for everything from banking to fitness to entertainment are continuously raising the bar. Your staff want the same kind of straightforward, intuitive experience from the tools they use at work.

Designing systems around your employees’ needs demonstrates that you value them, shows that you’re relevant and quality-focused as an organisation, and feeds into brand equity and loyalty.

The ‘consumerisation’ of business systems is accelerating as more and more Millennials enter the workforce. And in a competitive talent marketplace, your employees will only stand for bad tools for so long.

Learning and personal development

As UX designers we work to understand the intricacies of the user’s role and the granular tasks they carry out. The solutions we design not only improve the speed with which tasks can be performed but offer notifications, documentation and support that allow a user to continuously develop their role.

Tools that have been built with a deep understanding of the end user increase task satisfaction at the micro level and job satisfaction at the larger level. They free up role capacity to allow employees to get on with more fulfilling tasks and learn new skills.

When a system is well designed, people don’t just learn how the system works, they grow in confidence to make it work for them.

Simplifying the complex

Of course business technologies and processes are intrinsically complicated. But the user interface – the surface where user and system interact – doesn’t have to be. Good tools are designed to accommodate users of different skill levels equally, allowing experts access to sophisticated system controls without overwhelming the basic user with complexity or choice.

With thought and care, by being consistent and predictable, systems can be designed for intuitive use. Helpful feedback, positively phrased, can guide users through tasks, reassure them about what they are doing and how they can fix problems.

The sum of all this allows employees to feel empowered by the tools they use to do their jobs rather than shackled by them. Putting people at the centre of the process minimises wasted time and money, hands back control to staff and allows them to lead happier, more rewarding lives at work.