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Championing HR Innovation Through Design Thinking

Over the last few years, I’ve become fascinated with the methodology of Design Thinking. So I found it interesting to see that Harvard Business Review’s September 2015 cover page was titled “The Evolution of Design Thinking: It’s no longer just for products”. The article talks about how executives are now using design thinking to devise strategy and manage change.”

This got me thinking that human-centered design thinking could greatly help HR teams to bring new approaches and people-oriented innovations to organizations. From my perspective, areas which could benefit from a design thinking approach include: recruitment and talent attraction, leadership development, performance management (which has already been undergoing a huge shift away from traditional performance systems), and employee engagement.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a process that can be used to work through problems to find meaningful solutions for people. The process starts with a focus on truly understanding people’s needs looking-out from their perspectives – what they see, experience and feel. From there, various methods are used to explore all future potential possibilities for meeting their needs and challenges. These potential solutions are then assessed to select and create desired outcomes that benefit the end user.

Let’s walk through the design thinking process using recruitment and talent attraction as a quick example. There are many different approaches to design thinking, I like the approach used by the at Stanford University. The was launched in 2005—one of the first of its kind—to spread the practice of design thinking.

Step 1: Empathize

Definition: Work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.  Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in their experiences.

Application: Looking at talent attraction, there are many ways to understand how people experience your organization’s recruitment process. Gather feedback from candidates who are in or have completed your recruitment process. Pretend that you’re a candidate and go through your own organization’s recruitment process from beginning to end. Spend some time with recruiters to understand what they go through in hiring talent. Meet with candidates who abandoned your recruitment process to find out why, or host a focus group with hiring managers to explore the recruitment experience from their point of view.

Step 2: Define

Definition: Process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work in order to form a user point of view which becomes the actionable problem statement that you will address with your design.

Application: After putting yourself in the shoes of potential job candidates, recruiters, or hiring managers, here’s where you study what you discovered by looking at the world from their perspective. What’s working and not working? What opportunities come to the surface or what barriers are they experiencing? How are they feeling every step of the way?

This is the step where you actually define what problem you want to solve. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive to wait to define the problem. I see it as allowing the problem to emerge from the user’s perspective based on the data you gathered, rather than assuming what you think the problem is at the outset. For example, we could assume a problem from a candidate’s perspective might be to have a faster recruitment process. However, what if after spending time with candidates, we find out that the actual problem is that candidates are not even considering applying to our organization. Having the most efficient recruitment process in the world will not work if candidates are not attracted to working for the organization in the first place.

Step 3: Ideate

Definition: Explore a wide variety of possible solutions through generating a large quantity of diverse possible solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and explore a range of ideas.

Application: This phase is all about generating as many ideas as possible to help address the problem as you’ve defined it in Step 2. Toss out traditional brainstorming and use some true creativity techniques that spark out-of-the box thinking and wild ideas. This is where “idea killers” and quick judgments that shut down innovative solutions are not allowed. Anything and everything from the most mundane to the craziest solutions can be put in the table. Here’s a crazy idea, what if there were a recruitment system that worked more like a dating site?

Step 4: Prototype

Definition: Transform your ideas into a physical form so that you can experience and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.

Application: Select some reasonable solutions from all the ideas that were generated and find a way to prototype them. You don’t need to build a whole new system or process, but rather find unique ways to rapidly prototype your ideas. For recruitment system as a dating site example, you could storyboard or sketch-out a recruitment process and then role-play that process to discover how it might work and feel to end users to gather more information on its efficacy as a solution.

Step 5: Test

Definition: Try out high-resolution solutions and use observations and feedback to refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.

Application: Narrow down your solutions to the ones that seem to have most promise, and test those to build your final solution. Here’s where you would want to have something as close to the real experience as possible for your users to test. For example, suppose you came up with a new way to attract talent. You could try out that new process on one job opening to see how it works.

I think design thinking is an area of opportunity for HR professionals that could be explored to generate new and value-added human-centric programs for organizations. Design thinking is a big topic and what I’ve shared is only a brief snap-shot of what it’s all about. There are plenty of resources and courses on design thinking out there if you are interested in learning more about this approach to innovation. You can also find more information on the’s website, or download the’s Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide here.

 Leena Malik is the Founder of Illuminating Minds and loves to inspire people with her ideas and insights. She can be reached at

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