Form vs. Function in Employment Website Development

As more recruiters and HR managers see the cost and timesaving benefits of making employment websites a major hub of interaction with candidates, the sites themselves are becoming an increasingly complex to develop. With this complexity, a new challenge in building a successful employment site has unfolded. Finding the right balance between form and function – simultaneously delivering the envisioned ideas and the ideal user experience – ensures that candidates can apply quickly and easily, while enhancing your long-term employer brand, encouraging repeat traffic and generating referrals. A new, user-focused approach to designing employment websites is rapidly emerging as the “invisible hand” that helps you resolve potential conflicts between form and function, and to realize a competitive advantage in the competitive world of online recruiting. Defining Form and Function Everything that involves some form of design encounters elements of the long-standing form vs. function debate. For example, architects strive to develop buildings that enhance the city skyline while providing optimal space, views and stability for the residents inside. Automobile makers balance sleek designs with speed, headroom, performance and safety. Likewise, web designers are constantly walking a fine line between creating eye-catching sites and allowing users to complete tasks quickly and easily. As they relate to employment websites, form and function can be defined as the following:

  1. Form consists of the “look” of your site. As I mentioned in my last article on employer branding, your employment website represents a critical branding opportunity to support and enhance your positioning in the minds of candidates.
  2. Function is defined as the overall “user experience,” or the way candidates can interact with your site. The user-focused approach recognizes that candidates’ requirements are of equal if not greater importance than your recruiting department’s requirements.

Potential Conflicts I have been witness to several conflicts between form and function in employment site development. Even the most exceptional web development team can’t predict with absolute certainty how your specific audience of users will approach the site, what information about your company is most relevant, and how the site can function optimally. Further complicating matters, all of the above factors vary greatly among companies and target audiences. For instance, users on a startup company’s employment site may be very interested in the company’s financial situation before considering employment opportunities there. Those same users will have less interest in this area if they are visiting a stable, Fortune 500 company’s site. And an engineer is likely to approach a site with a different agenda than a sales or marketing professional. Form and function most often conflict when users are not involved in the development process:

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  • Features are often developed that sound good, but are never used or get in the way of other, more important features like applying.
  • High bandwidth design technology is used when the candidates visiting the site are primarily using slow-speed dial-up modems, making it virtually impossible for them to access the content.
  • Vital content is hidden within the site because the development team has no way of knowing how important this information is to their target audience.

The Value of Good Form To a designer or copywriter, the web is perhaps the most limiting media ever created. There are severe limits on space, positioning and file size, thus limiting the amount of creativity they can employ, the kinds of images they can use and the amount of copy they can write. Jungle Internet has even described web design as “finding a compromise between eye candy and eye oatmeal.” Working within the limitations of the web to create a unique message and design are incredibly vital components of your website and overall branding strategy. A recent independent study by Wetfeet.com uncovered the fact that the employment website is now the main communication vehicle between candidates and employers. This past April, Vault.com reported that 55% of the candidates they surveyed cited the corporate employment site as the most beneficial tool in their job search. The messages you communicate on your site will therefore position you as an employer of choice or an employer of last resort to a large majority of the candidate population. The Value of Good Function Think of how many times you’ve become so frustrated with a website – possibly because of an inability to find the information you came for, long download times or error messages – that you left it altogether. As Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen says, “the Web, like nothing else, has taught people how easy it is to walk away from a poorly designed product.” Before the Web, recruiters used fancy brochures and job fair giveaways to sell candidates on working for their companies, and then encouraged them to submit hard copy resumes. Most companies incorrectly extend their traditional, offline recruiting approach to the Web. They often assume that candidates will come to their websites in much the same way that they came to their job fairs: expecting to be sold on the company first, and then exploring job opportunities. As a result, many employment websites act as brochures that happen to allow you to apply online. Michelle Maleman, Usability Specialist at TMP Worldwide, works with users to determine whether our clients’ existing employment sites truly meet their target audiences’ needs and expectations. She reports that candidates’ online behavior is actually quite different from their offline behavior. Candidates are more likely to search jobs to see if there are relevant positions available first, and then gather other information like culture and benefits details that will help persuade them to apply, making the traditional online brochure approach inappropriate and frustrating for candidates. The way your site functions can also have a definite effect on your employer brand and recruiting costs. In terms of branding, many candidates see the user experience on your site as more reflective of who you are as an employer. In terms of costs, repeat visitors and word of mouth referrals are an incredibly good and inexpensive source of qualified candidates. Why pay to attract the same visitors to your site every time you have an opening when you can set up functionality that will not only keep them coming back on their own when new positions come up, but bringing their friends and colleagues as well? Involving Users When form and function conflict, users will be the ultimate judges of whether you chose the right direction by staying and applying or possibly leaving your site. Without user input and feedback, sometimes even the most relevant information can end up hidden within your employment site, and it can become difficult or impossible for candidates to apply. And on the Web, your competition literally exists a click away. According to iLogos research, whereas three years ago only 29% of the Global 500 had built corporate employment sites, in 2001, the playing field has increased to 88%. Involving users from the early stages of the development process can eliminate much of the trial-and-error associated with the process, and can help you avoid costly redesigns down the road. Ways to involve them include gathering users’ requirements upfront in addition to your recruiting team’s, conducting usability testing at strategic points during the development process, and periodically conducting follow-up usability tests and surveys after launch. The central role that employment sites are taking in companies’ recruiting processes makes the experience you deliver and the messages you convey of greater importance than ever. Taking a user-focused approach ensures that your candidate population – the end users that determine the success of your site – has a voice in how your site will function and what form it will take. Your efforts will be rewarded over time with more new, repeat and referral traffic to your site, which will lower your cost per hire and time to hires over time and enhance your employer brand.

Dave Lefkow is currently the CEO of talentspark (www.talentsparkconsulting.com), a consulting firm that helps companies use technology to gain a competitive advantage for talent, and a regular contributor to ERE on human capital, technology, and branding related subjects. He is also an international speaker on human capital trends and best practices, having spoken in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Malaysia and Australia. His consulting work has spanned a wide variety of industries and recruiting challenges with companies like Starbucks, Boeing, HP, Microsoft, Expedia, Washington Mutual, Nike and Swedish Medical Center.

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