INNOVATE

To Dramatically Improve Employee Communication, Use Design Thinking

Change your perspective to become “customer”-centric

Share on
BY Alison Davis - 13 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Let's say your job is to create a product--and your objective is to get customers to buy your product. Naturally, you'd want to learn everything you can about customers so that you fully understand their needs and preferences. And then you'd design your product to meet those needs and market the product so customers understand how it benefits them.

Sounds sensible, right? In fact what I just described is the definition of design thinking, which Jennifer Brandel, CEO of the tech company Hearken, describes as "a way of understanding the needs of the people you're building a solution for, and testing that solution with them before creating it."

The term "design thinking," which was coined back in 2003 by IDEO cofounder David Kelley, has become synonymous with taking a user-centric approach to creating products and services.

Since design thinking is so effective, it's surprising how rarely this philosophy is followed in employee communication. Most internal communication is created to meet senior and functional leaders' needs. For example, an email about a new bonus program is written to appeal to the head of HR, who wants to share the full story of how the bonus supports the company's compensation strategy. But employees aren't interested in that background information; they just want to know how much money they'll get.

Brandel writes that the problem is often that "organizations believe they already know what their audience, customers, and users need." But I also find that even companies that are really good at thinking about their actual customers don't apply the customer-centric mindset to employees.

That's why internal communication needs to adopt (and advocate for) design thinking.

To help you get started, I've curated insights about design thinking from experts who understand how it works. (There are lots of articles and books available about how to implement design thinking; for example, Harvard Business Review often covers the topic.)

Let's start with Clay Chandler, who writes for Fortune Magazine. "Technology and globalization are leading to more and faster disruption than ever," he writes. "To stay ahead, smart companies are turning to design to better connect with customers and find their competitive advantage. In this new landscape, smart corporate leaders are embracing the idea that design--channeling insight to delight and truly connect with customers and users--can be a crucial differentiator."

And here's AirBnB cofounder Joe Gebbia. "To me, design thinking is another way of saying emphathize with the customer. It's consideration for the person you're designing for. That's all it is. What it means is you're going to spend the time and the efforts to understand of the needs of the person you're designing for such that you can create something that's valuable to them."

What design thinking is not, explains Gebbia, is writing down "every feature request or every complaint that a customer has and just transmit that into a one-to-one match. So Part 2 is, you come back to your studio and your place of creation and combine what you learned with your own point of view and your own creativity and your own imagination as a designer. The term I use for this is 'enlightened empathy.'"

And let's go back to Jennifer Brandel, who works with newspapers and other media organizations to apply design thinking to the content they create. "While, on the surface, this might seem like a natural way to operate, for various reasons people don't always test their ideas or solutions with their intended audience first, before the big efforts are applied," Brandel writes. "Design thinking is a way of avoiding these expensive mistakes by creating more room for failure (learning) as early on as possible."

In the case of newspapers, Brandel explains that often "newsrooms aren't empathizing, prototyping, or testing their work with their audience before they publish. What does this mean? It means limited effectiveness. It means newsrooms create stories they think serve their audience, but they don't know if they're right until it's too late and they've already made the investment. It means a lot of money and time sunk on stories that don't necessarily resonate with, help, or serve people."

Sound familiar? If you've ever complained that employees don't read or watch the content you create, the problem may be just this simple: Communication is not meeting employees' needs. The solution? Use design thinking to decide what changes you need to make.