Interview with Adam Bates, Paychex

Interview with Adam Bates from Paychex

“Users Want to do What They Want, When they Want, and How they Want “

One of the perks about having a blog is the chance I get sometimes to interview leading UX thoughts leaders. It’s very cool to hear what they have to say, and to share their insights with us.

Recently, I had a chance to interact with Adam Bates, Product Manager at Paychex, who is responsible for digital product and UX strategy.  Paychex is a leading provider of payroll, human resource, insurance and benefits outsourcing solutions for small- to medium-sized businesses.  In the interview below, Adam was kind enough to answer some questions on both the Paychex platform, as well as who inspires him and some words of advice for other UX designers.

UX Motel: Who is one of your role models that got you into the field of UX?

Adam Bates: I’ve always been the kind of person that spends a lot of time thinking about what others are thinking and feeling.  So, when I started reading Donald Norman back in the day, user-centered design just seemed to make perfect sense.  I’m not sure I can say he got me into UX, but he certainly did a lot to crystallize my design thinking.

UX Motel: When you have a software like Paychex that includes a high level and wide range of functions, like managing payroll, time and attendance, benefits, and more – what are the most important things to remember in creating a fluid and easy user experience? Is there a proper balance between functionality and simplicity?

Adam Bates: Now I see why you started the interview with the role model question.  A very nice setup indeed 🙂

To draw from good old Donny Norman – what product users want at the end of the day is capability, and for a system/tool to be understandable.  Feature sets can be complex but still understandable.  It comes down to investing time and thought at the design stage in things like:

  • Modularization – looking at all the tasks that need to be performed, breaking them down into small, manageable chunks, such that common design elements can be applied

  • Establishing a clear, consistent conceptual model – a consistent way to present operations and outcomes so that users maintain coherence of the system at whatever level of depth they want to use it. This is very important for products like Paychex Online that span a complex set of payroll activities and diverse benefits programs

  • Establishing feedback mechanisms that provide continual, purposeful feedback so users know what to do, what is happening, and what they can expect when it’s done

There are many useful design principles, but I think these convey the point – a product can have a lot of features, but time needs to be invested to map those into a thoughtful design system and to occasionally rethink that system as users’ needs and behaviors evolve.

UX Motel: The press release about the new Paychex SaaS platform describes “The platform uses context-aware settings to anticipate the information the user needs based on the current task being performed.” What do you mean? Can you give a couple of examples?

Adam Bates: It means we use context, in this case the action the user is performing, to determine what data to display by default in supporting micro-panels.

For example, if the user clicks on an employee’s pay rate in online payroll, the system assumes the user wants to make a change to compensation and automatically opens that module of the people application in a micro-panel, allowing the user to quickly and easily make the necessary change.

To illustrate the same concept in another one of my favorite apps – when I click “New Note” in Evernote on my iPad, the app looks at my context, in this case my calendar and geo location, and defaults the note title to something like “Note from UX Strategy Meeting at Penfield, NY.”  Nifty.

UX Motel: Does the UI of the new platform adapt to smartphone and tablet screens? More generally, how does mobile factor into your overall UX strategy?

Adam Bates: Users want to do what they want, when they want, and how they want.  That definitely encompasses mobile access from a variety of devices, so we take a cross-device/platform view of our users.  Our mobile apps feature a consistent organization of data and features that is adapted for device form factor and affordances.

We’re also conscious of tasks that span time and devices.  For example, an employer may start payroll while in heavy administrative-work mode at their desk, but enter final tweaks to hours and submit payroll from their phone at a job site.  The experience needs to be such that they can intuitively pick up later in a different context and from a different device.

UX Motel: Obviously any provider wants to ensure an easy and digestible user experience for their user or app. Yet often, especially when first orienting themselves to the new software, some users have to deal with confusion and sometimes frustration. What in your opinion is the most effective way to make the orientation – or “training”- process as smooth as possible?

Adam Bates: It ends up being a multi-pronged approach of things inside and outside of the app…

One of Paychex’s unique strengths is its service capability.  Each of our clients has a relationship with a Paychex specialist that knows their business and our products. So, we make sure those specialists are ready to introduce changes to applications proactively and answer questions as they arise.

Additionally, we see a good deal of activity on a variety of media aimed at helping users along: short YouTube videos for tips/tricks, reference guides, tutorials, etc.

As you say though, the goal is to make the UX intuitive so users can take changes in stride.  Success there comes back to the fundamentals mentioned earlier – things like strong conceptual models and feedback systems that are instantly familiar and empower users with control.

In cases where there is significant change in those fundamentals, I’ve seen simple mapping mechanisms work well – many of the concepts exemplified by WalkMe for instance – things like in-app dialog/pointers/sequences to ensure users see how key parts of the old model have evolved.

UX Motel: Finally, if you could tell a UX designer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Adam Bates: Be thought partners and leaders in addition to producers.  Your product teams need your expertise and perspective in addition to your Illustrator/Photoshop skills.

I want to thank Adam for sharing his experiences and insights regarding the Paychex platform and for his thoughts on UX as a whole.


Feel free to leave comments below.


Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)