Recently in my work, I was reintroduced to the use of Design Thinking methods as applied to People Strategies. Originally, I came across this work from the book Agile HR which included a focus on designing employee experiences, so I knew it would be just up my alley.

Design Thinking has traditionally been linked to the identification of consumer needs followed by designing products that address them. When it comes to using Designing Thinking in HR or elsewhere in an organization, we look at the needs of employees and the best way to develop experiences or other programming to meet them. The process for identifying both consumer and employee needs involves the use of empathy-related processes to support this work.

In fact, I believe Design Thinking, with its customer centric nature and significant impact across a variety of employee experiences, will eventually revolutionize the field of HR. As I practiced Design Thinking through empathy-based processes, it was clear that this provided an avenue to impact the workplace at a whole new level. HR historically has struggled to have the tools to truly create the employee experiences that they have hoped to achieve. This article will introduce Design Thinking tools that HR or other functional areas can use to add value to their work in a variety of ways.

A key concept that comes from Design Thinking is empathy-based employee journey maps. Developing empathy mapping is based upon a mindset, and journey mapping is based on the steps people take within a process and using empathy to analyze them. The book, Agile HR, presented an example from employee onboarding, which I have tested in the field in working on specific challenges that organizations seek to overcome.

Using these concepts, I was able to predict what employees might do, think, say (or not say), feel, and then ask myself two simple questions:

  1. What are the important moments?

  3. Where are opportunities for improvement?

In completing this exercise with others, I was fascinated to find that in less than ten minutes we all had a fresh perspective on the improvements that needed to be made to the client’s onboarding experience.

Mapping the Benefits

A few benefits of better designed team member experiences will grow exponentially over time and include:

  1. Increasing team member engagement by focusing on understanding their experiences and making significantly more impactful improvements

  3. Strengthening the experience of external customers by improving the experience of internal customers (team members)

From my experience, as we begin to realize the benefits of this practice we will then give it the appropriate time, focus, and attention needed to develop it further. Too many times business strategies are heavily focused on the external customer and marginalize the importance of internal customers. They are inherently linked, and design thinking makes that even more apparent.

Steps to Building Your Own Team Member Experiences

So, how can you do this yourself?

When you first begin to map the team member journey with the use of empathy, just practice getting the steps down and pilot it with a couple of people in an informal, casual situation.

You’ll quickly be able to take this tool into a group on a more formal basis and they will build the map and share in the identification of new needs. Your people will be more motivated to make the changes or improvements when they have a felt sense of the problem. Nothing can replace their own “Ah-ha!” moments in building the map and identifying the opportunities.

Here are the steps to building the map.


  1. Clarify the precise portion of the experience you want to design.

For example, if the experience is related to onboarding, establish whether you are designing the offer experience or the first day of work. You’ll find it most helpful to limit the amount of time in the experience to best understand the flow.

  1. Analyze the current steps including what people are doing, thinking, feeling, and saying.

Enter on the top line what the person or group of people within the design are doing in each step. Be aware that you may end up inserting steps that were missing, but keep everything to only the most important steps, not necessarily details that won’t be helpful.

For example, in onboarding you might take 3 hours of an orientation session and make it one item: attend the orientation session. However, you might make a different decision to separate the portion of the orientation session that is filling out paperwork because that portion of the design seems to merit review. There is no right or wrong answer.

After you’ve listed what they’re doing, going one at a time, list out what they are likely thinking, feeling, and saying. Don’t be surprised if the ah-ha moments show up even as you write out the details.

  1. Step back and ask the question: where do you see the most important moments in the experience that mattered?

Again, there is no right or wrong answer to what matters. Let the individuals of the group explore their own thoughts and ideas about what they see to be important.

  1. Where do you see opportunities for improvement, and what might those improvements be?

Based upon the discussion, make a list of potential improvements and prioritize it to a handful of items that are clearly achievable. The fun part is that the improvements become almost obvious in light of empathizing with people’s experiences.

  1. Share the results of the map with other stakeholders to gather additional insights then you currently have.

Identify potential sources of additional input. Share the information in a manner so that the other stakeholders might have their own similar ah-ha moments to contribute to the list.

  1. Implement the changes and validate their impact on people’s experiences if possible.

Develop a detailed plan with who will do what by when including the follow-up that will be required until the changes are completed. Be careful that you don’t lose the momentum of driving better experiences by simply not completing the changes.

See an example filled-in map below.

Mapping in Practice

We often use onboarding as an initial place to practice this tool. The reason is everyone has experienced onboarding as a new hire and typically has supported the onboarding of other team members in some capacity. This allows for an easy introduction to learning this practice.

For example, some of the most important moments in onboarding occur during the first moments of the day and at the end of the day. Based on this, a team might focus on optimizing how a new hire’s needs are met when they first walk in the door or drive into the parking lot and taking steps to gather information on unmet needs at the end of the day.

As another example, I applied this same type of mapping to a different scenario. A plant manager had described how introducing a new strategy to his team had not gone well. Using the same design thinking methodology, we laid out the steps that had been taken, conversations that occurred, and the potential feelings of the team. We created a team member journey map based on the interaction to explore what may have transpired, and then looked for opportunities to improve the experience. Sure enough, the important moments and how they could have been better handled became obvious. The manager then went back, repaired the damage, and got the team on track with the new strategy.

Developing Maps with Personas


As you become more proficient in how to develop team member mapping, you’ll want to consider how we might design them differently for different groups of people.

For example, if we were designing an onboarding experience for college graduates who have not held a full time professional role yet, we might design it differently than people who are well established in their roles. That version would differ from the one for those that are already employees of the company and have changed their location or the team they’re working with.

Personas give us the ability to establish the critical groupings for a given type of experience. Following are the key steps for building out personas or groups that can be amended as appropriate for different circumstances.

In general, personas are not based upon your best guess. You will find it helpful to use actual interviews or conversations with people who are customers of the design to ensure your groupings are accurate. Many times our best guesses are actually inaccurate in how people’s needs differ. A common example is the use of demographics by themselves could often misguide your design.

Common interview questions you might use to establish these groupings are:

  • What motivates you in your work?
  • What would you change about our workplace?
  • What’s most important about your work?
  • What are your favorite activities in your work? What are your least favorite?
  • How would you describe your work history?
  • What are your career goals?
  • How would you describe your work-life balance?

You’ll want to conduct enough interviews to get a good gauge on where the needs of the customers vary significantly enough to warrant a separate map and design.

You’ll often find some commonalities in their needs and some areas of difference that your work on personas will surface. Here are some examples where personas might drive improved experiences:

1. If designing specific training, interviews might surface differences in how participants learn, the level of skill prior to training, or the need for the training.

Through the development of personas, you might notice that you need three different approaches to how the training experiences are designed.

2. If you are designing strategy deployment experiences, you might find there are key differences between levels of employees. However, you might find that there are more important differences between those who are new to the organization and those that have been around a number of years.

Hence, doing the interviews may yield information that will be more helpful than the most common groupings we tend to make.

How We Can Use This Tool

As we’ve already discussed, you can design how people experience:

  1. Meetings within your organization
  2. Being interviewed or receiving an offer from your organization
  3. How people are treated when raising a concern or problem
  4. The presentation of critical information
  5. Participating in written performance feedback processes
  6. Providing training, including the experience before, during, and afterwards

Wherever you have significant changes in your workplace, you could use this tool to better understand people’s current or expected experience of the change, and optimize the experience for better acceptance.

The design thinking process has already been used to explore the customer journey in the field of product design, and by applying it to the employee experience it will surely revolutionize the field of HR in the years to come.

I’d love to hear if you’ve had experience with this concept and how it improved the employee experience. Or, if you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate it into your organization, contact me here.

1 Agile in a Nutshell by Mia Kolmodin, in collaboration with Agile HR Community, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 SE

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