How Design Thinking and Employee Experience go hand in hand

employee experience
Illustration: Studio Fee Overbeeke

In Part 1 of this article, “How to start with Design Thinking in HR“, we argued that Design Thinking and modern HR go hand in hand. In this article we focus on how to apply Design Thinking to improve the Employee Experience.

Create an environment in which people want to work

Success begins and ends with people. That’s why it becomes even more important to create an environment in which people can excel and that’s in the first place an environment in which people want to work. This is more than the physical workspace or the different financial benefits people get. The company culture defines how people feel and behave. This is generated by the flexibility you offer, the rewards, the technology provided, flexible offices, transparent communication, development opportunities, a clear vision, clear goals, food and fun, meaningful work, coaching & feedback, job crafting, great teams… one maybe more important than the other. The mix will be different for every employee and for every company; if you want to attract and keep talent and shape great teams, you’ll need to understand the different wants and needs. Seeing the world through the eyes of your employees is therefore a first prerequisite to improving or designing a great employee experience.

The employee experience is the employee’s perception of everything that happens when he or she interacts with your company, from recruiting to onboarding, to career path development and offboarding. It’s the impression you leave as an organisation on your people -before, during and after their journey at your company- that defines if people come to you, stay or leave. It’s about winning the hearts and minds of employees. It’s about moving from efficiency driven processes to designing great employee experiences.

That’s why HR professionals need to start working on questions like “What does a great employee experience look like from end to end?” and to be able to create that employee experience, they need to build the competency of Design Thinking.

That’s all nicely said, but where do you start?

The main thing is that you need to build trust applying Design Thinking. Since you’re dealing with complex problems, you don’t know where the solutions will bring you and that might be scary. Another reason is that starting a Design Thinking process with a group of people, with no previous experience, is also very scary. It’s important to take it one step at a time and not start immediately with a full fletch Design Thinking program.

Still want a shortcut? Then I suggest to start with hiring a Design Thinking facilitator to help you out with the process and start learning from there.

In for a longer-cut? Then…

1. Start with learning the essentials of Design Thinking

Let’s first look at some key principles:


A large part of Design Thinking is about empathy. Empathy for those you are trying to find solutions for. In case of HR, it’s most often the employee and as such, the approach starts with in depth understanding of that employee. It is essential that the human being be at the center of this approach.


The base for Design Thinking is to connect different perspectives and disciplines. This is done through working in a multifunctional way and having groups come up with creative ideas. This does not only create multiple solutions, but especially support, because shared ownership and responsibility have been created.

Learning by doing

Design Thinking is based on a ‘build fast–fail fast’ attitude, which allows to quickly identify the path to success, to build and to test. It is essentially a feedback-driven approach and iterative by nature. Less time is spent on planning, more time on action and learning.

Holistic thinking

The entire environment of a product, service, process and cooperation is studied, not only a part. That way it is avoided that only symptoms are addressed, but instead you look for sustainable solutions.

Secondly, choose the Design Thinking process you want to use. If you look online and in books, you’ll find many possible approaches, but they all are plus minus the same. I share the process that we use at Triggs here to give you an example of the different steps involved in the Design Thinking process.

deign thinking process

Figuur 1 – Design Thinking Process ©Triggs

2. Read books and articles on the subject

You can find a whole lot online, like these:

If you want to know more about Employee Experience Design, then take a look at:

3. Start using the process and some tools yourself, individually

After all, you can imagine what people want, since you’re also human. Bear in mind that this individual part is just to learn, it’s not the ideal application of Design thinking, since co-creation is crucial.

Some great tools to start experimenting with are employee journey mapping and empathy mapping.

4. Do try-outs of co-creation with your HR-team

These are (normally) the people you know and trust, so often it’s good to start experimenting in your own team. Prepare it properly (a day workshop needs at least a day preparation, especially if you’re not experienced). Take time at the end of each session to evaluate how it went.

5. Look for like-minded people in your organisation and form a first cross-functional team that you trust and work on a first bigger challenge

The best results are achieved when working multi-disciplinary, so once you gained trust in your own team, start looking for those people in different departments that are open to change.

6. Scale by developing Design Thinking skills in your organisation

You don’t have to be a designer to use Design Thinking. Becoming a good designer will cost you years of special education. But what you can do is start to think as a designer and use designer tools in your management style to stimulate and support change and innovation within your organisation. Everyone can learn to use Design Thinking. To give a concrete answer to the growing complexity of modern technology and modern business, Design Thinking should be a central part of your companies’ strategy, culture change and skill-set.

How do you make the link between Design Thinking and the Employee Experience? How do you transform the employee experience in your organisation?

These 10 steps can help you start your journey.

1. Define your focus by using the Employee Life Cycle (ELC)

The ELC shows the phases of the employee’s relationship with your organisation from their point of view. It’s a high-level view of the different stages an employee is going through in relation to your company. It is not always linear.triggs

You cannot and should not change everything at once. Focus on those stages that bring most value to the employee and to the organization.

2. Form cross-functional teams

The design of the Employee Experience is neither the responsibility, nor the privilege of HR alone. HR should be included, but so should most other functions be represented, taking also into account diversity in age, background, nationality, expertise etc.

3. Map the Employee Journey(s)

To affect meaningful change and design a better Employee Experience, you need to map the Employee Journey. Based on the focus you defined in step 1, now go ahead and map the specific employee journey with your cross-functional team. Walk in the shoes of your (potential) employees as he or she interacts with your organisation.

4. Design the desired Employee Experience

Dream. Imagine what the future Employee Experience ideally looks like for your organisation. Create your ideal state, taking in account the insights generated earlier.

5. Define the main challenges

Now you know which needs employees want to fulfil and which work they want to get done, and how they feel at each step of their journey with you. You also have an inspiring vision on what kind of experience you want to achieve. It’s time to define the main challenges now. What are the obstacles on your road, what needs to be addressed?

6. Solve your challenges

Creatively look for solutions to close the gap between your current state and your desired one. Co-create solutions not only with your cross-functional team, but involve more people and end up with multiple ideas and concepts.

7. Prototype & Test Solutions

Prototype your chosen solutions and find ways to test them and to test assumptions you’ve made along the way. Generate feedback on your prototypes and look for those solutions that work best for your organisation, based on predefined criteria.

8. Implement new concepts

Once you know which prototypes finally work, you can plan to implement the concepts you’ve chosen. Depending on the size of the concept, a project team might be formed with a clear roadmap and plan.

9. Learn what works and what doesn’t

Once launched, the work isn’t finished. Make sure to plan moments of evaluation and feedback. Resistance to the change and success stories need to be captured and dealt with, to increase the speed of adoption.

10. Continuously Improve your solutions

Based on your evaluation, make the changes needed and adapt your concepts or plan. The goal is not to prove you’ve got the right concept right away, the goal is to improve the employee experience. If a solution finally doesn’t work, go back to your drawing board, improve it or finish it all together.

Time for you to embrace Design Thinking?

There are several ways to start with Design Thinking as the examples above illustrate. One thing is certain: it will help you to introduce a new and future oriented way of thinking in your organisation, which will enable it to change in line with the surrounding world.

Read Part I of this article

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