Design thinking for HR: a 5-step guide to achieving employee centricity

In order to increase engagement, reduce turnover, attract talent and improve productivity organisations must focus on employee centricity. Kristyn Haywood, founder of People for Success, advises how the profession can remain relevant through the adoption of design thinking techniques and outlines the five-part HR framework.

Social media platforms have brought unprecedented transparency due to the fast way customer feedback reaches the customer base. A bad review can reach thousands in seconds. This has sharpened the focus on delivering true value to the customer. 

But according to Kristyn Haywood, an expert in design thinking for HR leaders, a corporate pivot towards customer centricity is not the only piece of the puzzle. 

“The old way of doing things – focusing solely on profits – is no longer sustainable”, she says. “If companies really want to remain profitable, they must find a balance between self-centricity (money-making), customer centricity, and employee centricity,” she says.

Let’s take Uber as an example. While incredibly successful in its efforts to put customers at its centre (it’s app-driven user experience is great, and the service is fast and seamless), it did not have a strong focus on employees.

“The head office culture was about greed,” Kristyn explains. “It was reportedly a culture that was all about mates and misogyny. Drivers weren’t regarded as employees, and the CEO was known for his lack of empathy and making on-the-nose comments that were picked up by the media.”

This had the very real consequence of affecting Uber’s market share. What’s interesting, is that although the customer experience was excellent, the company suffered a significant financial hit because of the way it treated its people. Today, Uber is working on turning its company culture around.    

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving technique that originated in the late 1960s in the industrial design and engineering industry, In HR, it’s being used to problem-solve and drive innovation by putting employee’s needs at the centre of its framework. By building empathy, companies are able to better determine employee pain points, define the heart of the problem and then use this information to design new, creative solutions. By adopting this human-centric approach, HR can create a more meaningful employee experience while improving engagement and performance.

There are two key reasons companies can’t be successful without employee centricity:

  1. Customers don’t like it: Today, it’s impossible for organisations to maintain a shiny veneer when there’s poor office culture. Transparency is at an all-time high and it’s easier than ever for employees to lift the lid (on social media or elsewhere) on what it’s really like to work for their company. Customers react to negative press by spending their money elsewhere.
  2. Workers are unmotivated: Employees want to be able to use their brains, solve real problems and be involved in decision-making. Old-school companies with traditional, just-do-as-you’re-told cultures suffer from entropy or leakage of energy. Unmotivated workers are less productive and are more likely to leave, creating a retention problem. 

The ideal situation, therefore, is to have an ethical business that cares about its employees, delivers great service to its customers and balances that with healthy profits.

“That’s the secret recipe for highly competitive organisations,” says Kristyn. “HR plays a critical role in creating that balance, but they’ll need to be more human-centred than they’ve been in the past.”

Making talented people more productive

Kristyn warns that if HR professionals continue to use 20th-century models that were suitable for a bygone era, they’ll soon find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant.

“Traditional HR leaders have processes for managing employees – performance appraisals, remuneration, performance management, discipline and so on. These clunky old processes were often designed many years previous in a distant head office and actually make it harder for leaders to lead.

“That’s where design thinking for HR comes in. This is a new way of thinking. Traditional HR was about control, but in the current era, HR’s focus needs to be on harvesting talent. We can do this by putting the employee at the centre and asking them ‘How can I help you?’”

Today, HR leaders are being encouraged to be creative by designing employee experiences that build engagement, reduce turnover, attract talent and improve productivity. Kristyn has noticed that her Design Thinking for HR programs tend to attract disrupters in the profession. “It attracts people who aren’t just looking for a process for designing HR programs. They’re looking for a mindset shift.”

What exactly is design thinking in HR?

The design thinking in HR framework has five parts:

  • Building empathy
  • Defining the problem
  • Ideating
  • Prototyping
  • Testing

There’s no limit to the applications for this process – design thinking may be used to create new induction programs for different groups, design a performance management system, or to simply identify and address an employee pain-point.

Kristyn stresses that HR managers should avoid rolling out a one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s a useful exercise to break your workforce up into groups – such as blue-collar workers, customer service, and management – then come up with a persona for each group. Every persona will have a different set of needs and perspectives.”

Here’s how she recommends HR puts the five-pronged design thinking framework into practice.

  • Empathise: This can be done by interviewing workers (without your HR hat on), sending out questionnaires, immersing yourself in the employee’s world (by physically doing their jobs), or observing. It’s useful to then record your observations in an empathy map, with a different map for each persona.
  • Define: Use your empathy map to define a problem statement, or the problem you want to solve. Kristyn gives the example of an HR manager from Metro Trains who attended one of her programs. “After spending time with station staff, the HR Manager recognised they needed a way to receive regular feedback on their performance without feeling like they’re getting in trouble. She then worked with the station managers to design a way to make feedback a more pleasant experience,” says Kristyn, warning that the problem statement has to be right, as that will be what you focus and measure around.
  • Ideation: Generate ideas that will solve the problem identified in the previous phase. Organising a workshop for brainstorming with your colleagues could be a great way for coming up with various ideas for the solution. According to Kristyn, “HR managers who are looking for a solution traditionally only think of two or three options and stop there, but I encourage people to keep ideating until they come up with something really creative.”
  • Prototyping: “Typically, HR don’t prototype,” Kristyn says. “Usually they design a process without the employee at the centre, then roll it out to 10,000 or 20,000 people and don’t seek feedback – because they don’t want it.” Prototyping is therefore ground-breaking in HR. It’s about getting something that isn’t complete, such as a wall of post-it notes, a storyboard, or a basic app, then asking a client group for feedback.
  • Test: “Prototype as if you’re right, but test as if you’re wrong”, Kristyn advises. All feedback, even if it’s awful, is golden, and should be incorporated into your process. Pilot with a small group, then measure whether or not your solution solves the problem that you identified in the define mode.”   

Kristyn says the popularity of design thinking in HR is part of a wider trend. “HR is taking a good, long look at itself. The old focus was just on process and leadership competence, which simply doesn’t work. We now know that motivation is the most important resource in an organisation. It’s HR’s job to extract that energy.”


Kristyn Haywood has taught leadership, design thinking, innovation and creativity for leaders for over a decade. Her fast-paced programs aim to equip HR leaders with the necessary tools and skills to move away from “process design” to “human-centred design”. Learn more about her courses or catch her at one of her events near you in November.

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