Design thinking for a better employee experience

It’s increasingly common in HR circles to hear terms that frame issues from the point of view of the end users (i.e., employees). This might include: we need to be more agile, we need to consider our employees as consumers and we need to use segmentation in our program design and delivery.

In essence, these are about HR defining and delivering an exceptional and differentiated employee experience. This has been a growing trend in product development for some time — think of the way a consumer researcher understands and applies customers’ needs in their product development, for instance, or how a software developer designs a great user experience — and it seems that HR practitioners are catching up.

Design thinking

Design-focused companies have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by 219%

How can HR best use or apply these ideas? One of the most promising approaches is design thinking, which goes beyond what the product or experience looks like on the surface; it’s about how it works and feels for the user. It’s used to construct experiences that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional. We know great design when we experience it — it’s the “wow” factor that makes the product, service or experience compelling.

Applying design thinking to innovate has 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%.

In an employee context, design thinking is about HR being story tellers, architects and builders of the experience. Or, as my colleague Nick Lynn says, it’s 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.

Rather than focusing on the HR program or process, design thinking shifts the emphasis to the employee. And 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’s about understanding, envisioning and designing how people experience work.

In practice

How does design thinking work?  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 preserve or change course.

For HR, it’s about answering questions such as:

  • Which employee experiences should we pay the 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?
  • What should we work on next?
The journey map shows the experience at each stage — what’s working, what’s not and the barriers — so they can be redesigned as needed

As Eric Ries describes in The Lean Startup, nothing plagues an entrepreneur more than the question of whether they’re making progress towards their product or business goals. Successful entrepreneurs 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. These principles can also be adopted when designing the employee or worker experience.

Journey maps are one of the tools that allow the employee experience to be designed. 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’s working, what’s not and the barriers — so they can be redesigned as needed. One of the practical ways to do this is to undertake this investigation across key moments in the employee lifecycle: from hiring, to on boarding, to performance and reward discussions, learning and career experiences, and off-boarding. It can narrow in on key all elements of the work experience, from the work itself, to the people (colleagues, managers and leaders), purpose (mission, vision, values and culture), the physical work environment and Total Rewards.

The employee lifecycle

HR design thinking uses personas as part of their toolkit. A persona is a fictional employee created to represent a segment of the workforce, such as a new hire, a mid-career employee, a frontline manager or a seasoned executive. 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.

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 employee experience.

About Hamish Deery

As Managing Director, Talent & Rewards, Asia and Australia & New Zealand, Hamish Deery leads Willis Towers …
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