How to Design Fantastic Online Workflows with Confidence
Updated: Apr 29
If you are a business person looking for guidance on designing and implementing simple workflows to support your business processes — read on!
This article assumes that the technical and user experience (UX) people have already worked their magic and, the various components for any given form are in place and fit-for-purpose. Numerous articles share best practices about General Form Design & Structure, including validation and error handling, buttons and calls to action, questions and field types and, accessibility and so on.
So now, you — the business people, have at your disposal an intranet (or one is under construction) powered by some kind of content management system (CMS). In this case, we’ll assume the CMS also has a ‘drag and drop’ forms capability. Many components make up a form. A developer will create all the individual elements that combine to make a form and make these available to you via drag and drop (more about making the form in a bit).
Integrating your intranet into your daily work, automating some of your business processes and improving the experience of your internal or external customers will make your intranet useful.
Key steps in summary
Choose the Process
Map (and check) the New Process
Create the Online Process — Form and Workflow
Test, Amend, Communicate and Measure the Process
CMS — To Familiarise or Not?
So now you’re keen to go. If you are interested familiarise yourself with the CMS — get in, have a play and, see how it works. If like me, tech isn’t your thing, skip this step. I find that knowing too much about the system can limit the research. I prefer to discover things that the techies haven’t built and request these later. The alternative is to shoe-horn the outcomes into an inadequate system.
Choose the process
People tend to have a ‘feel’ for which process to choose first. There are many different reasons you might choose any give process. You may select a very simple process as you learn about creating online workflows. Picking a workflow that is highly significant and visible across or the organisation, or that provides a high degree of pain is an equally valid choice.
If you know the process you want to start with, then you’re good to move onto the next step.
To apply some rigor, for help selecting the best starting point, drawing up a simple matrix like the one below.
Tip: Add a column to indicate the simplicity/ complexity of the process. This can help identify the more straight-forward processes as a starting point.
A Scoring Guide for Process Selection — author’s own
2. Map (and Check) the Process with Users and Stakeholders
A process rarely involves only one organisational group; frequently, I.T. will at least have a part to play. Processes that are limited to a single department, also include end-users.
The most effective process improvements are designed in collaboration with representatives from all groups — the process owners, other stakeholders and affected parties and end-users. Involve these people from the outset, as soon as you can, they may be considering or working on making improvements in the same area.
If necessary, research the process to understand the status quo. Then get everyone together in a room or meet online and figure out the new process.
Tips & Tools for Process Mapping (PDF) — Labor Management Partnership
There are a plethora of resources, how-tos and cases studies to support your process-mapping efforts. The above example is straight-forward two-page, downloadable PDF with simple steps you can follow.
It’s typical to begin by mapping out the process using sticky notes to create a flow chart. If you are keen you can turn the flow chart you sketched out with sticky notes into a neat, electronic document using Visio or Omnigraffle.
Make the session interactive and, involve everyone. If you have a few quiet people, prompt them for input. It’s typical to finish the meeting with the process 80% of the way done. There may be a few areas that you will have to drill into deeper and a couple of known-unknowns — be assured, this is ‘normal,’ and it’s ok to finish the process after the session.
Tip: Don’t forget to reassess the need for each piece of data that you are collecting. Aim to simply the process where possible. Minimalism is the goal — constantly ask yourself if each piece of data is really necessary. Don’t collect pieces of data just because you’ve also collected it.
Before you hit the CMS, complete as many manual work-throughs as is practicable. Start with ‘friendlies’ — these are people you feel comfortable with and who will give you good, insightful feedback.
When you’re happy you’ve captured the process, have the stakeholder group sign off and move onto the next step.
Create the Online Form, Workflow & Process
Drag and drop forms FTW
Using ‘drag and drop’ components, non-technical people can make their forms without any need for coding. With the research and mapping complete, you are ready to get into the CMS and start building your form.
Follow these few simple steps:
Select the various components you want to use — work through in a logical order from the top to the bottom of the page. One-by-one select the fields — Name Field, Checklist, Dropdown Menu etc. Drag each one from the menu to the body of the page.
Tweak each component — Put in the tag or description for each — First Name, Last Name, Phone. Create the drop-down items for any lists you have.
Finalise the page order — There is a logical order and flow that your users will expect when completing the process online. Put all the simple, general-type information (name, phone number, etc.) and then move into the information that is specific to your particular business process. If you have a lot of steps in your process, lay the form out over several pages. Ensure you group similar information and steps together.
Create the workflow — The final step in creating your form or workflow is to figure out who the form needs to go to and the action that each person will need to take. It’s also a good idea to think about tracking and reporting. How are people progressing? Where is any given individual in the process? What, if anything, will you measure overall?
Some things to consider:
Use the workflow to direct information flow, but don’t lock things down too much. Lockdown as little as you can.
Think about how you will handle any exceptions — managers being out of the office and unable to carry out their part in the process; people being out of the office and so can’t complete the process within the agreed timeframe; temporary or dotted reporting lines for a project or similar.
Tip FTW: Let the system automatically add information about users. Intranet users have authenticated, as such we know quite a lot of information about them — including their first name, last name, role, phone number and location etc. Where possible, auto-populate fields, but also allow the user to change these. A personal assistant might, for example, fill out a form on behalf of their manager, and thus will need to override the auto-populated information.
4. Test, Amend, Communicate and Measure the Process
A great job done is one where your online process is markedly better than your previous offline, analogue one.
Before you go live, test the online process from end-to-end.
While it’s good to start testing with your group of friendlies, it’s essential to involve a cross-section of people. Invite a few people that you think may struggle to use the system. If you can, sit alongside people and observe their experience:
Where are people stumbling?
Is it because of the terminology?
Are they having trouble understanding the flow of the form?
Effective user observation requires testers and process owners to walk a fine line between asking questions without explaining your intention for the system. People often have conflicting points of view; it’s impossible to take every piece of feedback on-board or make a process that works perfectly for everyone. With a little creativity, you’ll be able to resolve most of the issues by, for example, adding help text or changing the wording of instructions.
Create a communications and change plan alongside your test plan. If you involved stakeholders and a range of end-users at the outset, your communications efforts will be well underway. Now is the time to formalise a wider set of communications.
Consider the key messaging for different groups — managers, office staff, frontline staff etc.
What are the best channels to use to get your messages out? How frequently?
Think about the transition, will you run the offline and online processes side-by-side for period of time?
What else needs to be updated — training materials, induction, policies?
Keep checking the statistics for your online process and measuring effectiveness immediately after go-live and periodically after that. Here are a few things to measure and look out for:
Completion rates and drop-offs — are people able to complete the entire process efficiently?
The number of people using the online compared to your predications.
The amount of time that people are taking to complete this. Are times within accepted parameters? Are these less? Can you use them to communicate your effectiveness and make it more attractive for people to use the online system?
The devices, times, locations that people are accessing.
Measures will help you improve, but they will also help you communicate your worth. Use them to pat yourself on the back, and share them around with your team, managers and the broader organisation. Everyone loves a success story! 🏆
In Closing — A Few Tips from Experience
Great online processes walk the sweet spot between structure and freedom in an understated effortless. Fantastic forms are the silent warriors — no-one notices a great workflow, but everyone will complain about a poor one.
Involve everyone early and up-front. If you have ‘difficult’ people, don’t leave them out. Many brains and points of view are better than mine (or yours) could ever be alone.
Have some fun — let me know how you go and if this article helped.
As always, whether implicitly or explicitly, the other half of the ABCW business, Amanda Broomhall influences and, has a part to play in creating these articles.