User research to support design thinking in HR

I have collaborated with Karrie Sullivan from WORKWORKS for a year now. WORKWORKS is a design service that helps organizations to create, test and adopt innovative HR practices, by using a design thinking approach. Well known in product or tech development, design thinking is new in service design, organization design and even more HR. My role in Workworks was to support their user research efforts.


2 preliminary comments are important to set the scene.

– User research is not just the first step in a long process. It’s on-going and it works hand-in-hand with design.

“In Design Thinking, user needs are kept at the center and referenced as a focal point throughout the process. At the beginning of a design process we learn about user experience to help inspire ideas for ideation. As we build prototypes, we take our ideas out to the users to test and help refine our ideas. When designs are finally implemented, we use design thinking to help create interventions to enable people to adopt the new solutions.”

– While HR services already do some user-oriented research, the methodology and objectives are different from user research for a design perspective. The most common tool used is employee satisfaction surveys. Typically designed with corporate objectives in mind, these surveys often miss the root cause issues and deeper needs of employees. Of course, HR employees often have an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the organization and people, but this detailed and personal view can in fact hide more general patterns. In observing people through qualitative research, we begin to understand the difference between what people say, and what they actually do.

Design thinking workshop

Business objectives

HR services often appears as support for the truly “productive” divisions: product, engineering, sales and marketing. One of the objectives of Workworks and why these companies hired us is that we see HR practices as capable of driving business value.

More specifically, Workworks had for objective in one case to completely overhaul the performance management system (including getting rid of the name itself), and in another case, to review and / or establish career development and progression.

Generating initial insights

Surveys: general overview

Existing surveys gave us a good overview of the landscape, but, depending on their design, they might reflect corporate focus areas rather than employees’ concerns. They are also generalist and might not dig deep enough in the specific topic you’re investigating. In this case, a complementary short survey is useful to assess the nature and degree of the problems you’re facing.

Interviews: deep diving on specific topics at an individual level

Our 2nd research step was qualitative research through interviews of 10 to 12 employees. The number of employees can change depending on the structure of the organization. The objective here is to have a panel where all the divisions and major professions, gender, age, level of experience, length of employment, level of management, are represented. Of course, this can’t be a strictly representative sample. As in all qualitative research, insights can’t be drawn from a single source. Cross-analyzing the notes from the different interviews, together with the main topics identified using the survey allowed us to draw an accurate picture of the existing dynamics, pain points and expectations of employees regarding performance management or career development.

When attempting to explain the patterns that were observed, I always tried to provide at least 2 different interpretations, to emphasize their hypothetical status.

Sharing insights

with key stakeholders

This is an extremely important phase, and a research step in itself. It allows us to gauge how much leaders are aware of the issues and expectations we uncovered. Their reaction itself reveals their priorities and/or blind spots. These must be taken into accounts in the design phase.

Integrating initial insights into the design

At Worksworks, a core design team, composed of key stakeholders, is in charge of the design. Work sessions are facilitated by Workworks. One of the first steps of the design thinking process is to create specific design principles. Initial research insights are one of the main source material for the design team to create their own design principles. These principles are then referred to at each step of the design process.

On-going user research: getting feedback at every stage of the process

The crux here is to find the right level of details and complexity, depending on the phase you’re at in the design process. When working in web design, you typically use increasing levels of fidelity to convey the degree of elaboration of your ideas: from hand-drawn sketches to wireframes to high-fidelity mockups. We reproduced this progression using simple visuals / infographics with minimum comments, then storyboards, and eventually experimenting with prototypes. However, this approach is not as common for org and service design. Also, employees are not used to be consulted at such an early stage in the design process.

Feedback (at every stage, but especially in early stages) should be analyzed with critical thinking. People give feedback on what they understood from your concept. Some comments can be associated to the presentation appearance rather than the idea itself. This is why it was important to set the context of the research and the expectations explicitly, and not only rely on the medium to reflect the design stage.

Feedback instructions were very general (using “I like…, I wonder” cues). It was useful to elicit remarks and points of view we had not considered. Retrospectively, I think adding more specific questions would have helped guide our design progress.

Monitoring the progress

During the design phase, the design team identified key metrics associated with their objectives and design principles. These metrics might be part of the original employee satisfaction survey, or new ones (in which case we ran a short baseline survey before implementing changes). Thus, we can compare the subsequent surveys to our baseline metrics. Analyzing quantitative data by itself is not always straightforward though. Continuous work and interactions with the embedded design team helped us interpret the evolution of the data and fuel a continuous design effort.

Key takeaways

In org design, work cultures are well established. They exist on two levels: explicit and implicit. These levels might not be aligned or might even be in contradiction. User research is essential to uncover the implicit layer and the associated mechanisms that could impede or accelerate progress in the direction you want.

Design can’t just take heads-on a counter stance to the existing culture. If you don’t want new system to be dead in the water, changes need to be incremental. They need to be embedded in existing valued practices, from which they can borrow legitimacy before standing on their own once they have demonstrated their intrinsic value.

NB: you might have noticed I didn’t mention empathy: it’s because user research objective is much more than to generate empathy: it’s to reach a deeper level of understanding. Of course, being able to share users’ point of view is essential. However, empathy with one or multiple individuals’ situation won’t allow you to identify and solve their problems any better than they do. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, cross-referencing sources, UX research can piece together unconscious motivations or conflicts, implicit workplace culture, ingrained structural mechanisms that none of the actors are aware of.