The 4 Essentials of Designing the Employee Experience

People have fun at a theme park.

The experience an employee has at work each day drives how they feel about work, and how we feel about work is at the heart of employee engagement.

When is the last time you remember saying, "That was a really great experience." Maybe it was the last time you ate at a restaurant with amazing food and service. Maybe it was when you visited Disney World with your kids. Maybe it was your last visit to a medical facility.

Why does that experience stand out? It's more than likely because of how it made you feel: happy, delighted, cared for, safe. Those positive feelings are incredibly powerful. You've probably told others about your experience and would gladly do it again.

This is why employee experience is so important. The experience an employee has at work each day drives how they feel about work, and how we feel about work is at the heart of employee engagement.

Great Experience Is Designed

In most cases, when you have a great experience, it's not an accident. Long before you visited that restaurant, the owner or manager made some very specific decisions about the experience they wanted to create for their customers. They designed the experience, from the menu to the paint colors, with the goal of making you feel a specific way.

What if we applied this kind of design to the employee experience? The answer to sustainably improving employee engagement (and as a result, employee performance) might be to start from the very beginning by designing a more engaging employee experience.

What Is Design?

At its most basic level, design is about intention. Applying design means starting by clarifying the desired impact we wish our work to have on others. If you've ever planned a birthday party for your child or a surprise party for a loved one, you may have already experienced an informal design process.

As you began planning the party, you probably had an answer to this question in your mind: How do I want them to feel at the party? For your child, you may have decided you wanted them to be extremely happy and feel like it's the best birthday party ever. For your loved one, you may have wanted them to feel overwhelmed with love and joy.

These are the first and most critical steps of design: knowing who you are designing for and declaring how you want to make them feel.

Understanding the Design Process

Design process can range from simple to complex. But, even a basic understanding of the process and how it works can help you as you begin to more intentionally shape the employee experience at your organization. One popular way to capture the design process is the 4D model. It describes design as having four steps: discover, define, develop and deliver.

Rather than simply explain each step, let's apply it to a simple example as well. Let's assume you want to design a new goal-setting process for employees and managers that fuels employee engagement. Here's how the design process would work.

1. Discover

The first step of design is to understand the problem you are trying to solve and who you are solving it for. It's about trying to see the problem with new eyes to gather information and new insights that help you understand the solution and the opportunities inherent in solving it.

For goal setting, you might talk to employees and managers about their experience with goals in the past. You may also do research to understand different approaches to goals and their relative impact.

2. Define

Next, using the insights gained in the first step, you try to make sense of what matters most and clarify your design intentions. You should emerge from the define phase having articulated how you want those using the process to feel and what matters most in the process. How could you make the process more engaging?

For goal setting, you might decide that most importantly, you want employees to feel empowered and that to accomplish that, the process needs to be participative and collaborative between employee and manager.

3. Develop

Now you begin creating and testing solutions. In this phase, you can think creatively about what kind of solution might meet the goals and intentions you defined. Then, find ways to validate and test the solutions.

For goal setting, you could create a few different approaches to participative goal setting and pilot those with different groups of managers and employees. The feedback and results of the pilots would guide the decision on which is best.

4. Deliver

This is the step in the process that warrants the least explanation. It's taking the designed solution and getting it launched.

For our goal setting example, this would include creating documentation, applying needed technology, create training, communicating and deploying the new process.

HR as Employee Experience Designer

If we are to create workplaces that engage and retain talent, it starts with designing the employee experience. HR professionals must learn and master the skills of design to make this happen. While you are building this new competency, you can use one simple question to remind you to bring more intention to your work in HR: How do we want them to feel?

Anytime you are creating something that will impact employees, ask this question. Whether it's a communication plan, a payroll form or a training class — ask the question.

By reminding yourself and those around you of your intentions, you'll be one big step closer to making it happen.

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