How design thinking can transform HR practices

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Leading organizations such as Apple, Procter and Gamble, and Airbnb have been using design thinking to develop innovative, user-centered products and services, and create greater customer experiences.

Those same principles can now be used to transform HR practices.

By applying a design thinking framework, your organization can create innovative HR solutions and programs that deliver superior employee experiences.

What is Design Thinking?

I first learned about design thinking during my time working at Lever. The founders’ backgrounds are in design, and they were able to create a successful talent acquisition product by following design thinking principles.

In a nutshell, design thinking is a human-centered, collaborative, and iterative process for creative problem solving. It helps you create innovative solutions based on understanding the needs of your audience. It involves 5 steps:

design thinking process

  • Empathize: Learn about the personas of your end-users, how they are currently experiencing your solution or program, and gain a deep, empathetic understanding of the problems and challenges they face.
  • Define: Analyze what you’ve learned about your end-users and define the main problem you want to solve. You don’t necessarily have to start big. You can start by just focusing on a small, but important piece of the problem. For example, in recruiting, you can start by trying to improve the job application process to make it less cumbersome and tedious!
  • Ideate: Brainstorm creative solutions to the problem you’re trying to solve, and then select the best ideas to pursue. It’s important here to be open-minded, think outside the box, and let your imagination roam free.
  • Prototype: Select a few viable ideas (valuable and easy to implement) from your list of ideated solutions, and build out your solutions to meet your users’ needs.
  • Test: Implement your solutions with your end-users (start with a small test group) and get their feedback. Listen carefully to their feedback so you can get the insight to make improvements.

In addition to the 5 steps above, these two tools can help you better understand the needs/pains of the users so you can create better experiences for them.

  • Persona – Personas are fictional characters that represent the typical users with all their pains, needs, wants, emotions, and goals. For example, what does the new college graduate think, feel, and desire when applying to a role on your career site. How about someone with 10+ years of experience?
  • Journey mapping – A journey map captures the different touchpoints an employee has with your organization and identifies the moments that matter to the employee. According to the UX experts at UX Mastery, a journey map has four components:
    1. Personas: the main characters that illustrate the needs, goals, thoughts, feelings, opinions, expectations, and pain points of the user.
    2. Timeline: a finite amount of time (e.g. 1 week or 1 year) or variable phases (e.g. awareness, decision-making, purchase, renewal).
    3. Emotion: peaks and valleys illustrating frustration, anxiety, happiness, etc.
    4. Touchpoints: customer actions and interactions with the organization. This is the WHAT the customer is doing.
    5. Channels: where interaction takes place and the context of use (e.g. website, native app, call center, in-store). This is the WHERE they are interacting.

Design thinking works best with cross-functional teams that can bring a well-rounded perspective on the problems at hand, and how to best solve them to improve the experience of the users.

Examples of companies applying design thinking to HR

Design thinking can be used to improve many areas of HR, including recruiting, onboarding, performance management, workplace design, and learning and development.

With so many applications for design thinking in HR, here are a few examples to get your ideas flowing:

  • IBM used design thinking to make organizational changes after learning that employee engagement had a direct impact on customer satisfaction and revenue. Employee engagement should begin early, so they utilized a new hire assessment to help them overhaul their employee onboarding program. IBM also worked with employee groups to implement a new performance management model across the company. Their Chief Human Resources Officer, Dianne Gherson, said, “The power of engaging the whole workforce lies in the fact that they are much less likely to resist change when they have had a hand in shaping it.”
  • FiveStars uses “brainwriting” during the ideate phase to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Every person spends 5-10 writing their ideas on Post-it notes before group collaboration. They all come together to talk about their ideas, and refine until they have 1-3 takeaways. Then they create, pilot, and refine as they go. One of the ideas they came up with is The High Five Program, where peers can recognize each other via High Five notes.
  • Cisco held a 24 hour “HR Breakathon” with the purpose of developing innovative HR solutions that would improve the employee experience. They came up with 105 new HR solutions spanning recruiting, onboarding, learning and development, and leadership.
  • Pixar has a dedicated Employee Experience Manager who holds regular conversations with employees and managers to better understand experiences, challenges, and development needs.
  • Peer Insight uses design thinking to design a system for Promotions, Bonuses, and Raises. They involved the entire team through interviews and a 2-hour ideation session. A smaller team created the prototypes, then went back to the entire team to gather input and refine them.

How to get started with design thinking

  • Learn more. There are many wonderful resources online to learn more about design thinking. For instance, Innovation Training offers workshops and online courses to help you facilitate design thinking within your team.
  • Share the benefits. Get your leadership team on board by sharing the benefits of design thinking. Design-driven companies outperform the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 228 percent.
  • Start small. You don’t need to implement the entire process at once. You can begin with group brainstorming sessions, or by collecting user data. You could even begin doing this with a smaller team to start. Ease into the rest of the steps as your organization is ready.
  • Share results. Keep the momentum going by sharing the results of your design thinking process with the rest of your team.

Final thoughts on design thinking in HR

For your company to compete and thrive in today’s competitive market, it’s important for you to do all you can to engage and retain promising talents. Now it’s the time to let go of outdated processes and adopt new tools and approaches to create a meaningful work experience that will engage and motivate your employees.

Design thinking is one of those tools. It is a powerful framework you can use to help you design more human-centered HR programs and services to improve the employee experience throughout the employee lifecycle (onboarding, benefits, culture & team-building, performance management, etc).

It’s about time we reimagined HR, and design thinking is going to help us do so.

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