4 people standing in front of a brick wall, smiling into the camera.

Best practice report: how service design methods helped HR managers focus on their employees’ needs

May 29, 2019

The Federal Association of Personnel Managers together with hkp/// group launched an initiative to introduce design thinking into HR departments throughout Germany, independent of the company size or industry. Participants learned how to apply service design methods to HR to boost their employee experience and increase employee loyalty towards the company.

Please note: the videos linked on this article are in German language

About the organization

Bundesverband der Personal Manager (BPM) is the German Federal Association of HR Managers. hkp/// group is an international consulting company specialized in HR topics such as performance management, talent management and compensation.

In 2017, BPM and hkp///group conducted two one day workshops on design thinking for HR managers in order to put employees at the center of a company’s attention. After seeing the high interest in the topic, both institutions agreed to dig deeper and develop a series of events to make personnel managers familiar with the methods of service design and help them in applying this approach to their own work. The group decided to start an employee experience (EX) design challenge. To address this challenge they had a series of events and workshops (more in this video).

Personnel managers often think in processes. They try to make things efficient, to implement orders from the management or the board, but sometimes forget the employee perspective. In recruiting, still quite a lot of importance is attached to it, as the personnel manager acts like a sales representative. However, once staff is employed, this perspective often falls flat. This is precisely the challenge we want to address in our employee experience design challenge.
Leon Jacob, Senior Manager, hkp///group
A persona created in Smaply, is an employee of the company and called Andreas
A persona created in Smaply, is an employee of the company and called Jana

The aim of the project was to have HR managers experience service design methods to introduce the topic of employee experience design, and to develop employee and experience-oriented HR solutions together. The series consisted of four events with very specific topics that were supposed to guide participants through the process of analyzing and improving employee experience.

  • Understanding the baseline situation by using personas and system maps
  • Creating employee journeys and defining moments that matter
  • Ideation and prototyping innovative, employee-centric solutions
  • Reflection of practical tests, derivation of key insights and recommendations (more in this video)
Link to basics of personas article: You will learn what personas are, why you need them, how to research, define and create them and some templates and a cheat sheet.

Session 1

In the first workshop (more in this video), HR managers considered the various perspectives of employees and tried to understand the various needs, motivations and problems. To do so they created eight personas, including demographic information on the persona itself as well as a quote, a description, key attributes and open questions.

The personas helped to tackle diverse questions, e.g., what different kinds of employees are there within the organizations? Which is the largest group of employees? How fast are the different groups growing? Which groups are experiencing problems? Based on the personas, attendees learned that they have to understand crucial moments of their employees’ lives and take a persona’s characteristics into account when making design decisions.

In the next step, workshop participants collected three to five ideas each for topics of high importance to the eight personas and sorted them by a method called octopus clustering.

Octopus clustering is used for understanding, clustering and ranking ideas or information. Participants are standing in rows in front of a wall of sticky notes. While the front row is sorting them, the second row is advising and rows behind can take other support functions. The rows change every 30 seconds so that everyone can take over different roles and actively participant in the sorting process. This methods helps sorting out ideas quickly, but at the same time makes sure that the whole group knows the content.

As a result, they identified three hot topics: career development and further education, recognition and work-life-balance.

For each of the three hot topics, the participants developed a system map to understand which stakeholders, instruments and systems are relevant from an employee’s perspective. The participants chose one persona each to be placed at the center of each system map in order to think through the challenge through their eyes. Taking the example of work-life-balance, attendees created a system map for the persona Andreas and everybody and everything relevant to balancing his work with his private ecosystem. On the system maps, participants analyzed how Andreas and the other personas are connected to other stakeholders, how they influence each other and how the network influences the persona’s experience.

people standing in front of a glasswall clustering sticky notes
Octopus clustering

After the first session, personas and system maps were both digitized with Smaply. Based on the digital documentation, the workshop participants as well as more than 4.500 BPM members were invited to comment and discuss the results. The team used the BPM group on the social network Xing to share their results and tell the story of the three personas and their experience with the three hot topics. The aim was to further discuss the outcome and share insights within an even bigger group of HR managers.

System map created in Smaply, visualizing the working time agreement
System map – working time agreement

Accepting not to know what the customer needs, but to involve the customer in the solution finding, is what we have tried to communicate today. We need more customer orientation also in HR, and change our perspective. Taking this different perspective and being able to offer solutions, is in short what employee experience is supposed to achieve.
Felicitas von Kyaw, VP HR, Coca-Cola European Partners

Session 2

The second workshop looked at the topics defined in the first workshop as a holistic experience rather than just a process. The goal was to immerse even more into the experience of the three personas and explore their experience.

By creating employee journeys and visualizing them, participants understood how the three personas, Andreas, Jana, and Stefan, experience the three hot topics. This allowed the workshop participants to identify the moments that matter most for the employee experience and develop first ideas how to overcome them.

This journey map created in Smaply visualizes how the three personas experience the three hot topics.

During this first short ideation process, participants used methods like the ‘10 plus 10’ and created advertisements for exactly one challenge.

In a 10 plus 10 session, participants sketch 10 ideas per team individually in only a few minutes for a challenge. Everyone then explains his or her 10 ideas to the rest of the team and together they choose just one idea. Again everyone works on this one idea again making 10 variations of it. Thus, the team shared their results again and thus can sketch ideas as well as visualize them.

For example, one idea suggested a campaign where employees with children share their knowledge and at the same time support each other. By initializing such a project, the company could make the statement that job and family reconciliation is important for them, and create an authentic offer.

Session 3

Based on the knowledge gained about the needs and experiences of employees from the first two workshops, participants generated further ideas and built on previous ideas during the third workshop in Bremen. By using prototyping methods such as desktop walkthroughs, prototyping with legos or developing click dummies, they developed employee-oriented prototypes. For the persona Andreas e.g., they further developed a network of employees to share experiences about various topics. This can be working hours, further education, family, building a house, nutrition, health, sports, and an internal marketplace.

Desktop walkthroughs are simulation of end-to-end customer experiences like an interactive mini theater play to test various alternatives or variations of a service.

All BPM members were invited to test these developed prototypes in their organizations as well as again discuss the outcome on their Xing group or further develop the employee journey map.

Advertisement 1 – Arbeitszeitgestaltung
Advertisement 2 – Arbeitszeitgestaltung

Session 4

During the last event, workshop attendees reflected on the prototypes based on testing and developed key insights and recommendations for the improvement of those prototypes. As a conclusion, participants also reflected about the workshop series, the topics defined, the methods used during the workshop as well as the attitude of participants toward this new approach. They considered questions such as, What added value does the employee-centric approach towards HR solutions have to offer? When and where can we apply employee experience design in practice? And where are the limitations of this approach?

After each workshop participants received a written documentation via the Xing Community and were invited to participate and further work on the results achieved in the personnel workshops.

Insights and challenges

The project included HR managers from various industries, many of them without any prior knowledge about design thinking or service design methods. It helped participants get an idea of this new way of working and what the approach has to offer in a hands on way.

I loved that we worked so highly interactive! Developing personas and system maps, living through the employee experience with journey maps and diving into a process of iterative prototyping allowed us to bring employee experience design to life. As a result we were able to truly inspire the participants of our four workshops and have an impact on the bigger HR community.
Leon Jacob, Senior Manager, hkp///group

Participants enjoyed getting to know the new techniques and had fun applying them. Also BPM members, who were somehow already familiar with e.g. the method of persona development, could deepen their knowledge and take a step further.

We had already developed a persona once for the topic of recruiting. But we got stuck right there. Now we can restart exactly at this point, think about the next step, work on it in more detail and push the topic forward.
Stefanie Brehm, d-fine GmbH

However, the biggest challenge proved to be the ultimate questions: how can participants actually transfer these methods into their daily work life within their organizations? How can the management board be convinced to apply this new way of thinking and doing instead of classical approaches of problem solving?

Participants agreed that the implementation of the ideas would vary between the different projects or organizations and needs to be adapted to each single case.

photo of the initiators of the EX design challenge
Initiators of the EX design challenge: Friederike Schröder (BPM), Felicitas von Kyaw (Coca-Cola), Dr. Katharina Schiederig (BPM), Leon Jacob (hkp///group)

These methods are practicable for single people who can use them straight away in their daily work life. But they can also be applied in bigger projects, where managers try to see things from a different perspective by creating employee journeys or system maps for their own staff. I think it can also be a really exciting and interesting way how to further develop managers themselves.
Simone Chronz, Toyo Tyre Europe GmbH

By engaging participants or other interested people to discuss outcomes online after the events, the organizers aimed to get even more input and reach a higher number of people. Smaply played a key role to visualize results and collect further feedback on the journey maps created during the third event. After the workshop, if people had questions or wanted to discuss things with others they were invited to use the Xing community to get in touch with their working group, share experiences and support each other.

Not to assume what the employee needs, but to involve them in finding the right solution, this is what we tried to do. User-centricity also has to happen within HR. HR managers need to think from another perspective to offer good solutions. This is what employee experience is all about.
Felicitas von Kyaw, VP HR, Coca-Cola European Partners


This workshop series and co-creative approach aimed to introduce HR managers to service design methods. It succeeded in giving participants inspirations and stimuli how they could apply a more employee-centered approach in their daily work. Participants tried various methods like personas, journey maps and system maps, and could actively develop their own ones. They ended up with a toolkit in mind that they could apply to future or current HR challenges.

We were a very mixed group of colleagues from rather small organizations all the way to big corporates. But interestingly, the output was equally useful for everybody. It was fun and helped us to sharpen the focus on who are we actually dealing with when we talk about our employees. In HR you often think you know everything about the employ- ees in your organization. But as part of our journey we realized this is not always the case. Embracing the research phase and approaching EX design with an open mind has taken us further.
Michael Picker, Deutsche Bahn AG

As a result of this series, hkp/// and BPM published the employee experience Design Playbook (more in this video). This print and online publication helps personnel managers design employee experience in their own company and win employees as fans.


Goal of the project: introducing the approach of employee experience within HR departments throughout Germany

Project duration: June – October 2018

Number of workshop participants: ~100
Number of journey maps created: 3

Number of personas created: 8

Number of system maps created: 3

photo of people in a seminar room with white boards, sticky notes and a speaker. An overlay with writing "Employee Experience Design Playbook"

Session Videos

Session 1: Understanding personas

Session 2: Creating journey maps

Session 3: Ideation phase

Session 4: Prototyping