Design thinking – Advancing HR

Disruption and innovation pose a challenge and an opportunity to business at the same time. Simultaneously, they are changing the employer-employee relationship – giving it a deeper dimension than a simple ‘rent-seeking’ exchange. In the wake of Industry 4.0, the nature of organization is set to undergo a phenomenal transformation, which, if unsupported by prudent HR practices can lead to massive setbacks to the organization. The role of HR in this scenario is to integrate business, work performance and HR strategy to yield best outcomes for the organization. If innovation is the key to success, organizational excellence is the key to innovation and the key can only be sourced through

responsive and responsible HRM.

In order for HR to fulfil its role as a strategist, design-thinking concepts are the new buzzword to create customised employee experience and make the most of the best-quality talent available. Design thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a “process developer” to an “experience architect.”

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 is a solution-focused and action-oriented approach towards solving complex problems. Design thinking can be applied across the entire employee job-cycle to assess and analyse the gaps in the contemporary HR policy at an organization and contribute towards building a customised employee experience (EX).

The principles of design thinking that can be leveraged in HR due to the following reasons –


Stanford’s design thinking approach

The steps of design thinking adopt a multi-linear and composite approach towards problem-solving.


(Image Source: Stanford D. School)


The focus is shifted towards the end user i.e. employee. This is achieved by an empathy exercise: trying to better understand employee needs and behaviours from their own perspective.

  • How does the employee feel about coming to work daily?
  • What motivates the employee to work?
  • What values do they seek in their job?
  • What are their expectations from the organization?
  • When do they feel at their best at work?

Define:  This involves reviewing all the information gathered during the ’empathize’ stage in order to define the problem that is to be solved and start setting goals and objectives.

  • What work condition yields best productivity?
  • What are the parameters of most appropriate work culture for my company?
  • How is the most satisfied employee different from others?

Ideate: The problem statement is followed with a stimulating atmosphere that promotes new ideas and encourages broad and widest possibilities.

  • Ask your employees about the most ideal work situation and culture
  • What are the attributes of an ideal employee for your organization?

Prototype:  It is essential to start producing effective and simple prototypes that generate feedback from potential stakeholders.

  • Will more work flexibility result in better productivity?
  • Are cross-functional teams the key to resource optimization?

Testing: The purpose is to get feedback from the end users.

  • After the changes, do the employees report same problems?
  • Does the organization experience better productivity, talent retention and loyalty after the changes?

Applying Design Thinking to HR means “to focus on the employee’s personal experience and to create processes centered upon the worker. (…) new solutions and tools that directly contribute to employee satisfaction, productivity, and enjoyment”. In other words, it is all about “designing a productive and meaningful employee experience through solutions that are compelling, enjoyable, and simple”. To do so, according to the author, HR professionals need to start working in questions like “What does a great employee experience look like from end to end?”.

How does one unravel the employee experience? Look for answers to three questions –

  • What are the employees looking for?
  • What are they complaining about?
  • What is stopping them from performing at their best?

Increasingly, one can observe a tendency that daily work is getting increasingly dynamic from a systematic routine. HRM hence needs to adopt an agile and experimental stance in order to respond to this transformation. Design-thinking can help to internalise this transformation due to its inherent basis in empathy, collaboration and prototyping. Building new culture and strategies based on intrinsic strengths can indeed become a game-changer for any modern organization.

Next: Challenges in adoption of design thinking techniques in HR


Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report (2016)

‘Design thinking for HR: Why is it relevant?’, People Matters Magazine

Naiman, Linda. ‘Why Your HR Department Should Embrace Design Thinking?’.

Karrie Sullivan, ‘Design Thinking: New Applications for HR’.


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