How Design Thinking Improves Digital Employee Experience

By Julie Stanford, Principal at Sliced Bread Design and Faculty Member at the Stanford d.school

More than 40 percent of recently surveyed employees reported they don’t have the digital tools they need to be successful in their jobs.

That makes now an ideal time to bring design thinking into digital employee experience projects. Why? Because design thinking is an innovation process that elevates user experience in the creation of digital products and services.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking gets a lot of buzz these days — and for good reason. The process is human-centered. It was developed to creatively solve problems by seeking out the different, not-so-obvious human causes of problems.

The process includes several important steps:

  • Observations and interviews.
  • Uncovering insights, including brainstorming concepts and patterns.
  • Prototyping ideas.
  • Developing concepts.

However, there’s a key takeaway about the process that makes it more than a nice-to-have. At its best, design thinking is a process that mitigates risk.

Here’s how. When innovation practices bake-in the goal of truly understanding customers, there’s less risk. New products and services resonate with the needs, not to mention hearts and minds, of audiences.

Design thinking brings empathy, curiosity and experimentation to a problem, often surfacing so many ‘aha moments’ that the process redefines the problem.

Although the steps are important, getting “need-finding” right is a foundational element of success.

Discovering the Root Cause

Design thinking is about understanding specific human stories and problems. HR teams often think organizationally or at team level. But to get at root causes, individuals must talk about what they are facing personally.

Case in point: Our agency, Sliced Bread Design, worked with a Silicon Valley company that was seeing churn in its developer organization. As a SaaS company that depended on developers for its very lifeblood, this was of great concern. So, HR leaders conducted exit interviews to find out why people were leaving.

At first blush, this company thought it had a knowledge management, or education, issue. After interviews, HR discovered that developers felt “blocked.” They were hindered in their ability to find the right people to answer their coding questions, causing low developer satisfaction.

Interviews (or what we in design thinking term “need-finding”) surfaced a different core issue: communication.

It turned out that content and content owners were generally available via the company’s knowledge-sharing platforms. Yet, the information was hard to discover. For example, instead of easily understood titles like “new product release team” or “release schedule dates,” workgroups had named themselves after superheroes and other characters. This led to someone having to “know someone who knew someone” to make an inquiry.

Getting at the root cause of a problem requires asking questions that solicit specific responses that are part of that person’s story.

Julie Stanford, Principal at Sliced Bread Design and Faculty Member at the Stanford d.school

Once a problem is properly defined (as in the developer churn case), it’s important to apply design thinking to not only the initial problem, but also to the full employee experience. While the solution ultimately implemented may be at a team level or beyond, properly understanding the problem starts at the personal, individual level.

Extracting Our Personal Stories

Successful design-thinking organizations understand the importance of asking the right questions. It turns out most people are very good at telling you about their day (especially what went wrong!) but aren’t so good at describing what they do at a high level.

Rather than asking, ‘How do you onboard employees?’ design thinking asks, ‘Can you walk me through the last onboarding experience you led for a new employee?’

Julie Stanford, Principal at Sliced Bread Design and Faculty Member at the Stanford d.school

Our approach is different and more pointed. We ask questions such as:“Tell me about the last time that issue came up; what happened specifically and what did you do?” rather than “Tell me about that issue.”

Similarly, we use leading questions as simple as “OK, what did you do after that?” to propel more discovery in the need-finding process.

You’ll also hear the “last four words” trick used by design thinking experts. That’s repeating what someone said as a question — “oh, you got lost yesterday?” — and following up with “why?”

When interviewing employees, shifting from “Please describe your roles and responsibilities” to “What was the first thing you did when you walked in today?” gets right into a person’s story. That’s where empathy and real understanding occurs.

Making the Connection: Design Thinking and Employee Experience

Increasingly, employee experiences are digital. And the quality of experience affects worker productivity, employee mindsets and talent recruitment. With design thinking, organizations get better solutions because they uncover deeper problems.

Design thinking is iterative by nature, not just at the problem-solving level, but at the organizational level. You can expect a maturation process. My advice is to solicit feedback using need-finding techniques, be curious and let the stories unfold.

Organizations using design thinking to improve digital employee experience give their businesses greater advantages — in competitive position, revenue growth and employee sentiment. You can get additional insights from the newly released global report, The Value of Digital Employee Experience.

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