March 29, 2019

What is design thinking and why are smart companies applying it to HR?

Instead of the traditional, siloed approach to HR, leading companies are taking an employee-centric approach to designing their employee experience. Here are some key principles to help shape your future plans.

Traditionally, HR processes and technologies have been organised in siloes, in standard HR areas such as payroll, benefits, recruiting, learning, etc. But employee needs often span multiple areas at the same time.

For instance, during onboarding, employees need to be set up with payroll, access relevant learning materials, and receive key company information. A smooth onboarding experience, where all of these areas are available through a single system, creates a great first impression and might lead to improved retention over the long-term.

Conversely, making the employee interact with multiple processes and technology touchpoints is a disjointed, inefficient experience that could negatively impact your company’s brand equity.

Being employee-centric with design thinking

The smooth onboarding experience discussed above is an example of being employee-centric – putting employees at the center of HR process design, and empathizing with them as they experience moments that matter to them.

To that end, companies are finding design thinking to be a useful philosophy to reimagine HR processes because it is based on developing a deep understanding of the people for whom a product or service is being designed. This approach is an opportunity for HR to evolve from process-driven to strategic and experience-driven.

Design thinking comprises five interconnected steps:


The critical first stage of design thinking is to empathize with end users. In this case, end users are your employees, who experience HR processes and technology first-hand. It is about involving employees in choosing a new HCM tool, for instance, and not relying solely on internal committees, consultants, or vendors.


The second stage is to define the problem that you are trying to solve. Again, the primary focus should be on creating positive outcomes for employees (e.g., creating a culture of mentoring and coaching) and not on factors that go into achieving those outcomes (e.g., how to add tech features that support continuous performance management).


The third stage, ideation, involves finding creative solutions to the problem, without constraining your thinking to the status quo (e.g., designing HR around the employee journey map).


The fourth stage is about creating a light prototype (e.g., a pilot project focused on helping a select few people to become mentors for a small group of employees, using a proposed new tool).


This is followed by the fifth stage of testing that prototype with employees and other end users. Success lies in iterating through these stages as many times as required to find the right solution to the problem.

Design thinking is a useful tool in HR leaders’ inventory as they seek to adopt holistic, employee-centric HR process and tools.

Read more about how design thinking breaks down barriers in HR strategies: Download A holistic approach to HCM

Arnav Singh

Arnav Singh is a Competitive and Market Intelligence Specialist at Ceridian. He has more than five years of market intelligence experience and conducts extensive research and analysis on the HCM industry.

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