5 FAQs About Design Thinking in HR
Jolene Nicotina

By: Jolene Nicotina on May 30th, 2019

Print/Save as PDF

5 FAQs About Design Thinking in HR

HR Operational Efficiency

Est. Read Time: 2 min.

By now, you’ve likely heard of the term “design thinking.” Organizations such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, and Proctor & Gamble use design thinking and they have been found to outperform their peers by over 200%. To better understand the design thinking process and how HR can apply it, we turned to our partners at NGA Human Resources. Here’s what Emilie Fages, Design Thinking and Employee Experience Manager, and Patrick Gaspardo, Marketing Director for France, had to say in response to frequently asked questions about design thinking in HR:


Patrick Gaspardo Marketing Director NGA HRWhat does design thinking have to do with HR?

Design thinking can be applied to any business sector and any department of the company. The interesting aspect of design thinking for HR is that it encourages HR to own projects related to innovation and focus on the needs of employees at the same time. In other words, design thinking can help HR can manage the organizational and technological changes currently at play as well as those that will arise in the future—without neglecting the impact on people.  


How do you define design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that generates innovation through group collaboration. The term "creative thinking" somewhat skews the reality of what design thinking is. Creative thinking is limited to pure reflection, whereas design thinking is meant to conceive a concrete solution to a problem identified beforehand. The notion of iteration— trying, failing, and improving—is also paramount to design thinking. We don’t roll out a solution once and for all, we design, test and take back what doesn’t work or what needs to be optimized.


What steps should HR take when using design thinking?

Before beginning the process, it’s necessary to define the problem you’re dealing with to clearly set expectations. Once the problem has been identified, the most important part is choosing workshop participants. We’re talking about a workshop in the true sense of the word. There’s no effective design thinking without active participation, collaboration, and listening. All stakeholders count. I often advise that companies gather a representative sample of all roles involved in the HR process and all those impacted by it.


Another element to think about beforehand is interviews. The richness of design thinking comes from empathy—we literally put ourselves in the place of the employee or manager. It’s therefore essential to talk to stakeholders to know them, and to understand their needs, any bottlenecks they experience, and their perception of the problem.


button to access free digital employee experience course


Once you’ve done internal interviews and identified your workshop participants, the design thinking process seeks to answer four questions:


1. "What is?" This is the definition of the problem. We analyze the feelings, experiences, and difficulties encountered by the people impacted by the problem or process.


2. “What if?” This is the "letter to Santa Claus" so to speak. In this step, have stakeholders imagine the ideal scenario without the constraints of time, financial means, technical means or headcount. I ask people to consider what they would need in absolute terms to solve the identified problem.


3. “Which option?” This step is about determining which solution to move forward with and which segment of users or use cases to roll out to first.


4. “What works?” This is when you test and proceed with iterations. It’s indeed important to see what works or not, to be wrong, to start again and to agree to change until you reach the most satisfactory solution possible. Iteration is one of the key points of design thinking.


What are some tips for ensuring success with design thinking?

  • Listen carefully. It's not just about hearing what people are saying. This is obviously important, but above all, we must investigate, dig to go further and detect the implicit needs.
  • Consider multiple points of view. To treat a problem solely from the vision of the manager is the equivalent of working with blinders on. Listen to operational teams or users as well.
  • Go out into the field and see people in their work environment. What kind of workspace are we talking about? What are the interactions between people? How are the available tools used? Is there cohesion or not?
  • Stay focused. The goal of the design workshop is to exchange, discuss and be as creative as possible. No computers, no e-mails and smartphones off.
  • Take action. To think is very good, but to act is even better! This is the ultimate goal: to reach a solution that you will actually implement.


Is design thinking applicable to all HR situations?

In theory, yes! In reality, it’s not necessary to apply a design thinking approach in all situations. The issues that can be answered by analyzing data and using past experience don’t require the use of design thinking.


On the other hand, if your workforce has changed, say the generational makeup of your employee population has completely shifted, you won’t be able to rely on past experience or data. In this case, the design thinking process can be of precious help. Similarly, if something is not working optimally but the cause is not clear, design thinking can be very helpful in determining the problem and then designing the appropriate response.


Related article: How to design the employee experience: Applying the design process

What’s the future of design thinking for HR?

Design thinking is not a new method. Its beginnings date back to the 50s and the approach as we know it today was described in a book by Peter Rowe released in the late 80s. And, for a dozen years now we’ve seen design thinking workshops bloom everywhere. But I see a limit to the current phenomenon. The approach has been caricatured in that we retain only the easiest aspects, such as post-it collage sessions on a table, for example. This doesn’t hold any value for anyone.


On the other hand, if we take full advantage of the approach by going beyond mere reflection to design solutions, test them in the field, possibly fail, get back to work, and proceed with iterations, then we create not only a virtuous circle, but a truly lasting, and therefore future-oriented, approach.

user experience principles in hr peopledoc article series
user experience principles in hr peopledoc article series

About Jolene Nicotina

Jolene Nicotina is the Content Marketing Manager for North America at PeopleDoc, Inc. She works on making sure HR professionals have all the latest information they need related to HR service delivery, HR technology, and PeopleDoc, Inc. Prior to PeopleDoc, Jolene worked in marketing communications for the healthcare technology industry.