Design Thinking in HR: A New Approach for Human Resource

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs 


When someone hears the term design thinking, they might instantly relate it to art, user interface, or design-related things. But design thinking is not limited only to art or user interface design.  

Design thinking is a complex business solution. It is a non-linear approach or process. People live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems they face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human.  

Currently, many people are facing the BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear & Incomprehensible) & VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous). After the world crisis with COVID-19, businesses and entrepreneurs understood humans importance and their roles in business growth and development.  

So now, businesses are focusing on human-centric techniques rather than following traditional approaches for growth and development. Now, enterprises are adopting creative methods and innovation in their business strategies.  

Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategies. This approach, known as design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. 

What is Design Thinking 

Inovation in agile hr

Design thinking is an analytic and creative process that engages a person to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign.  

Design thinking is an innovative approach to innovation and problem-solving that takes design perspectives and processes and applies them to problems designers don’t typically encounter.  

“Design Thinking is a way of looking at innovation, to find the intersection between human values, technical capability, and commercial viability.” 

History of Design Thinking 

History of design thinking

In the mid-60s, Horst Rittel, a Design Theorist, wrote comprehensively on problem-solving in design, and the term he used was “Wicked Problems.” Wicked problems are at the very heart of Design Thinking because these complex and multi-dimensional problems require a collaborative methodology to design solutions. 

In the 1970s, Computer scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon introduced to design as a science and a way of thinking in his book Science of Artificial. Herbert A Simon contributed many thoughts related to Design Thinking.  

In the 70s, Robert H. McKim elaborated on the concept of Design Thinking in his book Design Thinking Methodology. He touched on various aspects of visual thinking and design methods for solving problems, emphasizing combining the left and right brain modes of thinking to bring about a more holistic form of problem-solving. 

In the 80s, Nigel Cross wrote a paper Designerly as Emeritus Professor of Design Studies at The Open University, UK. He explained the nature of designers’ problem-solving. He primarily focused on cross-compared designers’ problem-solving to the non-design-related problem solutions we develop in our everyday lives. 

In the 90s, IDEO, a Global Design & Innovation Company, accepted Design Thinking to the mainstream. Using Design Thinking, IDEO developed its user-friendly technology, toolkits & steps. 

After two years, Richard Buchanan (the Head of Design at Carnegie Mellon University) published his paper, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. In this paper, he focused on the origins of Design Thinking. He also elaborated that Design Thinking integrates highly specialized fields of knowledge to new problems from a holistic perspective. 

Between 1990 to 2000 – we can call this era – The First Wave. After 2000, the second wave started was Design Thinking.  

In 2005, The Stanford School of Design or the (today, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) started teaching Design Thinking. In this course, they made the development, teaching, and implementation of Design Thinking one of its own central goals since its inception.  

Principle of Design Thinking 

Principle in HR

Design Thinking has four principles – laid out by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, California.  

  1. Human-Centric – this is the main principle of Design Thinking. When we design or create innovation, we must always consider human-centric approaches. We need to understand what people (or employees) need and their expectations and incorporate this understanding into every aspect of processes. 
  1. Embrace the Ambiguity – Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in seeing things differently. As per this principle, we need to reframe our problem or look at it from conceivable angles to get several possible solutions. 
  1. Redesign – Change is constant, and the world is changing so fast. So, we always need to redesign our processes and thinking. 
  1. Tangibility – We need to make ideas tangible in the form of prototypes, and on that basis, we can communicate with people more effectively. 

The Phases of Design Thinking 

HR in design thinking

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford describes Design Thinking as a five-phase process. These five phases are not always sequential, and we can often run them in parallel and iteratively repeat them. The phases of Design Thinking are below-  

  1. Empathize – We need to research people’s issues or problems in this phase. We need to understand their issues by empathizing with them. Empathy is the main phase of Design Thinking and provides us with the critical initial point for understanding the problems. In this phase, we map people’s behavior and how they behave on the floor. How’s their body language in the meeting? How can we engage them? Based on these observations, we find many things. I call this People Mapping because we try to understand people’s psychological and emotional levels. We seek to set aside people’s assumptions and gather real insights about problems during this phase. 
  1. Define – In this phase, we define the problems. In the first phase, we gather all the information and insights that help us understand the issues, and now we start to make sense of them. We categorize the problem and define clear problem statements by the end.  
  1. Ideate – In this phase, we upgrade ourselves as creative thinkers. We use various brainstorming techniques to generate ideas to solve problems creatively. 
  1. Prototype – A prototype is a scaled-down version of the product. This phase is critical in putting each solution to the test and highlighting any constraints and flaws. Depending on how they fare in prototype form, the proposed solutions may be accepted, improved, redesigned, or rejected throughout the prototype phase. 
  1. Test – This phase is the end of the Design Thinking process. When we turn ideas into tangible solutions in the prototype phase, we validate the solution with the target users. Based on the feedback, we either finalize the solution or redefine the problem statement and develop new ideas we hadn’t thought of before. 

Why Is Design Thinking important? 

importance of design thinking in hr

Design thinking enables organizations to create lasting value for people. HR/People Operations professionals need to embrace a human-centric mindset. When they observe disengagement at the workplace, they need to empathize, define the issues, and develop solutions that foster engagement and enrichment.  

Design thinking is a Human-Centered approach and brings together the desirability from the people’s perspective with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. 

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