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HRTech Talk Thursday: What is design thinking?

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Q: When you hosted the SHRM NextChat they talked about UI/UX – which I was familiar with…but you also mentioned “Design Thinking” –  Can you explain that a little more? 

A:  Design Thinking is a way of approaching a project – originally a technology or product design issue – with the end users in mind.  It is now taught at the top business schools, offered in disciplines that have nothing to do with design at all.   For companies, it is used to remove bias and assumptions and put the end users (employees, customers, shareholders, etc) first.  Design Thinking is made up of 5 steps – Empathize, Define, Ideation, Prototype, and Test.   We will translate that from design or technical terms into HR (aka non-technical) speak below.    It is a newer trend and you will start hearing more about it…but it is one that I hope more people grasp onto in an effort to put people first in their organization.

I promise it is much easier than it sounds and can be used in almost any situation.


What are the 5 steps of Design Thinking?

To start, you need to identify the foundational topic,  what is the big picture issue or process is you are trying to solve, not necessarily the details but something generic.  It won’t be the “how” simply a generic “what.”

In this example we will use “Improve Candidate Experience”   but you can apply to anything in or out of HR –   Want to fix a broken HR Technology implementation?  This works.  Want to improve turnover?  This works.  Want to improve how your kids do chores?  This actually works.


This step is spent simply trying to understand the issues – not identifying ways to solve them.  One of the hardest parts of change in the workplace is gaining buy-in and adoption of the change.  It doesn’t matter if it is a process or a technology, without adoption, it will eventually fail.  Empathy and understanding the need of all the stakeholder involved is key to making sure you are coming up with a solution to a problem not creating a problem to solve.   This doesn’t mean you agree or validate the different opinions and views, simply that you can hear and be aware.   From my experience, this should be where the most time is spent but in practice, the least time is spent because as humans we have a hard time setting aside our assumptions and personal feelings and simply empathizing with others.

Ex.  If you are wanting to fix candidate experience this first step would cause you to identify the challenges and pain points that exist for everyone in the process – the candidates/prospects, the applicants, the recruiters, the interview team, the hiring managers, the onboarding coordinator, etc.   Come up with their concerns – and if possible, do so by asking them.  Do a quick survey about the experience from each sides perspective and gather information.  Remember there is no judgment or opinion at this stage, just empathizing and trying to understand others points of view.

Empathize Stage Result:  An unbiased understanding of the stakeholder’s challenges, wins and needs.


Once you have a look at the various issues uncovered in the empathy step, it is time to define the problem you are solving – with people, not technology first.  In any process or technical project, you can’t fix everything at once.  Without clearly defined goals that were developed based on actual need uncovered in the empathy step – you don’t get the adoption and success rates you desired.   Pick something that you can do first to solve the problem.

Ex.  Based on our empathy feedback we realized the candidates and prospects were happy with our employment branding and ease of use of the website.  They also found the application simple and easy to use.  However, they were unhappy with the length of time for followup and interviewing.  We also found that our hiring managers were happy with the quality of candidate but unhappy with the speed at which the process took before they saw those candidates.   Once you define it at a manageable scope, it is much easier to improve vs saying “We need to fix candidate experience” then being overwhelmed by the depth of that.  Sometimes your scope will be broader, but that is why the empathy portion is so important – it keeps you from wasting time on areas you don’t need to be as focused on.

Define Stage Result:  How can we improve the candidate experience from point of application to hire to ensure candidates feel respected and our hiring managers get the quality they are looking for in a more timely way.


This is my favorite stage.  I love getting into a room with HR or leadership teams, product teams, marketing teams, random strangers, really just anyone who wants to have a brainstorm session and cover walls in post-it notes.  An ideation session is the chance to come up with ideas to fix it – no wrong answers, no bad ideas, innovation and new approaches are encouraged.    In fact – there are a lot of different approaches to this but my go-to from a starting point is “worst possible idea” where we try to come up with the absolute worst idea.  It sounds crazy, but it gets everyone relaxed and conversations moving.  And sometimes…the worst possible idea is one that actually works as a great starting point.

Ideation Stage Result: A number of different ideas that can work to improve the experience for everyone involved.  They aren’t a process, but we have some unique things that based on understanding the user’s needs and the define stage goal, that supports that.


The prototype stage is where you take the understanding you gained during empathy stage and with the ideas gathered during Ideation, you come up with a few versions of a new process.  You don’t have to solve the issue here with finality, in fact, you shouldn’t.

Ex.  We need to solve a few things with the candidate experience goal we defined – so we will come up with various ideas around how to get recruiters to engage the candidate and communicate sooner, ways we can improve how we schedule and conduct interviews, and ways that we can engage the hiring managers and bring them in faster – making the process better for everyone involved.

Prototype Stage Result: Come up with 2-3 different approaches to each of the various challenges that could solve the various issues that you can run by a sample group in the test phase.  You don’t have to solve, just have a few ideas on how you could solve.


In the test stage you develop a final version and you “test” it out.  I like that this is referred to as a test vs a final because it encourages us to not get too attached until we are sure it works effectively and solves our issues.  Some companies will run a test as a type of pilot program with just a small segment, others will do focus groups and gather feedback.  How you run the testing stage really will be dependent on the type of project you have – process or technical – and the stakeholders involved.   In addition to making sure the proposed version is effective – it will also help you identify where you may gain pushback or have stumbling blocks (need additional training or improved messaging) for rollout.

Ex.  You have a small team of your recruiters utilize new technology, current technology in a different way or automate manual steps – any of them allowing more focus on the personal contact.   Or, you host a focus group with hiring managers and gather their feedback on proposed changes to the process – connecting the results back directly to the issues you found in the empathy phase.  Make changes as need based on feedback and results.

Test Stage Result:  A potential version that you can test – via focus group or pilot programs – and gather any feedback or changes on prior to a “launch”.



Over the last few months there has been an increase in questions around technology coming in, so we are going to start answering them in simple, easy to understand, non-buzzword terms on HRTech Talk each Thursday.  If you have a question about a buzzword, technology, why something matters in your business; or if you are a vendor and feel like you keep getting asked the same questions ? email them in

Comments 3

  1. Thanks for your good information. It was very helpful article..

  2. Totally agree with you. These 5 steps are the bone.

  3. Good to read. Agree with you. Each of these steps play important role.

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