How to use Design Thinking in HR


There are many factors that are changing the way we approach human resources, from attracting and selecting talent, all the way through to talent development and retention. Whatever the external influences, the fact is that this change requires new applications in the way we think about our people and design our people management strategies. One of the most recent trends is Design Thinking, and how it can be used as a tool to understand and improve the customer experience of HR.

So what is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is defined as a creative, solution-based method for problem solving. It is based on understanding the in-depth needs of different stakeholder profiles and its goal is to generate solutions that bring value to all stakeholders; in other words, based on solutions focused on the people involved. In HR's case, this could be the managers, employees, or candidates that experience any part of the HR process.

Companies like Apple, Starbucks and Google, are known to have been using Design Thinking as a way to drive new products and services for some time. Design Thinking enables organisations to consider new approaches to products and processes, driving innovation that allows them to meet their customer needs more effectively.

When we think about human resources or talent as a greater business asset, the need for, and opportunity, becomes clear. Design Thinking enables HR to think beyond the typical process and programmatic approach to service delivery and focus instead on the experience and outcomes that it is looking to drive.

How to get started with Design Thinking

One of the first areas to focus on with any Design Thinking approach is to consider the personas that you work with and how they currently experience your service. One tool that is becoming more widely used is called a journey map. This creates an opportunity for you to understand and to visualise the various stages and touchpoints along your service delivery. The key elements of a journey map are timeline, emotion, touchpoints, channels, and of course, personas.

Understanding your personas is key and involves creating fictional versions of your various types of customer that covers the various needs, goals and behaviour patterns that they might exhibit. For example, how might the expectations of a new graduate applying to a role on your career site differ from that of someone with 10+ years of experience? Essentially, personas represent a model mindset that will allow you to better understand, empathise with, and therefore better attract, retain, and position your talent.

Empathy is actually one of the stages outlined in an article based on the five-stage model of Design Thinking proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford ( Empathy, it said, “is crucial to a human-centred design process such as Design Thinking, and empathy allows design thinkers to set aside his or her own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs.”

Design Thinking can be used in all aspects of HR

Design Thinking can be used for every part of HR, right from the initial attraction and identification of potential employees, to assigning them to specific roles, finding opportunities to transition them into new roles, and ultimately, retaining and developing key people into even greater assets for the business.

From the earliest stages, Design Thinking allows us to understand how our ideal candidate searches for a job, what they use to evaluate and compare companies and opportunities. In later stages, it provides insight into what our people want and need, their experience along the way, the touchpoints that allow us to create a better experience, and the goals we must set in order to fully utilise and maintain our key people.

Design Thinking and the Future of Work

A recent article published on Deloitte Insights suggested the opportunity, and the challenge to be met when it comes to workforce development, maintenance and future planning, is significant. In this piece, the article’s three authors suggest that navigating the future of work will require an alignment of the individual, businesses and other employers, and social and governmental institutions. Design Thinking is proposed as a solution to help drive this alignment.

The authors identified such forces as the reconfiguration of jobs due to changing technology and the need and opportunity to change the dynamic between automated process and human influence over those processes, and the changing role of employee/employer through alternative and changing work arrangements, as key drivers behind the need to understand and think about people from a new perspective.

Based on this perspective, it is clear that Design Thinking is a great tool for HR to have in its toolkit as it shifts to take a more customer-centric approach to its service delivery and focuses on creating an exceptional employee experience.

One more thing...

If you are looking to learn more about design thinking and how to apply it to HR then you should check out the myHRfuture academy online course on Design Thinking in HR titled 'Incorporating Design Thinking into HR' that is taught by Volker Jacobs and the team from TI People. It's a great introductory course for anyone interested in learning more about how to use design thinking in HR. Click on the image below to learn more and to enroll in the course.


Ian Bailie is the Managing Director of and an advisor and consultant for start-ups focused on HR technology and People Analytics, including Adepto, Worklytics and CognitionX.  In his previous role as the Senior Director of People Planning, Analytics and Tools at Cisco Systems, he was responsible for delivering the tools and insights to enable and transform the planning, attraction and management of talent across the organisation globally.  Ian is passionate about HR technology and analytics and how to use both to transform the employee experience and prepare companies for the Future of Work.