HR Leads Business

May 10, 2017 | Karrie Sullivan, HRCI Guest Blogger

Design Thinking: New Applications for HR

Design thinking, also known as human-centered design, is a creative approach to
problem solving that leads to innovative solutions that work better for people. Design thinking, traditionally an approach that hails from the product design industry, is now being applied more broadly in various fields, including human resource management.

DesignThinkingThe human-centered design process begins with gaining deeper understanding of the needs of the people you are designing for, and then moves to design where you will consider a broad spectrum of ideas, and then build prototypes to test out what works. From experimentation, you will have data you need to make decisions on what solutions to implement and prepare for adoption.

The principles behind the design thinking process are what make it particularly appealing to leverage in HR. A few examples:

Human-Centered Design: Human needs are kept at the center of design thinking. Our work in HR is rooted in people. But ironically, when building out HR practices, we don’t always consider or build experiences that work very well for people in the organization. (Think about performance management processes that are uniformly reviled across companies.) In design thinking, we learn about the actual needs of people through qualitative research. Throughout the design process, we test what we build with people to ensure we are building practices that meet their needs.

Collaborative Design: Having people engaged in the design process from multiple functions is a foundational principle of design thinking. In organizations, we know that people are more likely to adopt practices that they had a hand in building. In the future, the trend for more employee engagement in shaping their work environments will increase. Design thinking is a great method for implementing this practice. As an example, some companies, such as Cisco, are starting to host hackathons to help reimagine the employee experience.

Creative Problem Solving: Many of the practices of design thinking originate from creative problem solving. The process enables seeing problems from new angles, and providing the tools help to uncover breakthrough ideas and solutions. As a capability, creativity hasn’t always been a quality that is valued in HR professionals, but in the future creativity will be critical in helping organizations flex and adapt to rapidly changing business conditions. Another plus is that design thinking uses constraints as a tool for creativity. In HR, we often have a lot of boundaries and constraints, so HR is ripe for adopting the practice.

Prototyping and Experimentation: One of the most important principles of design thinking is the hands on and agile approach it takes to create solutions that work. In the design process, you come up with ideas and then build low cost prototypes to take to users for feedback. Through these experiments, you will learn and iterate on your design.

An Ah-Ha Moment

In 2008, I was part of a team that was creating an enterprise level career model for Microsoft. At the time, there were few companies that were investing in the employee experience in this way. It was exciting to be working on something so innovative.

From a design perspective, we did a lot of things right. We conducted user research to understand that career development was second on the list for an employee value proposition. We collaborated closely with key engineering leaders who helped to shape our thinking and ideas. And we were willing to take a risk to try something new and innovative.

But here is the kicker: After taking a couple of years to build the main employee-facing feature ― a development tool intended to support better career conversations ― the product was shelved less than two years after it was released.

So, what went wrong? My ah-ha moment came when I was talking with a leader of product management to get feedback about our model. We agreed that the primary purpose of a career model was to help employees and managers have a better conversation about their performance and career aspirations. At that point, she role modeled for me her actual experience (a great design thinking technique) and in an instant, it was clear: We managed to create a product that was a terrible user experience. Instead of driving better conversations, it led to even more awkward conversations and increased arguments between employees and managers.

Our intention was to create a developmental tool for career growth, but how it was actually used was for performance management, adding to the growing sense of frustration and distrust in the company’s process. It was a major black eye for our team, and HR overall. In hindsight, here are some of the factors that led to our failure:

  • We did not prioritize the employee experience. While we did not intend to create a bad user experience, we knew that what we were creating was a little overwhelming and hard to consume. In reflection, our design was based on theoretical ideals of how we thought the world should work. The tool was influenced more by the back end structures, such as compensation and the performance management process, rather than being focused on more effective career and performance discussions between employees and managers.
  • We designed an overly complex system. Anyone who has ever created anything knows that designing something simple is a very complex thing to do. We had big ambitions and we included them all in what we released. It was too much. Critical in design thinking is to think broadly about ideas, but keeping the human experience in mind. We needed to either design a user interface that simplified the experience or do less.
  • We didn’t engage all key stakeholders in design. In our approach, we partnered heavily with one faction of our overall users (engineering leaders), but we did not reach out broadly to other functions and levels. The result was an experience that favored the mental models of an engineer, but was really hard to embrace by other functions such as marketing, creative design and sales.
  • We didn’t prototype in small, iterative ways. In hindsight, the biggest mistake we made was not prototyping and iterating our product in small ways, early and throughout the process. Instead, we spent a lot of time building a robust framework. While we did pilot it (which is a form of testing), we did so with engineers who were already invested in the offering, so no major changes or validation of how it actually worked were made. After that, we went full steam ahead and launched it to the whole company.

In design thinking you are encouraged to try ideas out as soon as you have them so you can “fail fast to succeed sooner”. The goal is to avoid big “F” failures by trying out ideas in small ways so you can learn and improve your ideas.

Too often in HR, we avoid the messiness of trying something (and failing), and we think that following a linear project plan is what is needed for success. Going forward, HR will need to adopt the agile practices of building smaller prototypes, experimenting and iterating along the way if we are to be successful in designing experiences that work.

Learn More About Design Thinking

There is an abundance of information about design thinking, including some interesting things about how to apply it in organizations. Here are a few articles to check out:

Karrie Sullivan is the founder of WORKWORKS, a design service that helps organizations create, test and adopt innovative HR practices that increase employee engagement, drive business value and prepare for the future of work.