Design thinking is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment. But, what exactly does it mean? IDEO, a global design agency, defines it as “a process for creative problem solving” with “a human-centred core”, which “encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes” (IDEOU 2019). Design thinking normally involves three core components: the first, empathy, or taking a user-focused approach; the second, ideation, or brainstorming; and the third, prototyping, or iteratively trying and testing new ideas (IDEAU 2019). In this article, I’ll be focusing on the critical first component to any form of design work: empathy with your audience.
Whether designing a brand, an experience, product, or service, a good first step is to get under the skin of the audience you’re designing for. Even the greatest idea can get lost or not land when put into practice, if user needs are not considered. While for typical brand agencies, users will be customers, for employer brand projects, we’re specifically interested in how employees and potential candidates think and act – what their motivations, priorities and behaviours are. Without understanding what they’re looking for and how they behave, we won’t be able to shape messages and experiences that resonate with and engage them.
So, what are the tools we use to understand users? The primary, most common tool we use is personas. A persona is a simple and easy-to-use way to keep users – in our case potential candidates and employees – at the front of mind at all times throughout the design process.
To create truly authentic personas, they need to be backed up by research. We typically use both quantitative and qualitative research methods to gather audience insights – from online surveys to gather responses from a wide cut of the population, to interviews and focus groups to gather more detailed, textured information about the target audience. However, if there’s not a lot of time to conduct research and build a full persona, empathy mapping is a great way to start understanding the audience and put yourself in your users’ shoes. Empathy mapping involves brainstorming with internal teams about what a target user may think, feel, act and do.
In terms of the type of information to cover (and questions to ask), that will all depend on the requirements and specifics of the project at hand. While a one-size-fits-all approach to shaping personas generally doesn’t allow you to capture all of the relevant details you may need, starting with a few key topics is generally a good start. Typically, if we take the example of a potential candidate, aside from demographic information, we’d also want to know about their goals and key priorities in a new role, i.e essentially what’s motivating them to apply, along with what could potentially deter them from applying to or enjoying a role. All of the questions asked will help reveal key drivers of behaviour that will help inform the design.
Particularly in our fast-paced, increasingly individualised world, taking the time to understand and empathise with the target audience is absolutely critical in shaping an employer brand that works – one that matters and one that will last. While what the client wants and what designers think works best certainly plays a role, it’s imperative that those two considerations don’t ever cloud or supercede what the target audience cares about. And this is precisely why a simple, easy-to-use tool like personas can have such a big impact on brand design.