Applying Design Thinking to HR and Talent Management

Applying Design Thinking to HR and Talent Management

Design thinking model

Applying Design Thinking to HR and Talent Management

Design thinking is a popular business model that has built a considerable following over the years, through its usefulness in a wide range of industries and use cases. More recently, HR professionals have been taking notice of the benefits it can bring to their organisations, in areas such as recruiting and developing talent. But why exactly has it become so popular?

As a HR Solutions Designer at the John Lewis Partnership – a new role in our organisation – I’m one of a small group who have begun to weave Design Thinking into our work. Our intention? To develop more useful and more relevant HR content, improve ways of working and to make sure our colleagues get the most out of their work. In this article, I want to explore what Design Thinking is and how we can use it to our advantage. I also want to consider if it can provide real, long-term opportunity for the growth and development of many other organisations, or if it may be just another concept in a long-line of trendsetting, but interchangeable, business models.

Design Thinking – so what is it?

Design thinking is sometimes known as human-centered design and has actually been around as early as the 1940’s, albeit in a slightly different form, through industrial design experts like Harold van Doren. It was originally based on developing creativity techniques for industrial design, product design and development. Clearly, it has some history. So what does it mean for modern business?

Human centred design model



Josh Bersin and co. from Deloitte describe Design Thinking in an organisational context as “taking aim at the heart of unnecessary workplace complexity, by putting the employee experience first”. It’s about making things simpler, more enjoyable and more relevant for employees. For the John Lewis Partnership, this means our putting our Partners first when developing content, rather than focusing on what we’re trying to push out to them.

How can Design Thinking benefit us?

If you’re creating content of any kind for your organisation, chances are you want your audience to digest and think/act on it in some way, à la nudge theory. Focusing on the wants and needs of your audience helps you to provide them with content that they actually engage with. The John Lewis Partnership has over 85,000 Partners in a handful of countries and each Partner is an individual, with their own unique preferences. We therefore need a way to provide content to best fit so many individuals, and that’s really tough to do well.

So, should we try to cover all bases with a mass of different types of content? That way, something will land, right? Well, not quite. Having an array of choices to access content about our policies and procedures would allow us to cater for different needs, true. However, it’s incredibly easy to overload your audience with too many options – this forces them to work hard, wading through the notifications and cherry-picking the content fit for them. In a world where the average Facebook video is watched for just 10 seconds, having your audience do the work won’t end well. There’s also the fact that it would take far more time than most organisations can afford to create it all.

By using design thinking, we focus squarely on our end-users to create a smaller range of more concise and targeted content and we make it work for them. After all, content is king, but the experience of accessing content is also very important. Rather than trying to go for ‘one size fits all’, we instead use meaningful data and analytics to hone in on the specific needs of our audience. HR content can often be dry, especially when it comes to policies and procedures, but that doesn’t take away from its importance. By creating engaging HR content, we find a way to make a range of topics interesting and useful, not boring and lifeless.


What does Design Thinking look like in the real world?

Let’s look at recruiting talent. The average recruitment activity often focuses intently on the vacancy and skills required, when, in fact, this is only half the puzzle. With Design Thinking, the candidate is the end-user – making up the other half. The candidate journey is an often overlooked aspect of this activity, but is absolutely crucial in making sure the role is a great fit for that person, rather than the other way round. Kristina Martic from TalentLyft sets out in this great blog post that we need to “put ourselves into our candidates’ shoes”. By doing so, we learn what drives them and in turn, complete the puzzle to find their absolute best fit. So how easily can we pivot the vacancy-driven model and treat candidates like customers when organisations just need you to ‘fill the gap’? Thankfully, you have a handful of apps for that.

Software creators like Beamery are able to demonstrate the remarkable benefits of using a CRM-style, customer-based approach to recruitment, using almost futuristic tools to gather meaningful data and hold conversations that develop real, long-term relationships. To me, this is Design Thinking in action – collecting and analysing data about your audience, then building an experience that puts their needs and wants first. This sort of relationship building ends up blurring the line between the traditional, binary categories of active and passive candidates.

The idea of an app or organisation knowing so much about you may sound a little too ‘big brother’ since the whistle was blown on Cambridge Analytica, but the recent scandal linked to Facebook told us some interesting things about how data is given and used. It turns out people are actually very ready to give away data, evidenced by the fact that Facebook’s quiz model has incredible engagement stats across their circa 2.2 billion monthly active users. Crucially though, people don’t like their data being used for anything other than its original, intended use. Simply put, “I’m happy to give away my data, as long as it’s on my terms and I know exactly what it’s being used for”. When it comes to new recruitment technology, the data suggests that end-users would in fact be happy to give away their data, as long as they know it’s only being used to recruit them.


Any others?

How about developing talent? Feedback and review software developers Impraise talk in their blog about HR technology that benefits from our increased attachment to our smartphones and delivers a real-time learning experience that works for us, around us.

Whether an online course, a blog post or a podcast, the tech provides a selected range of relevant and useful options that make sense for your audience, providing people with the power to control how they get the most out of their development. Ultimately, you learn how your audience likes to access content and can provide it through channels that are comfortable and familiar to them.

If your social media feed can curate a timeline based on your interests and interactions, could HR find a way to deliver learning content in a similar way – at the right time, through the right method, to the people who need and want it most?


Is this just the current trend, or is Design Thinking becoming something more?

In a modern, digital world, design thinking absolutely makes sense. As we spend more time digesting all kinds of content in every aspect of our lives, our standards are increasing and we’re losing patience for content that doesn’t fit in with our ‘norms’. As a result, it becomes even more crucial to make workplace content more relevant, meaningful, supportive and value-adding.

The iterative, ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach of Design Thinking is a significant change to how many HR functions work (often for legal reasons), but it has gained a large following already due to its perceived benefits – Columbia University and Deloitte’s ‘Global Trends in HR’ course notes that 79% of senior professionals now see Design Thinking as a high priority in tackling talent challenges.

Ultimately, It can be difficult to predict the long-term effects the model may have on organisations in the future, but based on what we’re seeing so far, I believe it can drive a really significant change in the way we work as HR professionals. Who knows, maybe design thinking can help us analyse its own worth?

Josh Scott photograph




Josh Scott, HR Solutions Designer, John Lewis Partnership


Huge thanks to Josh Scott for writing this insightful, intelligent and thought provoking article. Connect with Josh via LinkedIn above, he’s a great guy, knows his stuff and always looking to connect with like-minded professionals, just as I am, Sharon Kennedy  Lots of things and user journeys to consider designing in a human centred way for every business wherever you are on your people strategy definition and employee engagement journey.  Think like a marketer with a people attraction, engagement and retention focus and you’re heading in the right direction.

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