Designing for internal applications. Some challenges and possible solutions

by Despoina

Designing the user experience for internal applications, is one of the most challenging tasks I was given this past year. If I am being totally honest, it is one I am still struggling with today. You see, applications like this are often very complex, they have to include a lot of functionalities, usually to be done manually, and not to mention that the UX and UI aspect in them is usually overlooked. Completely. And even though there is a long list of stakeholders to satisfy, like with any other application, even they seem to be less motivated or concerned about the usability aspect of these types of applications.

So what does it take to design a user centric application for internal purposes, and how can one manage to put the users of such an application back in the centre of attention?

UX as usual 

Actually, there is no secret recipe for this. The same UX principles apply when you design for internal applications, as well as for customer facing applications. Begin by identifying the key problem that you should be solving and understand well the user needs. Easy, peasy. Ok, so then why are most internal applications still so complex when what we aim for is solving problems via a clear, intuitive and simple interface? I will tell you why, based on my personal experience.

What are we doing wrong?

A lot of customer facing applications are in essence as complex as internal applications. But while for the first type there will be dedicated teams working hard to eliminate complexity and to keep users excited and invested with techniques such as gamification, humorous copy, cool animations and modern UI, for internal apps all of that and more are the-ones-we-do-not-speak-of. I remember pitching the concept of a skeleton page to my team for pages that take a long time to load, but we know nonetheless what will be displayed in the screen eventually. I also proposed useful copy, some witty messages for several awkward error cases, as well as illustrations for empty pages. Sadly, none was really implemented.

The main reason? Budget.

The word budget is like a mic drop. It halts every discussion and erases every argument you could have possibly prepared. Stakeholders are less willing to invest budget, or extra budget, in internal applications because they consider that they are not that important or that this investment will not result to any additional revenue anyway. I believe that this is false. This bring us to:

Pain point No1

  • Focusing more on customer facing applications instead of internal applications.
  • Being less willing to invest on solving complexity in a creative way, thinking that it is not important anyway.

When designing for an internal application, it is almost certain that you will be met with the very dangerous assumption that the main user is the business itself. On one hand, it is not that hard to fall into this trap. Internal applications are created by the business with the intention to serve the goals of the business. They are never used outside of business hours, and in a way people are being paid to use them.

This is exactly what makes things hard(er) to debate for a UX designer. I often get the request to implement a flow as given by the business just, because. No room left to challenge. No room to consider the end user. But, is it not a bit naive and lazy to assume that people will have no choice but to just use what you will provide to them? No matter the complexity and the absence of user centricity? This actually leads us to:

Pain point No2

  • Business assumes they are the user.
  • Thinking that usability or design do not really matter, because employees will have no choice but to use the app.

What happens when the internal application you design is linked in some way or another to a customer facing application? It seems that all the creative freedom, all the research, all the discussions about the perfect solution will often be dedicated to the customer facing part. Then, as the designer of the internal application, you will have to roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work to match the already defined solution for your users. Even if that does not really work for them and their goals. Oh, and you will have to do this in less time, because most of the project time was already spent. This leads to:

Pain point No3

  • Focusing on the customer facing solution and as a result degrading the user experience of the internal application.

Can we fix it?

Yes, we can! The first step towards that is to consider who are you providing a solution for. It is not just for you, aka the business, it is for the people who will be using the application. Find out who they are, get to know them, interview them. Find out under which circumstances they use these applications, and how do they feel when they use them. What are their main challenges today? Their knowledge and experience, as well as their input and feedback, are invaluable.

Users of internal applications, aka employees, not only know the business and its processes quite well, but they are also closer to the customer. They are, in a way, the voice of the customer. On top of that, it is likely that they have a great experience with the evolution of all the different internal applications they have used over the years. They can tell you what went right, what went wrong, and if your solution will really provide added value to their work.

Take away No1

  • Get to know your users.
  • Empathy is important.

Internal does not mean less fun! Just because we design for an application that will not be seen publicly, that does not mean that we should make it less fun. Our users should feel confident and derive pleasure when they use them. Every step they take should be painless. The same techniques that we define for a customer facing application such as animation, copy , or even gamification can be used for internal applications as well. Engaging our employees to use an internal application can result in them achieving their goals easier and faster, all along while achieving the business goals at the same time. Think of it as killing two birds with one stone. Not to mention that this can possibly lead to increased customer satisfaction. If you are designing the internal interface of a call centre for example, by making it user centric for the call agent and helping them achieve their goals faster, you can increase customer satisfaction at the same time. Everybody wins. Really.

Take away No2

  • Think of an internal application the same way as a customer facing application
  • Invest in your internal users, it can lead to additional revenue and better customer satisfaction at the same time.

It is of course our responsibility as UX designers to transform non user centric requests to user centric ones and eliminate complexity. Your project manager will ask for a pop up, or an iFrame, a million tabs and sub tabs and then some more. They will ask for an endless list of check boxes in order for the user to do one simple task. No stress! This is common. People are used to talk in terms of features. They use them in order to describe what they want. They focus on the solution before understanding the problem. And they cannot really separate between what can be done behind the scenes and what will be eventually shown to the end user.

It is our job to turn these requests into real use cases and to not limit ourselves in applying blindly the requested feature. Talk to your team and explain why you did not execute exactly what they asked, why you made a certain decision. Back it up with user feedback and quotes, or usage data and test, test, test! Test your proposal with real users. When you design for internal applications you have the advantage of having users literally at your feet! And, trust me, they will have stuff to say!

Take away No3

  • Talk to your team and make sure you share a common vision for the application you are designing
  • Turn a non user centric request to user centric one
  • Test, test, test! with real users 


When you are designing for internal applications, it is almost certain that you will have a few additional challenges to deal with. This is not where the money is, internal applications are not as ‘sexy’ as customer facing ones, and no one will give you 5 star reviews at the apple store. But just like with accessibility, I believe that designing for these types of applications will be of increasing importance. That is because in a way, designing a better user experience for your internal applications will also benefit your relationship with the customers and customer satisfaction. When this happens, it will be hard for people not to get on board!

The challenges I describe here are derived from my own personal experience, they represent my opinions an my opinions only.

The cover of this post was made using the Humaaans mix&match illustration library of Pablo Stanley

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