Applying Design Thinking in HR

Employee Experience Design
Design Thinking in HR

A lot has been said about the future of work. The truth is, our so-called ‘best practice’ HR programs and processes are not even solving today’s workplace challenges anymore. What HR needs today, is a thorough understanding of the employee needs in combination with more co-creative working methods. And design thinking can play an important role in this.

​Design thinking in HR moves the focus from building processes to designing meaningful employee experiences. And it works. Josh Bersin’s research shows that companies in which HR delivers the highest value, are almost five times more likely to use design thinking. High-performing HR organizations are also associated with a lot of positive business outcomes, like hitting or exceeding financial targets.

Design thinking helps HR to redesign every aspect of work, from the first touch point between employee and organization to the last. When HR focuses on the creation of meaningful experiences around moments that matter most to the employee, you can say that HR plays a strategic role in the organization. Design thinking helps HR to shift from process execution to experience design.

What is design thinking

​Product Designers have been using Design Thinking for ages, to create products that really meet the needs of the end users and to create a great Customer Experience. However, today it is being used in many other areas, such as marketing, customer service ànd HR.

Design Thinking is a co-creative approach to tackle ‘wicked’ human-related challenges. It is based on a deep understanding of the needs of the users and stakeholders and it consists of 4 steps.

Design Thinking workshop

STEP 1: Discover
Understanding the needs of those you are designing for
STEP 2: Define
Redefining the challenge in a ‘how to’ problem statement
STEP 3: Ideate
Generating a lot of ideas (quantity breeds quality)
STEP 4: Validate
Prototyping and testing the ideas

​Even though it is not a strictly linear process, it offers a roadmap that helps you move towards your solution. It’s an iterative approachin which you never stop learning.

Design thinking in HR

​​Why is Design thinking interesting for HR to use?

  • It is fit to tackle wicked human-related problems (like HR challenges!)
  • It is extremely valuable in identifying the unmet needs of the employees
  • It fosters co-creation of innovative solutions
  • It helps HR to learn faster

Design thinking helps to find the right question, before we start looking for solutions. It’s a process of divergence and convergence, resulting in the well known design thinking double diamond. And it keeps our eye on what really matters, the experience of the employee.

The Design Thinking process

​In HR we often tend to forget the first part. Or we skip it because we’re overwhelmed with other tasks and we want quick results. So we rush through the part where we discover the real needs of the employee. ‘Need an onboarding process? We’ll make a checklist and send a few mails! Need a performance management process? I know a ‘best practice’ we can implement right away!’ . We start somewhere in the middle and jump to solutions.

Design Thinking can be applied to all aspects of HR: recruitment, onboarding, performance management, learning & development,… But it becomes even more powerful if we flip our mindset. Instead of taking our HR processes as a starting point, we start from the perspective of the employee and focus on moments and human needs.

Great tools for HR to ‘steal’ with pride

​Besides the 4-step process, design thinking offers a bunch of great tools to unravel human needs en design disruptive solutions. When we use design thinking in HR, we can handpick some of these great tools and customize them to our needs.


Personas are representations of typical or ideal users with all their needs, thoughts, feelings and goals. They are designed to help you empathize with your end users. Used well, personas prevent you from generalizing all users into one bucket and help you get a better understanding of the underlying human needs of different users or stakeholders. By stepping into the shoes of a persona, you’re attention is drawn to what really matters for these users. ​Personas are often used in product or service design and in marketing. Applied to HR — and let’s take onboarding as an example — the personas could be for instance the new joiner, the line manager, the HR business partner, the facility manager,…

Building a persona and empathy map for a new joiner, requires you to dig into a few questions.
What does de new joiner SEE/HEAR/THINK/FEEL/NEED/DESIRE during the first days/weeks/months at the organization? What are the new joiners’ main PAIN POINTS?
Besides valuable information from surveys and data analysis, we can find answers through personal interviews and observations.

empathy mapping

However, based on the interviews you may conclude that there are large differences between the new joiners in terms of needs. So you may need to cluster them into similar profiles and create more than one persona. If you have too many personas, ask yourself whom you should optimize your design for. And focus on those key personas.


A customer journey map is often used by product designers, marketing or customer service departments to gain insights into the customer’s total experience. A journey map is a great way to synthesize your field research and show the steps your customers take when they interact with your product.

It is not far stretched to replace ‘customer’ by ‘employee’ here. Employees have different touch points with the organization and go through an entire journey that can be mapped in an employee journey map.

Think for example about the first days, weeks and months of an employee at the organization. A simple version of the employee journey might include moments like these:

  • Not much contact before the first day
  • Arrival at the office
  • Welcome by HR
  • My company car is not ready
  • Feeling lonely during lunch at my desk
  • Meeting with co-workers
  • Starting your first project
  • International training with co-workers
  • First mid-year review
employee journey mapping

As you can see emotions go up and down throughout the onboarding journey, this is a very powerful tool to identify the moments that matter most to the new joiner. It shows us where we need to focus and where we can have a huge impact.

Delightful employee experiences are rarely the result of luck. They are carefully designed around moments that matter most to the employees, like the application process, onboarding or internal career moves.

Where to start

​There are 2 ways to get started with design thinking in HR.

The first is to select one moment that matters and where you, as HR, can make a huge difference. Like recruitment or onboarding. Even though there are many stakeholders involved, HR often drives these processes. Picking one moment that matters, allows you to experiment with a process that you own, build design thinking skills in your HR team, and involve other functions in a process of co-creation that you drive.

The second option is to start from a strategic exercise, defining the company vision on employee experience, the employee value proposition and mapping the high level employee lifecycle. ​​It is a way to describe the different stages that an employee goes through during his or her interaction with your company. Always starting from the perspective of the employee.

the employee lifecycle

​There’s not one right answer. There’s no one best practice that will work in every organization. There’s a lot of new ground to be explored. So the most important thing… is to get started.

Building design thinking skills in HR

​These are exciting times for HR! New HR roles are emerging and we get to reinvent our function and service offering. Check our blog on ‘8 new HR roles for a digital age’ if you’d like to get an overview on the skills HR professionals will need in the futre.

Design thinking is definitely one of those key skills HR needs to learn ànd will enjoy learning. You can read a bunch of books on Design Thinking, but the only way to really get a hang of it, is to actively explore and apply this methodology to HR challenges.

If you need help and want to be coached during your first steps in design thinking within HR, then our 6 coaching sessions program and online guidance might be a good solution for you:

  • Introduction session
  • Session 1: What is design thinking and what does it mean for HR and for you?
  • Session 2: How do you put yourself in the shoes of the employee?
  • Session 3: How do you reframe your specific HR challenge?
  • Session 4: How do you generate solutions for your HR challenge?
  • Session 5: How do you test solutions with target users in an early stage?
  • Q&A through online chat

Interested? Drop a line:

I’m a Behavioral Change Designer @ the Change Designers (.eu). I write about #OrganisationalChange #EX #CX #UserAdoption #essentialism #Nederlandsefictie

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