The “overwhelmed employee” has become a familiar term in HR over the last years; employees are experiencing a continuous stream of information and new technologies but don’t know how to translate that stream into higher productivity. What’s more, the high number of decisions increases workload and stress.

Design thinking is an answer that HR and L&D can use to increase productivity and happiness. What are the four most important principles of design thinking that can be implemented in learning and development?

1. Putting the Employee at the Center of Consideration

In Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report, design thinking received the subtitle “Crafting the employee experience.” To increase productivity, HR has to decrease complexity and support employee tasks with attractive and simple technological solutions. This is a worldwide trend; 79 percent of the HR managers Deloitte interviewed said design thinking is an important or very important issue. However, a lot of training and compliance programs are still based on outdated processes and live meetings. Putting the employees at the center of consideration can help us design L&D with far greater efficiency. How are they moving throughout the day? What technology are they using? How can we make sure that they are able to make the right decisions in the least amount of time and equip themselves with a relevant skillset?

Programs based on this perspective increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of entire organizations. At one Australian telecom company, two out of every three store employees left within their first two months. After observing staff members in their first nine months at the job, the company created a roadmap of required information and skills connected to specific periods in time. The intimidating and overwhelming amount of information for new employees was replaced by an app that served the right training exercises at the right times. This program made the traditional classical forms of training redundant and resulted in higher revenue and lower turnover.

2. Thinking about Solutions, Not Programs

Most organizations value customer experience greatly. Similarly, design thinking focuses on the experiences of employees by handing them solutions that match the situations they actually deal with on a regular basis. This concept, called experiential learning and popularized by David Kolb, means that employees are included more; trainers are removed as the central focal point; and, by forming a continuously active feedback loop of “doing and reflecting,” employees’ skill sets are strengthened. Instead of a static LMS, new technologies should constantly adapt to new work environments.


In an Australian government organization, 27,000 external employees were frustrated by their inability to manage their schedules or other processes using their own devices. This problem led to the introduction of a new system that included a mobile app, so information became available and customizable anytime and anywhere.

3. Providing Intuitive Learning Technology

This example shows the importance of technology that seamlessly connects to employees’ daily practice. Not every employee is the same, however, so design thinking considers certain personas: fictive employees who each represent a specific group, like the external employees. These personas need to be able to work and learn efficiently within their own environment and to easily access both required information and required skills. Technology for learning must work intuitively to make that happen.

Managers at Deloitte are using an example of this intuitive technology in video role-plays. Armed with just their tablet or smartphone, employees retreat into a quiet room for a short period of soft skills training. These skills might be of use later in the same day – when presiding over a staff meeting, for instance. These role-plays are far more effective than waiting for that periodic afternoon of one-off practice in a classroom.

4. Questioning, Testing and Developing

Deloitte reports that companies growing with a rate of over 10 percent annually are three to four times more ready to implement design thinking than their slower-growing competitors. Of course, this is no direct proof for the effects of design thinking, but it illustrates the innovative mindset that is required to improve productivity. Just as companies are constantly trying to improve customer experience, L&D should be trying to do the same for the experiences of their employees. Prototypes, which lead to pilots, allow organizations to implement new learning tools quickly, after which the reaction of the pilot group can provide input for the general rollout of the program.

Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra, developed a new onboarding program, which included several versions of tools for knowledge-sharing. Although these programs often were not fully completed, the quick implementation led to desired adjustments being made immediately. An important result of the program was a clear increase in productivity, while new employees who successfully passed the program were able to maintain their new levels of productivity.

Marijn de Geus is co-founder and CEO of TrainTool, offering smart video role plays to develop soft skills.