Maybe you think you don't have any experience with design thinking, or that it's just another corporate buzzword with no real application in your world. Well, if you've ever found yourself in a conference room brainstorming ideas on Post-It Notes, then you probably know more than you think!

Design thinking is simply a method for solving problems and discovering new opportunities using a structured creative process.

The earliest forms of design thinking were developed more than 30 years ago to assist architects with the designing of buildings and the planning of urban spaces. In the 1990s, the design firm IDEO made the process hip when they began to market a more formal methodology. Their approach was created to develop innovative new products and services for their blue chip clients.

Today, design thinking has experienced a resurgence as companies all over the world desperately search for ways to reinvent themselves in the midst of a fast-moving technological revolution. At Cielo, we use it as a core methodology in our SkyLabs innovation engine, which serves as a framework to help us develop solutions to the most difficult recruiting and talent acquisition problems for ourselves and our diverse base of clients.

So, while design thinking is typically thought of as a tool for designers to create new products, recruiting teams can use a modified version of it to improve processes and enhance services.

Illustration of Cielo's Design Thinking Framework for Innovation


Begin With the End User in Mind

The most important principal in design thinking is that the end user is the main focus.

While that sounds simple, far too often leaders deploy their teams to come up with solutions without involving input from their end users or customers. The result is an ineffective solution or a failed product or service.

Below are the basic steps of how you can use design thinking in recruitment. While this article won’t make you an expert in running a workshop, it should stimulate some ideas of how you can approach some of your biggest recruiting problems using a more human-centered approach.

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on nine high-level steps that you could take to tackle a problem that you’re facing today.

Step 1: Define the Problem

While you’ll want to be specific when defining the problem, be sure not to be so specific that you’re defining the solution at the same time. For example, let’s say you’ve gotten some feedback that the candidate experience for your executive hires has not been great.

Here are some “bad, better, best” examples of how to frame the problem:

  • “Improve the candidate experience.” (Bad - Too Vague)
  • “Improve the candidate experience during the Interview Process” (Better)
  • “Improve the candidate experience for executive level interviews.” (Best!)
  • “Improve the candidate experience during the executive interview process by using video interviewing solutions so the candidate doesn’t have to travel.” (Bad)

The problem with the last statement is that you’ve already assumed what the solution is before you even start the design process. You want to leave the problem open-ended to allow yourself some space to expand your thinking.

Step 2: Conduct Research

Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to talk to your end users. In this case, your end-user should be an executive who recently experienced your interview process.

Specifically, you’ll want to find out what they were saying, thinking, feeling and doing as they progressed through their interviews.

There are a few good ways to collect this information, but make sure that you choose your subjects correctly first. Pay special attention to two types of users – executives who haven’t interviewed in a really long time and executives who report a high volume of recent interviewing experience. These candidates will give you the best insights.

Three of the most popular methods to collect feedback are: immersion, interviewing and observing. Interviewing is by far the most common, but you shouldn’t ignore the other options.

When interviewing an end user, focus on open-ended questions that follow the WWWWWH format. Here are a few sample questions you might ask:

Who … was your main point of contact during your interview process? (Who does executive interviews really well?)

What … did you expect to happen that didn’t happen?

When … is it most convenient for you to interview? (How can we better accommodate your schedule?)

Where … did you fly into? Where did you come from? Where did you stay? (How was your experience?)

Why … Why is a great follow-up question to ask after your interviewee speaks.

How … did you feel when you left the interview?

We’re not trying to lead the executive to any particular solution, but instead asking them some broad questions about their interviewing experience and interviewing in general. By letting them lead the conversation, you’ll get the insights that you need to focus your problem solving.

Step 3: Uncover Insights

Once you have collected a good number of user stories and you’re starting to see patterns in their responses, the next step in the design thinking process is to synthesize the data into a “Point of View Statement (POV).”

The POV statement is a sentence that articulates – from the user’s point-of-view – the emotional pain point that will guide your solution design. Here are a couple examples:

“As an executive, fitting multiple rounds of interviews into my schedule is stressful because I’m always busy and often traveling.”


“As an executive, it’s risky for me to interview at corporate headquarter locations because I’m afraid that someone will see me and it will get back to my leadership team.”

These statements are in the voice of the candidate and reveal their emotional discomfort.

Step 4: Create a “POV Question”

Once you’ve decided on a POV statement, create a question that will serve as the starting point for your ideation sessions. These are sometimes called POV Questions and they help to focus your team on the topic of your brainstorm.

A recommended strategy is to use the words “How might we …” at the beginning of the question, like this:

“How might we … alleviate calendar and travel conflicts for executive interviewers?”


“How might we … protect the confidentiality of executive candidates during the interview process?”

Notice that we didn’t include any solutions, and instead just asked an insightful question. These questions actually target two different problems, so eventually you’ll want to focus on the one question that will solve the highest priority problem.

Step 5: Ideation

Now that you have a user-generated insight and a POV question to focus your thinking, it’s time to break out the Post-It Notes and generate ideas – this is the "thinking" part of design thinking. Invite different types of people to this ideation session to ensure diversity of thought. Consider Recruiters, Coordinators, Hiring Managers, Executives and even some recent candidates. The more input here, the better.

Ideation sessions can be fun, but if you don’t manage them properly, they can become counterproductive. A good size for a group is around five or six, so if you have 15 people, break them into three groups of five.

Step 6: Prototype

Once you’ve developed lots of ideas and you’ve ruthlessly eliminated the majority of them, you’ll want to pick your best idea and build a simple prototype that you can quickly launch and test.

A prototype could be a new policy, a new process, a PDF help document, a video or a tool. Whatever it is, make it cheap and fast and go to the next step – testing!

In the case of our executive recruitment example, maybe your prototype is a quick test to incorporate a video interview solution that might solve BOTH your travel issues and your confidentiality challenges!

Step 7: Test

If you really want to know if your solution works, you’ll want to test it with your target audience and gather feedback again.

This process of prototyping and testing might go on for a few cycles until you get it right.

Sticking with the video interviewing theme, think about how you could use existing technology you already own – like WebEx or Skype – to experiment immediately. Do this instead of going out and buying a video interview solution that might take time, cost money, etc. Maybe you end up buying a video interview solution later, but you’ll want to prove the concept first with user feedback.

Step 8: Refine

The key to the prototype and test plan is to gather feedback and refine the solution.

For example, if you find that a certain video solution isn’t working properly, try a different one instead of scrapping the entire idea. For executives, maybe a WebEx or Skype isn’t polished enough. Maybe you need a more professional solution.

The key is to prototype, test, measure, refine. Repeat.

Step 9: Launch

While “launching” might sound like a one-time event, you should never stop gathering data, building new prototypes, testing and refining. Realistically, it can’t go on forever, so you might want to set up regular intervals where you capture feedback and review the data.

To bring closure to our fictional executive interviewing problem, what is our solution to the question of “How might we alleviate calendar and travel conflicts for executive interviewers?”

It might be to launch a new process for executive interviews that incorporates the use of a network of locations that have professional video capabilities – like a telepresence camera – for example. The executive can travel to a location wherever they happen to be (reducing flight expense and time) and preserve their anonymity by not having to walk around a corporate campus and be seen. And the video is so good that it feels like they’re almost in the room with you.

Learning More & Doing it Right

Applying design thinking to the recruitment process takes time and effort to do correctly. While most recruiting teams are familiar with brainstorming sessions, they often miss the user-centric, research-based work that makes the design thinking process so effective.

While I highly recommend that you acquire (or hire) the skills to incorporate this methodology into your problem-solving toolkit, I can’t stress enough that you should invest the time to do it correctly. It takes effort, but the results are amazing.

To learn more about design thinking, you can educate yourself with something as simple as this YouTube video or take a certification course straight from the people who do this work every day.



Post contributed by James Colino, Manager, Technology Enablement. Find him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.