Design Thinking for a Better Employee Experience

It is increasingly common in HR circles to hear terms from consumer research and software development. This might include: “we need to be more agile”,

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Hamish Deery

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Talent business line leader, Asia Pacific at Willis Towers Watson

It is increasingly common in HR circles to hear terms from consumer research and software development. This might include: “we need to be more agile”, “we need to consider our employees as consumers”, and “we need to apply segmentation” in our program design and delivery. In essence, these are about delivering an exceptional and differentiated “employee experience” in the same way consumer researchers understand and apply the customer insights in their product development, or a software developer designs a great user experience.

How can HR best use or apply these ideas in its work? One of the most promising approaches is “design thinking”. “Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” (Tim Brown CEO, IDEODesign). Importantly, design thinking is more than what the product or experience looks like on the surface; it is really about how it works and feels for the user. It is used to construct experiences that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional. We know great design when we experience it. It is the “wow” factor that makes the products, service or experience compelling.

Design thinking in an employee context is about HR being story tellers, architects and builders of a compelling work experience. Or as my colleague Nick Lynn says, it is about HR being “movie makers” writing the script and delivering the experience by piecing together different scenes with a variety of actors and editors to create a consistent whole.

But it’s not just HR where these concepts are gaining traction. According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital trends report, two-thirds of companies now believe complexity is an impedement to business performance, and a barrier to productivity. Design thinking is seen as a mechanism for reducing this complexity. Moreover, 79 percent of executives in their 2016 global survey considered design thinking an important or very important issue. Applying design thinking to innovate has also been shown to enhance business success. According to an assessment by the Design Management Institute, design focused companies have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by 219%.

Design thinking shifts the emphasis to the employee (rather than starting with, or focusing on, the HR program or process itself). In fact, with free agents and the “Gig Economy” increasingly being a source of skills for organisations, design thinking can be applied to the entire ecosystem of work and workers. In other words, for HR it is about understanding, envisioning and designing how people experience work.

How does design thinking work in practice? Like agile software development, it creates ideas quickly, turns them into “pilots, prototypes or beta products”, measures how customers respond and then decides whether to persevere or change course. It is about answering questions like: Which employee experiences should we pay most attention to? How should we prioritise across the many experiences our people have with the company? What happens if we change certain experiences or elements in our programs? Which are essential to the desired experience and which are ancillary? Are any current experiences detracting from the desired state? What should we work on next?

As Eric Ries describes in The Lean Startup, nothing plagues an entrepreneur or innovator more than the question of whether they are making progress towards their product or business goals. Successful innovators answer this question through validated learning, a method for demonstrating that they have discovered valuable truths about the customer experience and that the expected behaviour follows. Often this is referred to as incubation, ideation and prototyping in design, where the designer envisions a desired future state, tests, iterates and scales the solution. “Think big, act small and fail fast” are terms that are often used to describe this stage of design. Adopting these principles is also possible in designing the employee or worker experience.

Journey maps are one of the tools that can support design in HR. These are visual representations of the steps or touch points that employees have at work, often with a focus on the most “critical” or “engaging moments”. The journey map shows the experience at each stage – what is working, what is not, what are the barriers – so that they can be redesigned as needed. One of the practical ways to do this is to undertake the mapping across key moments in the employee lifecycle: from hiring, to onboarding, to performance and reward discussions, learning and career experiences, and off-boarding. It can narrow in on key elements of the work experience, from the work itself, to the people (colleagues, manager, and leaders), purpose (mission, vision, values and culture), the physical work environment and the total rewards.

Also borrowing from consumer research, HR design thinking often uses “personas” as part of the toolkit. A persona is a fictional employee or worker created to represent a segment of the workforce, such as a new hire, a mid-career employee, a frontline manager, a seasoned executive, or a contractor or alliance partner. Visual images and associated descriptions are used to create a persona that represents real workers in the ecosystem, allowing the designer to empathise with the experience or unmet need. Personas are useful in considering the goals, desires, attitudes and behaviours in order to help to guide decisions about design. In most cases, personas are synthesised from data collected from observations, workshops or interviews with employees. In this regard, design thinking minimises the risk of releasing a solution that does not meet the employee need by engaging them through a series of real-world activities and prototypes.

A quick search of LinkedIn reveals literally thousands of employee experience roles inside organisations these days, with titles such as Employee Experience Manager or Chief Employee Experience Officer becoming common. This has been a growing trend in recent years and is likely to continue as HR responds to the pull from the business and employees to deliver an exceptional and differentiated experience at work. Design thinking can play a key role in achieving this.

Talent business line leader, Asia Pacific at Willis Towers Watson

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