Every HR department has the one problem (or maybe the list of problems) it hasn't solved yet. It could be low participation in a mentorship program, an inability to recruit more hires from diverse backgrounds or trouble explaining benefits information in a clear way.
For Pearlie Oni, senior manager of employee experience at RedPeg marketing, workers are engaged and eager to participate in initiatives, but the pain point is recruitment.
"We're trying to focus in on refining our candidate experience, and we have people from across the organization who are involved in recruitment, and it can be harder to get them engaged," Oni told HR Dive in an interview. Problems like these, though, are not insurmountable in Oni's view.
"We created an employee journey map from candidacy on to alumni, and then we created personas and took them through [the process] to find pain points," she explained. "We're really lucky we took a page from user experience and customer experience."
Employee-centric approaches like Oni's are part and parcel of design thinking, a problem-solving method popularized by Stanford University and the design firm IDEO in the 1980s and 1990s. Product and user experience designers use the method to create goods and services that better reflect customer needs. Some HR professionals and business leaders have adapted the method to creatively address workforce challenges.
What is design thinking?
Oni's description of how her team works to fine-tune RedPeg's employee experience is similar to the central thesis of design thinking as a method. "If people are struggling to get it done, then maybe the process isn't refined enough," she said. In other words, if a solution isn't working, the error lies with the solution — not the user.
Unlike some problem-solving methods, design thinking prioritizes meeting the needs of the user first and foremost. There are six main steps to solving problems with the method:
- Empathize: Talking to users (employees) about what they need.
- Define: Naming the problems the user faces.
- Ideate: Brainstorming ways to solve those problems.
- Prototype: Mocking-up an experience that users can interact with.
- Test: Trying out the prototypes with users.
For design thinking practitioners, users' perceptions and feelings are key. Kathryn Segovia, head of learning experience design, executive education at Stanford's d.school, told HR Dive in an interview, "It's empathy-oriented — a conversation with a real human being, not online research about statistics."
Another tenet of the theory is the mandate to test and refine solutions continuously and collaboratively, Segovia said. It can be counter-intuitive to the way some businesses operate, but the idea is that constant refinement leads to end products that better suit employees' needs. It can also prevent an organization from blowing its budget on the wrong idea.
"We want people to iterate — in that, you don't want to be taking months and months to design something, and realize that it's not working," Kelly Palmer, chief learning officer at Degreed, told HR Dive in an interview. Palmer learned about design thinking on-site at Stanford's d.school, when she worked at Yahoo! and then again when she worked at LinkedIn, she said. The d.school makes many of its resources available to the public online.
What are the barriers for HR?
Empathizing with employees is crucial for any HR department trying to solve workplace problems with design thinking. However, the dynamic between HR and workers might present a barrier, Segovia noted.
"'Can you tell me how you felt the last time you did da, da, da,' seems like almost too personal of a conversation to have. It almost feels like our professional tendencies get in the way of leaning into it," she said. Her students often feel the same reluctance to ask their users, "Walk me through how you were feeling when X happened?"
The question can feel uncomfortable. As a workaround for HR professionals too hesitant to cross that boundary with employees, Segovia recommended interviewing past employees who are willing to reflect on their experiences at the organization. She compared past employees to "extreme customers" who have had strong reactions to a product or experience.
"Those folks are probably seeing from a vantage point that's valuable," she said. For conversations with current employees, she recommended that HR frame conversations in the "Empathize" stage around a prop, like a journey map.
"Another way to look at it is, we try to use simple tools that turn the interaction from an interview or interrogation into a conversation," she said. "‘Ok, walk me through your last memorable experience in a performance review,' or insert any HR interaction. What that allows them to do is focus not necessarily on the details but on the emotions of the experience."
Because design thinking requires continuous refinement of prototypes, it could frustrate HR pros when a solution doesn't click with employees. It's what d.school Executive Director and "Designing Your Life" author Bill Burnett identified in a 2016 webinar more simply as the fear of failure. However, working iteratively on solutions can strengthen one's "failure immunity," he noted, which allows people to be more creative. Oni's team uses a lot of surveys and data analysis to keep improving on employee experience, and she said it can sting when a new initiative or process doesn't resonate.
"You put a lot of sweat and tears into it, and you think, ‘Of course it's right, I made it. What's wrong with you?'" she said, laughing. "But it's really important to remember who you made it for and make sure you didn't miss anything in your data. It's about being flexible and not taking that personally."
Many organizations are not used to this approach to problem solving, and it might require reframing the expectations for how new programs are developed, Segovia said. Leaders may need to be shown how design thinking's test-and-repeat process can yield many "low-res" solutions rather than one single "high-res" solution, she said.
"Sometimes in the corporate environment we're zero to 100 — we do one thing with all the resources we have," she said. "Why not say, ‘We're going to at least propose four solutions to re-imagining how our company hires millennials'? Then you see the strengths and weaknesses and compare the options over time."
What could be the benefits?
Getting right to employees' gut reactions to their workplace experiences means HR doesn't have to guess at their perspectives, needs and anxieties. Segovia said that understanding employees at that level ultimately makes it easier to come up with more solutions.
"If you think of the customer and get to know them at the level of their latent needs — if you get an opportunity to know them at a level that nobody knows is there, you get to solve for things that are implicit," she said. "It opens up a much larger solution set."
Understanding design thinking can also connect HR teams to other departments, Palmer noted.
"[It] could align you with other parts of your company who are using design thinking for building your products and give you a better sense of product development and how the business is operating," she told HR Dive in an email.
The prolific, "low-res" approach, while not ideal for changing the organization's budgeting process or choosing vendors to partner with, Palmer said, is great for generating a lot of ideas for "quick-turnaround small investments," testing them and gathering a bulk of data to guide future decisions.
"When you get that kind of direct data, it's hard for other leaders to not buy-in to what you are doing. Often times, if you have an idea and present it without any user data to back it up, you might get push back because then it becomes your opinion over others. But when you can solidly point to the design thinking process about how you approached the problem and also present data to support your conclusions, it can be very powerful," Palmer wrote.
HR pros at people-centric organizations may find design thinking to be a natural culture fit. Nevertheless, Burnett emphasized that the design process is unlikely to take hold without the right organizational culture in place. Loosely quoting other thinkers in the space, he said: "Culture eats process for lunch."