Human Centered Design for HR: 10 rules to help you build empathy with your employees.

This is the first post in our Human Centered Design for HR series in which we share 10 rules and 10 tips that will help you draw better insights from your employees.

In our work we’re noticing that more and more HR teams are using Human Centered Design (a.k.a. HCD and Design Thinking) to solve some pretty meaty and complex issues. We’re both excited by this and, to be honest, we have a couple of concerns too.

We’re excited because we love that HCD by definition puts people at the heart of new solutions that are being developed. We’re concerned because as HCD has been more widely adopted we fear that it’s been oversimplified and, as a result, the impact of the solutions developed may fall short of your expectations.

HCD is powerful but nuanced set of tools and the last thing we want to see is for it to be dismissed as a passing fad that doesn’t produce results.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent six wonderful years working with the design teams at IDEO, the pioneers of Design Thinking. I take no credit for developing any of the tools or methods, but I was lucky enough to be able to apply them with some extraordinary people on some complex projects across a variety of industries and challenges. To varying degrees, all of these projects involved gathering some kind of organizational insight and in many, organizational redesign.

What we learned is that drawing out meaningful insight from employees needs a different approach than customers. To gather meaningful insight, you need to build trust with your interviewees.

These 10 rules recognize that you too are an employee, which means that building this trust can be challenging.

These rules focus on planning and the research phase, their intent is to help you to find a way to ‘walk in the shoes’ of your employees and help you get more impactful results from your projects.

1. Dedicate, plan and commit

It doesn’t matter if you’re working on your first project or working with HCD tools is something that you do every day — you need to clear your schedule for the duration of the project from planning and research right the way through to developing your concepts. Whilst this might feel unrealistic, at IDEO this was critical to our success. To get to transformative solutions you need to build new instincts. To build these instincts you need to build empathy for the people you’re designing for, to do this you need to immerse yourselves in their lives.

The pressure to multi-task and run projects part time is strong, but when we’ve done this the solutions quickly dissolve into incremental short term shifts.

To transform the employee experience you need to transform yourself and this takes dedication and commitment.

Tip: If this is hard, try running shorter dedicated sprints with clear deliverables rather than long part time projects.

2. Get a Room.

With a clear schedule, deliverables and a plan, the last thing you want to do is be surrounded by the distractions of the office. Find yourself a project space that you can secure for the duration of your project or sprint. You’ll want to fill it with inspiration (see below), foam core boards, post its and sharpies. You want a space that allows you to collaborate and have time to work alone. As you start working through the project — the room will fill with insights, ideas, inspiration, concepts and more — this is a key part of creating your new instincts and building empathy with employees. You will want to lock it and word of warning — make a commitment to tidy and clean it yourself, what is meaningful to you looks like trash to others, you don’t want someone throwing away important notes.

Tip: If you can’t find a space inside your office, look for one outside. If the project is that important, you should be able to find the budgets.

3. Get Inspired.

So you need to build empathy with your employees? Rather than dive into interviews straight away, take the time to just be yourself and hang out where they hang out, at work and really importantly — outside of work. Find out which places are popular after work, at weekends and go there. Don’t be weird though, you’re not snooping or spying.

Enjoy yourself as they would, go with friends, observe and reflect on your experiences. All your doing is trying to understand who your employees really are, at work and in their own time.

Tip: Bring a camera and a notebook, take photographs of or sketch the experiences that you feel are meaningful. Write down thoughts and take time at the end of the day to capture the stories behind what you observed.

4. Experience Analogies.

Whatever you’re looking to transform, it goes without saying that you’ll check out what your competition and others in your sector are doing. You’ll probably also look at the tools that claim to solve your problem, but don’t let this be your sole focus.

Spend just as much or more time looking at analogous experiences (a.k.a. adjacent experiences).

If you’re designing a learning experience, you might want to explore atypical experiences where knowledge is shared, the cafe on a school campus, a museum, your social media feed, a conference or library.

Talk to people there and try and learn how knowledge is shared in these places.

Tip: Even if it makes little sense whilst you’re doing it, trust that this inspiration will be really valuable as you dive deeper into the lives of your people at work.

5. Seek Outliers.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but you will learn more about your people by speaking to outliers and extremes than you would people who behave closer to the norm. Their behaviors tend to be more visible and exaggerated, but very often they resonate with a much broader audience.

If you’re designing an on-boarding experience, seek out people who have moved through a lot of different companies and those who have never moved. Look for those who may have had extreme on-boarding experiences in the past, perhaps those from the military or people who have worked in tech or government.

Tip: If you can’t find the outliers you’re looking for within your company, don’t worry. It’s just as valuable to spend time with those outside of your company. You might even find their insights more reliable as they won’t be affected by your position.

6. Follow rules 1 to 6 first!

You’ll notice that we haven’t yet got to interviewing your employees yet (Rule #5 is about planning who you’re going to speak to). This is intentional. In order for you to build trust with your employees, you to need to have the physical and mental space to be able to relate to them as people rather than employees and have objective conversations unencumbered by the constraints of being one of their colleagues and all the baggage that comes with. Following rules 1 to 6 will help you with this. 7 to 10 will help you during the interviews.

Tip: This is really important, you have to be able to relate to them as people not employees. Don’t break this rule!

7. Be warm.

There’s a certain degree of cynicism in HR when dealing with employees. It’s inherent to the role, not only do you get the chance to deal with fabulous people, we know you also have to deal with some pretty challenging ones. We understand this, but we also see it as a learned behavior rather than your true instincts.

Most people who start a career in HR do so because they are ‘people’ people. Being warm will come naturally to you. As you prepare for your interview take off your HR hat, forget the policies that will hold you back from doing this — imagine you’re talking to a close friend or someone who you’d value as one in the future.

During the interview you want people to tell you the truth about the experiences they are describing, not the stories they think you want to hear. You want them to trust you enough to show you how they interact with experiences.

A great interview might be scheduled for an hour or so, but can go on much longer. Make sure you make time for this and make sure that your interviewee has time to overrun.

Tip: You’ll want to interview your people in the context of where they would interact with the experience you’re re-designing. That might mean the office, training lab or elsewhere in the building you’re located in. But if this makes your interviewee uncomfortable, there’s no reason why you can’t take them somewhere they will feel more comfortable, a restaurant, coffee shop or a lounge. It might also help to dress differently. If you’re dress code at work is formal, dress down and invite your interviewee to do the same.

8. See It To Believe It.

This isn’t as untrusting as it sounds. All we’re asking here is for you to ask people to show you how they do certain things. For example, if you’re redesigning your peer review system, you may ask a leader about their experiences with it. You may also ask them what they do to make it more efficient for themselves beyond the tool. At this stage, you should ask them to show you how they do this. As they do this watch and ask why they do things a certain way. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

Tip: If you’re asking them to show you something that confidential, reinforce the confidentiality of the conversation you’re having. You might even want to come to the meeting with a formal agreement that states that their name and title will not be used when re-telling their stories or insights.

9. Stay Off Topic.

So, this is another counterintuitive rule. You want to stay off topic for quite a long time before you dive into direct questions about the challenge you’re working on. There are two reasons for this. One, you want to build trust. Kick off your interview with a question that let’s them talk about themselves, encourage them to keep going with a little nod of head or say, “tell me more.” Two, you want to find out about their lives. This isn’t a job interview, you need to get to really know them, their families, how their work interacts with the rest of their lives.

You want them to reveal their hopes, anxieties and dreams for their lives, not just their career. Only then will you be able to truly understand what it feels like to be them and to create solutions with compassion.

Tip: Try spending 40 minutes on discovering who your interviewee really is and a further 50 minutes on the challenge. Always put aside a couple of hours for an interview and leave yourself an hour after to review your notes, capture insights and highlight stories. This will really help you in the next phase as you start to share your insights with your team members and make sense of them.

10. Ask why, why and why again!

You’re looking for insight, when you see something or ask a question the first response from your interviewee is typically going to feel a little shallow. You need to dig deeper, for example when asking the question, “So why do you take the bus into work?” you may get the answer, “Well I always have.” When you ask why again, you may learn that they dislike the train. But when you ask again you may learn about a bad experience they’ve previously had on the train or the joy they get of traveling above ground through the city.

These last two allow you to probe further — ask how things make them feel. When you get here, you’re starting to draw out real insight and your learning what will resonate with them on an emotional level.

Tip: Don’t be afraid of asking for more, if you do this with genuine interest your interviewee will share more. Look them in the eye, pay attention to your body language and ask gently.

There’s much more to add here, but 10 rules feel like enough for now but there’s room for a couple of other tips. Always interview in pairs or a trio. Make sure you have clear roles. One of you will be the lead, the others are note takers, photographer or observer. Always ask the interviewee if they have questions for you at the end. Answer these honestly. Always find a way to say thank you, a small gift for their time will go a long way — who knows they may even want to come back and talk to you more as your project progresses.

Using HCD at work is a privilege, it’s fun and rewarding. It’s also challenging emotionally and mentally. It takes time to really master — it’s as much of a craft as interview skills, photoshop or developing code. Practice makes perfect. If you’re struggling do reach out to me at Whilst this is no longer my day job, I’m always keen to help and learn about the challenges you’re working on.

SmartUp is the leading peer-to-peer knowledge sharing platform, used by startups and corporates, especially for innovation, future skills and digital mindset. We are gamifying the creation and sharing of knowledge.

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