How Design Thinking is Disrupting HR

*Original article was published by Digital HR Tech magazine
How can HR design employee experiences that empower critical thinking, teamwork, and innovation?
Design Thinking is an approach that will change HR in its core. It will develop a human-centric mindset that focuses beyond designing programs or processes to create meaningful experiences.
In one sentence: design thinking is a process for creative “problem solving”
Design Thinking brings an innovate approach that will change the way HR teams deliver value, organize work and find solutions. As Josh Bersin, from Bersin Associates, put it: “Design Thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” into an “experience architect.” It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.”
Design Thinking brings a “Human-Centric Approach” that is present in every single step of the design process. Teams are empowered and accountable to gather user insights that start with the question: “How might we”. Understanding that “how” represents a solution-oriented approach, “might” encourages optimism and “we” represents collaboration.
Teams are encouraged to inspire new thinking by discovering what people need.
In some ways, Design Thinking leaves the traditional “waterfall” project management approach behind. In the waterfall approach, projects are divided into different stages. Each stage has to be completed before the project can move on to the next one. Projects are championed by a senior executive and hierarchy is king. Teams are not autonomous and need senior management approval to move forward in every single stage of the project. The results: when projects are finally ready to be launched, competition has designed something new first, customers need change, or the solution has become obsolete.
Furthermore, a Design Thinking framework is not correlative. This means that teams can check with clients or customers and come back to the project to make adjustments to potential prototypes and tests. The initial message here is: to create meaningful innovations, teams need to know their customers – or internal clients – very well. They need to care about the needs and expectations of their customers and/or clients.

Understanding Design Thinking

Let’s take a look at the opinion of Tim Brown – CEO and president of IDEO – in the article “Design Thinking” published by HBR: “A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this, I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.” This core concept is transformational for HR. It will involve leaving behind annual processes and approach-based planning for a simpler, more innovative and faster model driven by human-centered principles.
So, what’s the early message for HR?
HR needs to embed the “user or employee” at the center of the experience in its delivery model.
Design Thinking is a creative approach to problem-solving. As such, it leads to gathering inspiration, ideas, making ideas tangible and share the “story” to create innovative solutions. The design starts with:
  • Empathizing with customers first (understanding their needs and frustrations);
  • then moving to define the problem, and;
  • then brainstorming to identify and choose the best ideas and solutions, and then;
  • building prototypes to test what works and what doesn’t.
If it doesn’t, solutions are redefined by learning about users through testing in order to finally find a solution that meets customer needs. The graphic below describes the various stages:
The human-centric design is focused on the user experience instead of the process “itself”. It’s about creating sparks of ideas to launch products and services that deeply resonate with customers or internal clients. However, the human-centric design involves a cultural “shift” and creating experiences that empower innovation, creativity, incentivize failure to learn and team-collaboration. Design Thinking has a strong success story in product design, technology, and marketing and is now being applied more broadly in various functions and businesses.
Including HR.
The message here is: It’s time for HR to adapt to an agile environment to create an employee experience using Design Thinking principles to deliver talent capabilities linked to strategy.

Design Thinking Framework

  1. Empathize: learn about your audience, what problems do the users face?
  2. Define: construct a point of view based on user needs, define the main problem you want to solve.
  3. Brainstorm: brainstorm and come up with creative solutions, choose the best ideas.
  4. Prototype: build a representation of your ideas and a prototype design.
  5. Test: test ideas and prototypes with actual users.

HR empowered by Design Thinking

Design thinking starts with “the problem statement” which is the core of the design. Participants need to be related to the problem that design teams want to fix. Directed storytelling allows designers to easily gather rich stories of real-life experiences from participants using thoughtful prompts and guiding and framing questions in conversations. Then the design team finds solutions based on the problem statement. Brainstorming is a part of this process and all ideas are accepted. Then the ideas are organized into categories (affinity diagram) and data from information-gathering activities is analyzed.
Innovation is a capability that HR needs to develop to adapt in a fast-paced environment where solutions need to be designed from the outside-in understanding the needs of customers and internal clients. For example, Cisco’s HR teams were trained to use Design Thinking. They looked at areas where HR could change drastically in tangible, practical ways, such as recruiting, onboarding, learning and development, and workplace design. Cisco was using Design Thinking to re-design the organization with a focus on “people experiences” instead of processes.
Design Thinking can be applied to every aspect of HR, for example, it can be applied to the candidate experience. The application journey can bring different expectations from the candidate perspective. Candidates are looking for an enjoyable application and interviewing process, an opportunity to learn about the company and to be informed about their current status and potential next steps.
If hired, the onboarding process, instead of providing general information about the company in 1 or 2 days, should focus on creating an experience where technology (artificial intelligence is bringing a whole set of tools for HR) leverages onboarding activities to make sure the candidate has access to agendas, responsibilities, and process-guidance.
In Design Thinking, we explore the actual needs of end-users through interviews, focus groups and informal interactions. This is called “empathize”. Throughout the design process, teams test what works and what doesn’t so that they can make sure they are building experiences that meet people’s needs. One key aspect that Design Thinking brings to organizations and HR is a “collaborative design approach”. Having people involved in the design process across different business units and functions brings a new perspective to problem-solving.
Dianne Gherson, IBM’S head of HR, interviewed by Harvard Business Review, led the employee experience overhaul using Design Thinking and mentioned “We have found that employee engagement explains two-thirds of our client scores. And if we are able to increase client satisfaction by 5 points, we see an extra 20% in revenue, on average”.
What was the message here? There was a direct impact between employee experience and customer experience but where – and how – to start?
IBM brought people from different functions into the design process and teams were accountable to co-create a brand-new employee onboarding process. Everything started with an initial assessment to understand the new hire’s point of view and realize that the onboarding experience involved working with a broader set of players to make it happen.
Performance management is another process that has been disrupted. The traditional performance management with 2 or 3 stages has not been creating a direct impact on the business. Organizations were measuring individual results when in reality, objectives were accomplished by teams.
IBM approached this case as well, deciding to work with employee groups instead of bringing in a bunch of field experts. They used Design Thinking and after 5 months of hard work, the brand-new performance model was implemented across the company. According to Dianne, “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”.
To sum up, HR can leverage this Design Thinking approach creating cross-functional task-force teams to design experiences related to onboarding, learning, candidate experience, performance management, recruiting and in general to every single HR practice.

Final Thoughts – Questions for HR designers:

  • How can HR re-set its mindset to use Design Thinking?
  • Would Design Thinking work in all HR functions?
  • How do we know if our prototype is worth iterating on?
  • How do we know which customers we should talk to first?
  • How can HR use the human-centric design to design employee experiences?
  • What does a great employee experience look like from the moment someone is hired until the moment they leave the company?
*Opinions are my own.


Albert Loyola is a Tech and AI HR Evangelist. His research and work focus around the future of work, artificial intelligence, employee experience and digitization of the workplace and the impact in HR. Albert’s work has been featured on different media players and he’s also the founder of Ignite Organizations an HR tech & AI discussion forum. Connect with Albert.
© Copyright 2018. This article may be reprinted provided the following credit line is present: Albert Loyola, Global Talent & Organization consultant |Artificial Intelligence HR advisor |Future of Work speaker & writer| All rights reserved

Albert Loyola

Artificial Intelligence | Employee Experience| HR Transformation| Advisor| Speaker

Albert brings global market research experience  to help executives harness intelligent technologies, reinvent HR, re-skilling and employee experience across NAR, APAC, LATAM and EMEA regions.

Keep in touch