Design Thinking in HR

Design Thinking in HR
Last Updated: July 31, 2023

Fortune 500 companies like CISCO, Apple, and IBM use design thinking to deliver top-tier employee experiences. You can also be a part of this initiative. This article will show how design thinking is used to create innovative and creative Human Resources solutions.


What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success – Tim Brown. Chris Howlands, an instructor on the course "Incorporation Design Thinking into HR" defines Design Thinking as "an iterative approach to solving complex problems. A human-centric approach places the customer at the centre of the process. It involves taking an outside-in out-look at creativity and delivering value to the customer rather than only focusing on products and sales. According to The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, design thinking is a non-linear process that comprises 5 steps:

Step 1 – Empathize


Design thinking seeks to provide human-centric solutions, so empathizing with employees enables you to understand their needs. Empathy can be achieved in many ways, such as listening to employee complaints, paying attention to their body language and non-verbal cues, shadowing, and non-judgmental opinions. Another way to empathize is by participating in employees' activities, so you can better understand the problems they are facing.


Step 2 – Define

This stage allows you to consolidate the findings from the empathize stage. It involves analyzing observations and integrating them to define discovered problems. This leads to a human-centred problem statement. For example, instead of defining a problem from your perspective like, "We want to purchase a staff bus," a better way of defining the problem would be, "Employees are reporting late to work due to transport challenges, so a staff bus would be of great help." The main focus should be on employee personas, objectives, decisions, and challenges.


5 Steps of Design Thinking

Step 3 – Ideate

 This is the stage where you start to generate ideas after understanding the problem. It involves finding creative and innovative ways to solve problems. There are quite a several ideation techniques that can be adapted, such as analogies, brainstorming, reverse thinking, body storming, and storyboarding. Brainstorming is one of the most used ideation techniques. It involves sharing ideas in groups to find solutions to problems being faced.


Step 4 – Prototype

Prototyping involves experimenting to develop a scaled-down model of the solutions to ideas generated. It helps an employer visualize sample solutions. You can achieve prototyping through quick iterations and mockups.


Step 5 – Test

This step is about trying your solutions out. The prototypes are tested, and the results you get can be used to redefine further problems. It is important to pay attention to feedback to gain insights into the improvements you need to make.


The design thinking process is iterative, so you can go back to any stage of choice to make refinements. For example, several design thinking stages may be used simultaneously; a designer may choose to collect data and prototype throughout the project to help visualize problem solutions and bring their ideas to life. In addition, the outcome of the testing phase may offer certain user insights, which could lead to a brainstorming session (Ideate) or the creation of new prototypes (Prototype).


Applications of Design Thinking in HR

Design Thinking can be implemented in several HR Processes:


Human Resources Planning

Human Resource Planning ensures that an organization has the required set of employees. This process encompasses the recruitment and onboarding of the right candidates for the job. Empathy can assist a recruiter in creating a welcoming environment in interviews. It will also guide employers in being fair and just throughout the recruitment process. Ideation techniques can then be used to collect reviews from recruits on the organization's recruitment process. This creates a feedback loop, and the findings can then be tested and used for improvements in the future.


Human resources planning also seeks to retain current staff to reduce staff turnover. Ideation techniques can be used to find out problems being faced by current employees. This makes it easy for an employer to work towards solving these problems and ultimately improve the employee experience.


Performance Management

Performance Management seeks to align work being done by employees to the organization's strategy. It also involves rewarding, meaningful work being done by employees and coming up with improvement plans for low performers. Design thinking uses survey tools to connect and empathize with employees and understand their worries and expectations. An Automated performance management system can be put in place to assist managers in keeping track of their teams performance and appropriately evaluating them. When employees see that their suggestions have been taken into account, they are more likely to connect their efforts with the HR strategy and the company's objectives.


Managing Relationships

An HR manager ensures that employers and employees express their needs and desires effectively. Empathy is a key component of design thinking, and incorporating it into HR activities like these enables open lines of communication. An empathy-driven approach to handling employee issues will allow for the smooth running of business operations. Body storming is an ideation technique that can allow an HR Manager to evaluate problems being faced by employees and thus find solutions.


Compensation and Benefits

Design thinking can be used in calculating compensation and benefits required to keep employees happy and productive. Empathy will allow an employer to understand the economic problems employees face. Ideation can help collect information on employee satisfaction with the benefits. This information can then be used in the decision-making process of compensation and benefits. For example, some organizations in Zimbabwe have resorted to offering employees hardship allowances to match the high inflation.


It is also useful to apply design thinking when compiling HR policies. It becomes easier to formulate policies when you are aware of the problems being faced by your employees. The iterative nature of the design thinking process allows an HR manager to revise policies when the need arises. Feedback from the prototyping and testing stages is essential during this stage.


Examples of organizations using Design Thinking in HR

Here are a few examples of organizations making use of Design Thinking in HR:


Industrial Psychology Consultants (IPC)

IPC makes use of an automated performance management system, Performance Manager. It allows employee engagement since the system is designed to allow managers to communicate with their subordinates. It measures an employee's overall performance, and the scores can be used to calculate the end-of-year incentives.



IBM discovered that employee experience translates to customer satisfaction and revenue generation. The head of IBM HR, Dianne Gherson was interviewed by Harvard Business Review and mentioned, "We have found that employee engagement explains two-thirds of our client scores. And if we can increase client satisfaction by 5 points, we see an extra 20% in revenue, on average." They also made use of ideation to come up with an improved performance management model.



Cisco implements design thinking in its recruitment, onboarding, and career development processes. They conducted an "HR Breakathon" to come up with human-centric solutions for 71,000 Cisco employees globally. They had a brainstorming session comprising 800 employees from over 39 countries. CISCO discussed problems employees were facing in different areas like talent acquisition, learning and development, career enablement, and workplace design.



Apple has managed to secure a leading position in today's competitive market. It applies design thinking in its recruitment and onboarding processes. Apple focuses on recruiting employees with the right personalities to meet consumer needs.


An analysis by Andres Vourakis shows that Apple has become a talent magnet that offers high salaries. Some of the findings show that 67,000 reviews by employees gave a 4.2-star rating to Apple's ideas and core principles. 


Apple established a culture that identifies employees who think outside the box and encourages everyone to explore and discuss new ideas. As a result, it creates performance-based opportunities for their employees whose innovative product motivates them to outperform the competition.



Airbnb changed the title of their Chief HR Officer to Chief Employee Experience Officer to prove how important it is to prioritize employee experience.



 For your firm to compete and thrive in today's competitive market, you must do everything possible to attract and keep talented employees. Now is the moment to abandon outmoded practices in favour of new tools and techniques to establish a meaningful work environment that engages and motivates your staff. One of these tools is design thinking. It is an excellent framework for designing more human-centred HR programs and services that will improve the employee experience throughout their career and deliver desirable products and services to customers.


Nicole Chimwamafuku

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