Many enterprise leaders are looking into design thinking as a way to accelerate the employee experience in their workplace. Design thinking is considered a cycle of continuous improvement that starts with empathy and ends with testing and implementation — followed by more design thinking.

It’s a good lens through which to view employee experience programs, because it's based on leaders seeing the world through the eyes of their employees, encouraging them to be empathetic with the employee journey, to find out what needs to be done to improve the employee experience, to implement what they have learned, refine their design and continue to improve it through additional employee feedback.

In this article we’ll share some tips on how you can use design thinking to improve your employee experience programs.

How to Get Started With Design Thinking

The process of design thinking is not hard to understand. As Brian Spain, design thinking consultant for InTouch Solutions said, design thinking is a way to introduce people to “thinking, concepts, or products and services through a lens that respects the perspective of the audience and works to incorporate audience feedback.”

Spain suggested we begin by “gathering facts and observations and looking at a problem, or opportunity from a contextual perspective, before drilling down into details.” For an employee experience project, that would entail digging into the data, getting an overall feel for the employee journey, and then looking into the specific intersection points that the employee experiences along the way.

At that point it’s time to go back to the source — the employee — and continue the discussion. As Spain said, it’s important to “clarify assumptions and present them with very rough conceptual approaches, offerings, or ways you would interact with them in order to gain their feedback in a back-and-forth way.”

The process is a way to accurately determine the goals or outcome the design process will help to create. Spain said this is where the real issues are pinpointed and recognized. It’s where design thinkers get around to “refining concepts, or proposed interactions, before more time is spent developing a complete finished product, service, or experience.”

Related Article: Use Employee-Driven Design to Simplify the Digital Workplace

Focus on Empathy When Applying Design Thinking to EX

Employee experience in general, and design thinking specifically, are formed around the idea of empathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.” Design thinking is all about learning to understand and share what the “customer” is going through, especially in regards to your business, product or service. Leaders should keep in mind that in relation to customer and employee experience, the word customer actually defines two roles: that of the clients they serve, and those that serve the clients.

Coonoor Behal, design thinking expert, founder and CEO of Mindhatch, said, “There's always a kind of primary and secondary customer. You have to serve your primary customer, like the people buying your service. You also need to design for your secondary customer, which is your employees who are responsible for delivering your [services, products] to your primary customer.”

Understanding the needs, emotions, motivations and drivers of behaviors of those customers and employees is the first priority in design thinking. Behal said, “you take a human-centered approach to actually understanding your employees and their needs and their wants and their challenges.” She views design thinking as a holistic practice that encompasses more than just the intersection points where a person interacts with your business. Design thinking is applicable for both employee experience and customer experience programs, because again, it’s about empathy for another person’s experience.

As Behal put it, “It's not just about, how are they using our product or how do they use our service. Where were they coming from before they even walked into our store? What are they bringing in with them? What are their expectations? What happens afterward? I think it advocates for a holistic understanding of your customer experience and not just looking at that one fine print time where they might be engaging with you.”

Spain says that for him to use design thinking to enhance employee experience, he begins with a holistic look at the employee perspective. He begins to “study existing employee experiences, perhaps ranging from how they show interest in the career area, to how they are recruited, hired, trained and developed (or simply any one part of this).If employees handle customers, this could even involve studying and involving them.”

Related Article: Sound Familiar? 4 Phrases That Show Your Employee Experience Needs Work

Hearing What Your Employees Think Can Be Scary

A big fear for companies new to design thinking and employee experience programs is learning what their employees really think. The same problem exists with the implementation of Voice of Customer (VoC) programs — you may not like what you hear. Behal said it’s about risk aversion, and said, “in especially risk averse cultures, people are fearful of talking to their customers. They're just scared that ‘what if what we learn is that we can't actually do anything about.’ There's a fear, like what if it's bad? Which in my mind is like — that's gold. If you don't hear bad stuff like that, you waste your opportunity to redesign something. It's like that shift for looking at it as, this is an opportunity to make changes. With employee experience, it can be hard. But that is such a risky way of doing business.”

The way she looks at it, design thinking is the less risky way of conducting an employee experience project. She feels that “design thinking is a true way to make solution development less risky. The traditional way of doing things is so high risk, even though it gives people the feeling that because we're keeping it internal, it feels low risk.” She said that as a consultant, she has found that “a lot of people, frankly, are scared to talk to their customers.”

Related Article: Is Your Organization Listening Really to Employees?

Create a Culture of Trust and Openness

Other obstacles are the same ones faced by any customer or employee experience program — getting reliable, truthful feedback, though with employee experience, it’s compounded with workplace bias and worries of repercussions.

Behal spoke about such obstacles: “I think there is understandable worry around bias and getting the truth? If you and I are working together, I'm the one who's coming to interview you. Maybe you don't want to share all the things that you have to say with a colleague or a leader. I believe there can understandably be this obstacle around who is the right person or team to be looking at this, because people don't trust that it's going to be anonymous.”

It’s vital for employees to trust the person conducting the interviews, and that the business culture encourages open responses without fear of repercussions. As Behal said, “that often means an outside investment, you know, bringing in people who don't have skin in the game.”

Decide on the Goals of the Project Upfront

Spain said leaders can begin an employee experience program based on design thinking by “considering the problems, or opportunities to create better, happier and more productive employees — or whatever your specific objective might be — finding a way to state a very specific simplified objective from a problem-solution perspective.Come up with an idea, (or a very short list of ideas) that address this objective and can be presented to employees (or prospects) in a contextual way.”

As with most design thinking projects, it relies on thinking outside of the box and considering methodologies that have not been tried before. Spain suggested that, “This could be through role playing, exposing employees to potential new tools, or tool mock-ups, or whatever works to make test interactions less about policy and more about real potential experiences.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Test and Revise Prototypes

The old saying “actions speak louder than words” rings true for the process of design thinking, especially in relation to employee experience. All of the design thinking experts I spoke to agreed that design thinking is about prototyping, working with employees to implement changes, and seeing if they succeed, then going back and refining the efforts.

Behal said the emphasis on prototyping and empathizing is what separates design thinking from other, more traditional approaches. “There are two things that if you took them away, then it wouldn’t be design thinking anymore. One would be empathizing with customers as early as possible. The other would be rapid prototyping. I think that's the key difference. A lot of the traditional ways don't do that right now.”

She continued, “I view prototyping and testing a prototype as one more means to establish empathy with the customer .... In the process of design thinking, a prototype becomes additional stimuli to use to understand more about your customer.”

Saleema Vellani, a professor of design thinking and Chief Innovation Strategist of Innovazing, believes design thinking drastically improves the planning part of the project, and said, “design thinking is really helpful because it allows us to use divergent thinking instead of conscious thinking and sort of just using linear thinking. Often in our planning, if we don't use a process like design thinking or an innovative approach, we might just think of the lessons we've learned in the past, what have we been doing in the past, and how can we do what's worked. With design thinking, we think about what could happen or what could work, what we could do differently and really think out of the box--design thinking enables that when it comes to planning.”

Spain talked about prototyping for employee experience, stating that the design thinking process continues, “by interviewing your audience (individuals, or small groups) to clarify assumptions and present them with very rough conceptual approaches, offerings, or ways you would interact with them in order to gain their feedback in a back-and-forth way.This leads to refining concepts, or proposed interactions, before more time is spent developing a complete finished product, service, or experience.”

Like everyone I spoke to about design thinking, Spain sees it as an ongoing exercise, one that continues to improve. He believes that leaders can continue to “gain feedback and refine your design of the employee experience you feel will work best, conducting further research/gaining additional feedback as needed in coming to an employee experience that can be rolled out on a larger scale. Ideally your roll-out allows for additional feedback and further refinement, if possible.”

Learn How to Measure the Success of a Design Thinking Project

Behal believes that the key to the success of a design thinking project lies in the foundation of goals before the project is implemented. HR and leadership should start planning “before you initiate process or a project using design thinking to do that good social science upfront. How are we going to measure success? And knowing that maybe that will change along the way. Maybe our own criteria will change. It’s really important to spend that time up front.”

When asked how Vellani defined the success of a design thinking project, she agreed that defining accurate goals is the place to start, and for her, it begins with understanding the employee experience metrics. She continued, “setting up impact and innovation metrics is important. Really understanding the metrics that are involved” is key. Like Behal, Vellani said that flexibility is also vital, such as knowing that “as you go through the process of change, and setting up those metrics, you can't always stick to the [traditional] metrics, and may need to change some of the older ones” to reflect the culture of your business.

Since design thinking is an ongoing work, measuring success is actually about determining the impact the employee experience program has had on the employee journey by continuing the employee experience program. Vellani said it’s about “measuring the impact using different methods of impact analysis. Those methodologies [include] focus groups, surveys, checking in again.”

'It's the People That Drive the Business'

Design thinking is, like employee experience, a way to become more aware of what your employees think about their experiences within your business, andcan help leaders find more effective, efficient and satisfying solutions to the challenges that are presented. Since it is based on empathy, leaders will build a better understanding of the employee journey by seeing the world through employees' eyes. This is the key, because as Vellani said, “at the end of the day, it's the people that drive the business.”