How user experience design principles apply to wellness and the workplace

February 2, 2013

There’s an expression that says: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The Crux Collaborative version of this expression would probably read: “To us, everything can be improved by applying user experience principles.” In this month’s newsletter, we’re going to share how we’ve applied them to wellness in the workplace.

Wellness as a concept—and specifically how to promote wellness in the workplace—is a topic that has reached mainstream awareness and popularity in recent years. Because the majority of Crux Collaborative’s work is with Fortune 500 companies, we have witnessed this trend firsthand—as many of our clients have begun to offer employee wellness programs and products.

When employees are well, their quality of life is improved. Moreover, study after study has shown that their employers obtain tangible benefits as well—including improved quality/productivity, higher levels of morale, lower turnover, and reduced sick days.

In our efforts to create a workplace experience that promotes employee wellness, we’ve applied the same principles we use when designing user experiences. If you’re thinking about wellness and the workplace—or planning for any other long-term goal—perhaps applying these four principles may help you too.

Principle #1: Identify the business and audience objectives and design the experience with those objectives in mind.

The audience: at Crux Collaborative, we’re a small team, we’re specialists, and we have as many varied outside activities and interests as we do professional goals and ambitions.

How do these audience characteristics translate to a workplace experience that supports the wellness of our employee audience?

  • Work/life balance: A key aspect of our individual and collective wellness is finding balance. We extend the same respect to our families and personal lives as we do to our work and deliverables. We work hard, we set aggressive deadlines and we don’t miss them. But, we also actively work to protect our evenings and weekends to spend with our families, our hobbies and interests. We don’t consider staying late at the office a sign of working hard, we see it as an indication of poor time and workload management– and we actively work to prevent it from happening.
  • Collective identity: As a small company with a focused specialization- our aim is excellence, and our objective is to deepen our expertise, not broaden our services. We’re not interested in being the largest user experience consulting firm—we’re interested in being one of the best.

What are your organization’s business and audience objectives? Once you have defined them, what do they tell you about the definition of workplace wellness and corresponding policies necessary to meet the needs of both the business and the employees?

Principle #2: Strive to design the optimal experience.

Like many other experiences, wellness is not comprised of a single element. Physical, mental and emotional factors all contribute to a sense of wellness- and we work to ensure that all three are present—in the workplace. It would be simpler to minimize mental and emotional wellness—but it wouldn’t be the optimal experience. Here are some ways we work to promote all three:

Physical wellness.

As we mentioned previously this is the most obvious aspect of wellness to promote in the workplace. We do several of the same things that many other organizations do:

  • Fitness/health club match: We reimburse our employees for health club memberships, fitness classes, personal training, etc. We set the dollar amount, but leave it to each employee to select how they’d like to use the benefit.
  • A walking workstation: We provide a walking workstation for employees to use to encourage movement and limit the amount of time spent sitting at work.
  • Healthy snacks and drinks: We provide healthy beverage options (sparkling water, filtered water, etc.) as well as healthy snack options (nuts, fruit, cheese sticks, etc.) for employees. Of course the sugar-laden snacks are around as well (who are we kidding, we have a usability lab on-site!) but those are technically for the “clients” and are not stored in the employee kitchen so we at least “lead” with the good stuff.

Mental wellness

This one is trickier—but important in creating an environment in which people can do their best work. We try to promote mental health and well-being at work in a number of ways:

  • Creating (and constantly nurturing) a collaborative work environment where it is not only acceptable to ask for input, it is the standard. This helps us all feel supported in our work and enables us to continually learn from one another.
  • Setting aggressive—but reasonable—deadlines that rely on expertise and efficiency to be met, not herculean efforts that include nights and weekends in the office.
  • Providing employees with up-to-date technology that they play a role in selecting—as well as providing a bright, well-designed office that is a joy to spend time in.

Emotional wellness

Emotional wellness is probably the most nebulous of the three to define, but the easiest to assess. Ask yourself: do you look forward to going to work each day- to seeing your co-workers and to the work you do? Is it fun? There’s the answer to whether your work promotes emotional wellbeing. And while it’s easy to assess your own, it’s harder to create an environment that promotes it for everyone. But for the staff at Crux Collaborative, here are what some aspects of emotional wellness look like:

  • Equity: We listen to input from every member of the team and we don’t work in a way that gives one role the majority of the time, budget or resources while squeezing the other roles to “do more with less”. We value meeting the commitments we make to each other as much as we value meeting the commitments we make to our clients.
  • Respect: We respect our expertise and time. We don’t pitch (read: give away our work for free) so that means staff don’t go through repeated fire drills of late night and weekend pitch work. We believe in treating ourselves as well as we treat our clients—whether it’s taking the same care with internal communications or ordering the same great food for internal meetings as we do for client meetings. We believe that these things are key elements of emotional wellbeing.
  • Laughter: We love to laugh together, to make each other laugh, and to enjoy our work as we do it. Every day.

Chances are that your organization has some policies and benefits in place to promote physical wellness. Are there areas in which you can enhance mental and emotional wellness in the workplace as well in order to optimize the experience?

Principle #3: Follow known standards and best practices.

Treat people well, compensate them fairly, provide challenging work and opportunities for professional development, promote healthy lifestyle choices, respect your employees and make them feel valued. At the core of it, these are the best practices for a workplace that promotes wellness.

We strive to meet these standards, and we assess ourselves against them regularly—including ensuring that our compensation and benefits packages meet (or exceed) those of comparable organizations. And each quarter, we take the time to meet as a group, review our progress, and set goals.

How does your organization rate against best practices? Are there aspects of workplace wellness that could be improved and enhanced by bringing your organization in closer alignment with some of these principles?

Principle #4: Deviate from standards when appropriate

As any talented and effective user experience designer will tell you- you need to have the basics in place in order to start bending the rules.

But when you’re ready to start making exceptions—finding meaningful moments to make the experience unique can be one of the most fun aspects of the work.

So yes, we try to follow all of the best practices mentioned above in promoting workplace wellness—but we also like to improvise. One of our favorite ways to bend the rules:

  • Employee-specific focus and recognition: When one of us is passionate about something, we all love to try to support it—whether it’s supporting Katherine’s efforts with the Wildcat Sanctuary by attending their annual gala as a company or all participating in Joggers for Julian to support John and Emily and their ongoing efforts to raise money for children’s cancer research. Sometimes promoting workplace wellness is about putting your energy and effort toward something that has nothing to do with work.

Based on the unique characteristics of your organization and employees- is there something unique that you can do to promote their wellness?

Creating and evolving a workplace experience that promotes wellness is a goal and aspiration of Crux Collaborative. Thinking about and using the same principles we use when designing user experiences has helped guide our efforts toward meeting that goal. Hopefully these principles—and seeing how we’ve applied them—can help your organization as well.

By Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.

View Mahtab's Bio

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