Understanding the design thinking process
Julien Trombert

By: Julien Trombert on August 30th, 2018

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Understanding the design thinking process

HR Operational Efficiency

Est. Read Time: 3 min.

What is design thinking? Design thinking is a human-centered, collaborative, iterative and optimistic process that aims to stimulate our creativity in diverse situations. Its proven methodology is widely known in the corporate world for its usefulness in the design of innovative solutions, no matter the industry or context. In fact, HR leaders from companies like T-Mobile, IBM, and GE are using design thinking to solve challenges such as employee engagement.


Why human-centered? The first step in the design thinking process is asking the key question: “WHO are we designing our answer for? WHO are the actors of the situation being analyzed?”


Why collaborative? A widely quoted proverb says, “If you want to fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together.” It accurately conveys the spirit of design thinking: Our ideas come together to illuminate each other.


Why iterative? Because being wrong is not the same as failing. Being wrong gives you the opportunity to understand where and why you were wrong, and then improve upon your findings.


Why optimistic? You may notice that I use the terms “situation and response” instead of “problem and solution.” In design thinking, you aim to stay positive and believe there is always an answer. It is square one in boosting your creativity.


Why creative? Good news! Everyone is creative. I would venture to say that even the most powerful digital tools in our arsenal are light years away from humans in terms of creativity. But to harness it, you need to be aware of it. Design thinking puts creativity at the heart of the process and gives you the ideal framework to freely share your ideas through 5 main steps:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of the stakeholders
  • Understand the needs of your users
  • Be innovative
  • Create interfaces
  • Put your creation in the hands of your users

To better illustrate the process, we will use a simple example that will take us through the 5 steps of organizing a family dinner.


Step 1: Empathize

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In the early stages, you will need to think about each and every one of your dinner guests: seeing things from their perspective, figuring out what they would like to eat and where they would like to sit at the table, etc.


In short, step 1 will require you to ask yourself questions in order to better understand your users (likely your employees or HR team). Other strategies are interviewing your users or building upon existing research. This is not only the best way to find answers that are truly tailored to your end users, but also a stepping stone towards innovation and possibly a designer's true secret weapon.


Because we’re all different, all of our worldviews carry a grain of truth. By opening up to others and their way of thinking, living and working, we can broaden our field of vision and find new and different solutions. Although corners are often cut when it comes to this stage, its importance cannot be overstated.


Step 2: Define

Now that you know who you’re designing for, it’s time to establish the scope of the situation. You need to both establish limits and shine light on areas that lack clarity.


In step 2 you will define the situation by delimiting the field in which the remaining steps will play out. In our family dinner example, you could achieve this in a single, brief sentence: “A family dinner must foster lively conversation over the course of a simple, balanced meal.”


The resulting phrase must contain all the indispensable information because it will act as the cornerstone of the work to follow. Each new idea will be challenged against the definition of the situation in order to determine if it’s suitable.


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Step 3: Ideate

During the “Empathize” phase you broadened your field of vision, and through the “Define” phase you set up a framework. Now it’s time to let your imagination run wild. During the “Ideate” phase you will create something entirely new and unprecedented, something truly innovative. The only limits will be those you set for yourself during the previous step. Within that frame, allow yourself the craziest ideas. Eliminate constraints and consider everything your end user would love to have if anything were possible.


For our family dinner example, this could mean coming up with unconventional ideas like sitting people at triangular tables, eating in a tree house, or creating a meal using insects exclusively.


In the following steps you will be screening and paring down your ideas, so take advantage of this time to think big and out of the box! There are many techniques out there to stimulate your creativity and organize the flow of ideas. Consider options like brainstorming, Speedboat or Remember the future.


Step 4: Prototype

Once we’ve come up with some wild ideas for our dinner party, we will design the table plan, create a menu and set a theme for decorating. During the “Prototype” phase you will come face-to-face with the concrete aspects of your ideas—you will materialize them in order to discover whether they are feasible.


The first iteration will allow you to simply validate concepts, so prototypes will be vague and provide low-level detail. If you’re sketching, for example, use only pencil and introduce color sparingly and only if necessary. If you’re implementing a new HR workflow, your prototype might be a process map. You will be testing your prototypes in the next step so focus most of your efforts in the areas you want to put to the test.


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Step 5: Test

The time has come to pick up the phone and invite your friends over so they can taste the menu and give you feedback on your decoration and seating plan. For the "Test" phase you want to make sure that people interacting with your prototypes are either end-users themselves or users with an equivalent profile. This will ensure your results are accurate and that you can build upon them to improve.


Testing is not about proving that you are right or wrong. It's a process that allows you to collect large volumes of information on your prototypes, and identify both things that work and things that need to be reconsidered. Based on your results, you will likely repeat one or more of the three last steps until you reach a final answer.


Words of advice

It’s always a good idea to run through the entire process at least once, and only loop back to any of the previous stages once you’ve reached and completed the "Test" phase. When adapting to a different situation you can always do a less-detailed "Empathy" phase provided the target user base remains the same. Remember that design thinking is highly flexible and can be applied to a wide variety of situations in any context or field.


Design thinking for your company

At PeopleDoc, we employ design thinking to develop software for HR, but HR teams themselves can also use design thinking to design and improve the processes, workflows and solutions they implement to take care of their employees. If your team could benefit from this methodology, stay tuned for our follow up blogs on design thinking, including PeopleDoc case studies and a post entirely dedicated to design thinking for HR.

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PeopleDoc Digital Employee Experience Course

About Julien Trombert

Julien Trombert is UX Designer at PeopleDoc. He works on PeopleDoc Employee File Management, PeopleDoc Advanced Document Generation and internal tools. Prior to PeopleDoc, Julien worked as a UX Designer at Sopra HR Software where he worked on the conception for the Sopra HR 4YOU product, among others. Julien has been participating in and animating design thinking workshops for several years and loves to start his workshops with a short meditation.