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Design Thinking Delivers Improved Recruiting Outcomes

A man standing in front of a whiteboard with a business plan written on it.

Design-thinking principles, including emphasizing the user experience and measuring process improvements with metrics, can help employers address their recruiting challenges, according to a new study.

Design thinking has achieved significant buzz as an innovation methodology borrowed from the process and the methods that designers use to ideate and problem-solve. There are various approaches to the method, but most tend to adopt an iterative approach that creates solutions by repeating and refining the protocol with experimentation until the desired results are reached.

Companies using design thinking rated themselves as more effective at all stages of the talent acquisition process as compared to those that use little to no design thinking, a survey of 307 HR practitioners showed. The research was conducted by Human Capital Institute (HCI), a talent management association based in Cincinnati, and Lever, a recruiting platform based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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"In our survey of recruiting and HR professionals, we found many opportunities for the talent acquisition function to make improvements," said Jenna Filipkowski, research director at HCI. "Once the problems are identified, what is the next step? What I appreciate about design thinking is that it is a strategic, intentional approach to problem-solving."

Specifically, two aspects of design thinking can help talent acquisition teams devise more effective processes and solutions, according to Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer for Lever. "To understand what people truly want, you need to empathize with them—delve into their worlds, their priorities, their pain points and challenges," she said. "Consider hiring managers, interviewers, candidates and even fellow members of the recruiting team in specialized roles. Any recruiter who takes the time to empathize with all key sets of stakeholders has the potential to do a superior job, and any process which starts by gaining empathy for the various end-users will likely result in a more complete solution."

In other words, recruiters, hiring managers and candidates are re-envisioned as being connected by a shared experience.

The second aspect of design thinking that is relevant to talent acquisition is the act of defining the problem, Srinivasan said. "It's incredibly easy to hear some feedback and jump to a conclusion about how to fix an issue, but that may lead you to tackle the wrong question. Skilled design thinkers know they need to continually ask 'why' in order to make sure they are in fact answering the right question. Even then, they resist the urge to think they know the answer until they've brainstormed a full set of potential solutions."

A Long Way from the Tipping Point

Just over half (52 percent) of survey participants recognized the use of design thinking in some part of their organization, with most respondents reporting that design-thinking approaches are used by select teams or departments (24 percent), followed by certain individuals (14 percent). Only 2 percent said that design thinking was intrinsic across their organizations.

Nearly one-third (29 percent) described design thinking as a culture or mindset, whereas others indicated they viewed the discipline as a methodology (21 percent) or as a toolbox

of problem-solving strategies (15 percent) that can be deployed when needed.

"These findings are consistent with other studies indicating that most organizations localize their design-thinking practice in specific functions, while at the same time subscribing to the view that design thinking works best as a wider-reaching organizational mindset," Filipkowski said.

Organizations identified in the study as having a developed design-thinking process were found to be especially effective at interviewing candidates and assessing their skill level and fit with the company. Respondents from these organizations reported a significantly better candidate experience by delivering more timely and transparent communication, providing more complete status updates to candidates, creating better opportunities for them to provide feedback, and making the talent acquisition process more consistent and predictable.

The greatest contrasts with organizations that do not use design thinking were discovered around building sustainable talent pipelines and aligning talent acquisition strategies to business strategies.

"What these two activities have in common is that they require a hefty amount of communication, collaboration and planning," Srinivasan said. "At organizations that use design thinking, more empathy may be established upfront, which can help the various constituents communicate and collaborate more effectively on such complex tasks. For instance, talent pipelining requires the recruiter to have a heightened understanding of a function's hiring goals, future needs, and type of target talent, as well as the ability to empathize with and engage particular candidates over the long haul."

Focus on the User Experience

When asked which domains of experience are most important to consider when designing or refining the talent acquisition function, organizations with a developed design-thinking approach placed a stronger emphasis on the cognitive factors of the hiring manager, as well as on the emotional factors of both candidates and recruiters.

For example, recruiters need to understand the thinking styles and knowledge base of hiring managers' to better identify candidates who meet their requirements. "Don't waste a golden opportunity at the intake meeting with hiring managers to understand how they think and exactly what they're looking for in the role," Srinivasan said. "Talent leaders who provide their teams with tools to consistently ace the intake meeting will better solve for their hiring managers' cognitive needs over time."

And providing recruiters with streamlined workflows, thoughtful automation and consistent communication channels will allow them to more-effectively reach their hiring targets and manage the expectations of multiple stakeholders in the process. "For recruiters, emotional factors matter because of the strain they face in juggling multiple stakeholders and cross-functional relationships," Srinivasan said. 

Emotional factors are also critical for the candidate experience. "When a candidate isn't comfortable in a process or doesn't emotionally connect with the role and the company, it becomes harder for the organization to attract and retain them," Srinivasan said. "Find ways to help your candidate relax into your process and spend time with your employees in a setting that is less stressful than a formal interview. Companies like Lyft, Lever and Intrepid have used informal lunch interviews to reduce candidate stress levels and show them what company culture is really like, away from the artifices of the interview process."

Data Informs Design

Organizations that most rely on design thinking in developing and refining their talent acquisition processes are also the most likely to rely on data to inform their understanding of their recruiting function, the study found.

More than 80 percent of design-thinking organizations said they were most likely to rely on applicant tracking system data to help understand their talent acquisition process, followed by competitor research (48 percent). "Organizations who apply design thinking also use qualitative data from interviews and focus groups more often in order to understand the overall talent acquisition experiences at their organization," Filipkowski said.

"Organizations which use design thinking have a higher degree of focus on virtually every metric we asked about, with the exception of turnover in noncritical positions," Srinivasan said. "When you develop an understanding of the 'why' upfront, and implement steps to improve a process, it's only natural that you then want to measure the impact."

Organizations that rely on design thinking tend to focus on metrics such as time-to-fill for critical positions (88 percent), new-hire satisfaction (48 percent) and cost-per-hire (48 percent), according to the study.


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