Employer Brand Strategist Colloquium Consulting Ltd
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How to apply design thinking to employee experience

The Covid-19 pandemic has ripped up the rulebook when it comes to employee experience – so now is our opportunity to design a better one.

10th Sep 2020
Employer Brand Strategist Colloquium Consulting Ltd
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Everything has been designed by someone – handbags, watches, and even our homes. When we talk about something being ‘designer’, what we tend to mean is that ‘a really good designer has worked on it’. So what about designer employee experience?

If you want to achieve better results in engaging employees, the time invested in applying design thinking will pay off.

Employee experience, until fairly recently, is something that has just happened more by accident than by design. So what if we applied the principles of design thinking to crafting employee experiences?

Design thinking

Conventional thinking goes something like this: you know something so you go off and do it. Design thinking adds a third step in the middle: you think you know something, you make something based on this knowledge to test the idea, then you do something based on the learning you gained from the making phase. As design thinking pioneer Tim Brown says, it’s “learning by making”.

Design thinking means using creative and technological tools to come up with ideas to solve complex problems. Crucially it’s also about building in a prototyping and testing phase to see what works and to learn something new before you implement your solution. It puts the user at the centre of the problem and designs the solution with them in mind. This is most easily accomplished using some form of participatory design, where users co-create the solution with the organisation.

Design thinking and employee experience

My hunch is that presently these methods are almost never used when organisations consider the employee experience they provide. As HR practitioners, we tend to think we ‘just know’ what’s needed. Our experience and knowledge of best practice tells us what we should do. The good news is that you don’t need to bring in an ‘experience designer’ to apply design thinking to solving your employee experience challenges. Anyone can do it.

Yes, applying design thinking takes a little longer – but it gives you a more robust solution. It takes longer for Apple to design the packaging for a new iPhone than it took to design the packaging for that burner phone hanging up in the supermarket kiosk – but it’s worth it.

Between 2005-2015, the Design Management Institute (DMI) analysed the performance of 16 companies considered to be ‘design-centric’ (such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, Disney, etc) and showed a return in excess of 200% over the S&P 500. The DMI specifically pointed to design thinking as a way these companies use design as a “force that enables the organisation to achieve outsized results”.

So, if you want to achieve better results in engaging employees, the time invested in applying design thinking will pay off.

Culture Pioneers

Prototype and test

In his seminal TED talk on design thinking, Tim Brown gives the example of American healthcare company Kaiser Permanente using design thinking to improve patient experience. They looked specifically at the process of exchanging patient information when nurses change shift. They used brainstorming and rapid prototyping to develop a new process – moving from doing it at the nurses’ station to doing it on the ward in front of patients with a clear process to follow.

Nurses’ time away from patients dropped from an average of 40 minutes to 12 minutes and patient confidence and nurses’ happiness both increased. After this successful test, the process was rolled out to all nurses across all wards in 40 hospitals. That’s a small change that had a big impact on patient experience.

This is a great example of design thinking. The existing process was fine, but when challenged to improve the patient experience, it was the participatory design process (involving nurses and patients) that enabled them to develop a new solution. It was the prototyping that gave them confidence that it would have a positive impact based on what was learned from the test (although sometimes what you learn is that you need to go ‘back to the drawing board’ and design a different solution).

When was the last time you prototyped and tested anything before introducing it into your employee experience?

How you can introduce design thinking

In times of change, we need fresh, innovative thinking. Right now, because everything is so up in the air, every one of us in HR is being forced to re-examine whether what we did before the pandemic is right for employees and how we need to operate now. Design thinking can transform the way we develop strategies and processes to find solutions that provide the users – our employees – with what they need to thrive in the post-pandemic world.

At a time when we can’t afford to take a misstep and waste time and resources to keep our businesses agile and productive, using design thinking could be critical in finding the right path to take and recovering as quickly and as effectively as possible.

If you’re fortunate enough to have people in R&D, product development or UI/UX in your organisation, then they will almost certainly have experience in design thinking techniques you can deploy. There are also many free resources online to help develop your understanding of design thinking techniques. Reach out or explore now, with a desire to take a new approach and test your ideas, and you could be implementing solutions that put your organisation ahead of the curve.  

Interested in this topic? Read How to nurture the employee experience through continuous change.

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