July 20, 2020

What Really Matters: Using Design Thinking to Elevate Your Employee Experience


According to The Predictive Index’s 2020 Talent Optimization Report, employee performance is a top concern for executives across industries. This speaks to a widespread awareness of the critical role employees play in delivering on business strategies and brand promises.

Given how vital employees are to company success, the employee experience should be treated with as much care as the customer experience — and yet, this is rarely the case. Across most businesses, turnover rates are high, with The Predictive Index reporting a 47 percent average turnover rate for high performers. Similarly, the report notes that executives consider 51 percent of the hires they made last year to be bad hires. These facts — high turnover and a rash of bad hires — are costly for any business.

How do we ensure we’re hiring the right people and making them happy enough not simply to stay, but to excel in their roles with us?

According to The Employee Experience Index from IBM and Globoforce, “employees who experience a sense of belonging, purpose, achievement, happiness, and vigor [at work] are more likely to perform at higher levels and contribute ‘above and beyond’ expectations.” If the majority of employees were to feel this way at work, we’d likely see lower turnover rates and increased profits. But how do we make employees feel that way?

The key is to maximize the moments that enhance the employee experience and minimize those that cause disengagement.

Using Design Thinking to Build a Better Employee Experience

Design thinking is a human-centered method of creative problem-solving that provides stakeholders, product teams, and leaders with a thorough understanding of their users so that they can ideate, prototype, and test user-centered solutions.

Because design thinking relies so heavily on a solid foundation of user insights, journey mapping is a key part of the process. Defined by NN/g as “a visualization of the process that a person goes through in order to accomplish a goal,” a journey map helps us understand how a target audience (in this case, the employee) thinks about and interacts with the world around them. Once we have that knowledge, we can consider the what, when, where, and why of how they interact with a brand or business.

While these two methodologies are usually associated with customer experience, they can also be extremely useful in building better employee experiences. In both design thinking and journey mapping, the customer is the central focus. Their day-to-day needs, desires, wants, fears, and thoughts help us unlock insights into how we can best serve them with new products and experiences. Employees are a kind of customer, too, and their journeys with us are full of “moments that matter,” key points that define their experiences with our organizations. Those moments might include the first interview, the first day, the onboarding process, the first performance review, the first promotion, etc.

Often, these moments are created without the employee experience in mind. Internal functions like HR are seen as cost centers, so the experiences surrounding those functions are rarely prioritized. It’s time to change our thinking. It’s not easy to replace talented workers who thrive in our company cultures. When we do find someone who is a good fit, we should strive to retain them — which we can do by deliberately designing for their experience.

Making the Most of Moments That Matter

By identifying the key moments in your employee’s journey, you can start to innovate and create delight in your employee experience.

As leaders and managers, we have to first immerse ourselves in the employee journey, much as we have to do with the customer journey. We can start identifying moments that matter by mapping out all of our employees’ touch points. Using surveys and interviews, we can then determine which touch points leave the biggest impressions — positive or negative — on our employees.

In The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath describe a moment as “a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful.” They talk about what psychologists call “the peak-end rule,” which hypothesizes that people tend to remember experiences based on their most extreme moments and how those moments ended. This is important to keep in mind when designing the employee experience: Employees will pay special attention to how moments end and the most intense emotions the moments provoke.

When it comes to journey mapping and design thinking, it is worth working with disgruntled employees. They know firsthand what is and isn’t working, and they are usually eager to share their thoughts on the matter. For this reason, it’s important to talk to the employees who left the company after a short period of time, have a tendency to complain, or score low on engagement scales.

On the other extreme, it’s also crucial to talk to your top-performing employees and those who have been with the company for a long time. They will have reasons for staying and will be able to confidently share what they do or don’t like about working for the organization. Be sure to ask them about key moments like:

• Going through a transition with the company, such as being promoted or starting a new project
• Achieving a milestone, such as completing a big project or celebrating five years with the company
• Going through a difficult time, such as receiving a bad review

These are the kinds of moments that we can innovate for.

Detailing the Journey

Once you have mapped out all the important moments at a high level, you can go into each one in more detail. Ask yourself questions like:

  1. What are the emotions associated with this moment?
  2. What might the employee be thinking here?
  3. What are their expectations at this moment?
  4. Who owns this moment and can it be optimized?
  5. What backstage processes and policies are happening to make this moment occur, and can we refine or improve on those?

By asking these questions, you will unlock great insights not only into your employee experience but also into your company culture. You’ll start to see the unspoken codes and behaviors that shape your organization, which in turn will allow you to craft a more aligned talent strategy.

Leverage your journey map to design delight into your employees’ peak moments and their day-to-day interactions with their teams. That might look like implementing a new and improved onboarding experience or integrating the practice of positivity into your processes, for example.

What delight means for your employee experience will depend on your company’s culture and your employees’ unique journeys. Design thinking and journey mapping will help you gain a holistic view of the employee experience by highlighting moments of joy and frustration. From there, you can address pain points, build empathy, break down silos, and uncover opportunities for innovation. Doing so could help you overcome all the obstacles standing between your company and improved productivity and profitability.

Page Lotze is a consultant at DYDX.

Read more in Employee Engagement

With a background in copywriting, marketing, and facilitation, Page Lotze now works as a consultant, content strategist, and account manager for digital transformation consultancy DYDX. Working with teams and clients around the world, from Cape Town to London, DYDX focuses on product and service design, culture and future of work, and content and digital sales optimization to deliver effective transformational solutions.