Extract | Employee Experience by Design

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This extract from Employee Experience by Design by Belinda Gannaway and Emma Bridger is © 2024 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. All rights reserved.

What is EX design and why does it matter?

Every employee has an experience of you as an employer. Their experience starts before they join and lasts as a memory long after they’ve stopped working for you. (And, in some cases the experience continues not just as a memory, but as an ongoing frustration, as with one employee who struggled for months to navigate the systems of a high street retailer to secure a reference.) The question is, to what extent is it the experience they want and need, and how aligned is it with your intended EX? Only by being intentional about how you craft the many significant – as well as everyday – experiences people have of you can you hope to architect the larger, overall employee experience. That all comes down to EX design – the application of design principles, first to how we understand people and their needs and expectations, and then to how we develop, test and iterate solutions to make the experience the best it can be. ‘Best’ is a loose term – and deliberately so. EX is not one-size-fits-all and, in reality, it involves compromises. What best looks like is a balance between three competing and shifting demands: your organizational context, the requirements of the work and your people. Looked at in this way, it is clear EX design is not a phase in a development process. Neither is it making the intranet or any other tool, product or service look nice (although aesthetics may play a part). Rather, it is a continuous focus on, and intentional evolution of, the many small, medium and large experiences an employee has with you – and, as a consequence, the cumulative impact of those experiences.

In this chapter we introduce the EX design framework and explain how to get started with EX design. In subsequent chapters we go into more detail about each step and the tools involved. EX design is a lot less linear and a lot more iterative than that suggests. However, by sharing the approach in this structured way, we hope to give you the confidence to get started and flex it as much as you need.

Where does EX design come from? Introducing design thinking

To understand EX design, we first need a grasp of design thinking, a creative, human-centred approach to problem-solving used by some designers of products, processes and environments. Because it does not have its own academic niche – design thinking straddles many disciplines, from design to engineering, business and technology – there are a range of definitions, interpretations and even origin stories. Here we share a popular narrative about design thinking. However, this narrative is by no means comprehensive. For example, see also Chapter 11 for a reflection on the commonalities between design thinking and Dr Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, a philosophically derived approach associated with knowledge management that focuses on listening to users’ needs to inform the design of knowledge-sharing practices and systems (Cheuk and Dervin, 2011).

The roots of design thinking are commonly said to date back to the 1960s, when academics started to talk about design science as a method of creating something new. It also has links to human factors psychology, which looks at how things like dials and machines can be created to be easier to use. This came to the fore in the Second World War, when a range of experts came together to improve the safety of airplanes. Human factors psychology has since come to play a significant role in many areas, including computing, manufacturing, product design, engineering and even the military. Design thinking takes some of these ideas – especially prototyping and user testing – and combines them with a mindset approach and toolkit.

While design thinking began in the world of design, it has long since moved on to macro business issues, including operational problems and strategy. The ideology and language of design thinking was first widely publicized in an article in the academic journal Design Issues by Professor of Design, Management and Innovation Richard Buchanan in 1992. Buchanan suggested that a designer’s thought process allowed them to deal with complex, multifaceted, wicked problems where creativity is required to find multiple workable solutions. This idea was taken up by the Stanford d.school, which helped to popularize design thinking as a problem-solving method across business. d.school has remained one of the largest proponents of design thinking ever since.

Design thinking is now used across businesses and functions as an effective tool for problem-solving when standard analytical methodologies fall short. Design thinking practitioners seek to think deeply about the nature of the problem based on an exploration of the needs of end users. They then deliberately collaborate with people with different perspectives to solve the problem. The approach has been widely popularized through academic institutions, including Stanford University, as well as popular businesses, such as Apple, Google, LEGO and IDEO. Tim Brown, executive chair of IDEO, describes the entire way his business works – not just how it creates new products and services – as design thinking. His 2009 book, Change by Design, introduced the concept to a far wider audience and has one of the most quoted definitions of design thinking:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success (Brown, 2009/2019).

How does design thinking work?

Brown and IDEO’s interpretation of design thinking can be summarized as: inspiration, ideation and implementation (Brown, 2009/2019). He expands on this to make the point that its success relies on empathy with the end user, integrative thinking (the ability to exploit opposing ideas to construct a new solution), optimism and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

As an approach to problem-solving, design thinking is a loosely structured and non-linear process. It is based on a collection of tools that can be used by anyone with a problem that is abstract, complex or both. Its number-one selling point for many organizations is how it allows people to take a problem that is ambiguous and complex and provide a clear and simple way to get started understanding and solving it. From there, it is an iterative process, with each iteration bringing practitioners closer to the optimal solution.

That clear starting line might be a number-one selling point, but the benefits of design thinking go way beyond that. In fact, they go way beyond the obvious outcome of solving complex problems. Jeanne Liedtka, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, has widely researched and written about the impact of design thinking in organizations. Speaking in May 2020, Liedtka emphasized the importance of design thinking as an engaging and collaborative process that shifts innovators’ mindsets and beliefs as well as their skills, builds their creative confidence, offers psychological safety and creates an openness and a willingness to try new things.

Rather than simply being an effective way of solving problems, design thinking is a form of change management, shaping those involved in the process as they shape new solutions. It’s a way of working that is contagious and lasting.

How design thinking and EX work together

Design thinking tools and principles are central to employee experience design. The optimism or hopefulness associated with design thinking dovetails neatly with the other core ingredient of our approach – positive psychology. In fact, we draw on the two interchangeably. However, before we go any further, it’s worth noting how we have adapted one of the fundamentals of design thinking – the three constraints. Tim Brown (2009/2019) makes the point that design cannot happen without constraints. He suggests the willing, even enthusiastic, acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking. Discovering which constraints are important and creating a framework for evaluating them is often the first stage in design thinking (see Chapter 6). The three constraints identified by

Tim Brown are:

1 Feasibility – what is functionally possible?

2 Viability – what is likely to be sustainable for the business?

3 Desirability – what makes sense to and for people?

When we apply design thinking tools, we reframe these three constraints to make them more immediately relevant to employee experience. So EX design is about intentionally curating an EX that is right for:

– requirements of the work – the technical or other requirements of the work, for instance where people are located, what equipment they have, and what processes they need to follow;

– organization context – commercial objectives as well as requirements of the culture, brand, purpose, values, etc;

– people’s needs and expectations – what makes sense to and for people.

We borrow and adapt from design thinking with pride. However, some designers balk at what they see as the misappropriation of the word design by non-designers (like us). After all, designers spend many years learning, developing and practising their craft. A day spent on a design thinking workshop does not a designer make. But, when it comes to EX, the word design is apt – because it is intentional, and it is markedly different from other, more traditional approaches to human resources and related people-focused activities, such as internal communications. And design thinking has to some extent democratized parts of the design process – making it easier for anyone to begin to think and act like a designer. Experienced designers have also been known to challenge what they suggest is design thinking’s overly structured approach, suggesting it leaves little room for the skill and mastery of real designers. However, that shouldn’t worry us. In fact, the structure – as loose as it is – is helpful. Given that most people involved in EX design are not designers and that many of the behaviours and activities associated with design thinking are new to them, the structure provides useful guardrails that quickly help to establish a new language and confidence.

As we’ve already said, our intention with the EX framework and tools we cover in this and subsequent chapters is not to be prescriptive. Our approach to EX design borrows from design thinking, but they are not one and the same. When working with clients, we flex our approach and the tools we use. We recommend you do the same. Choose EX design tools and activities and apply them in a way that makes sense to you.