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Segal Benz July 11, 2017 5 min read

Use product design ideas to create better employee benefits programs

When the name of the game is employee engagement, it’s time to stop thinking about your benefits as programs and start thinking of them as products—and design them accordingly. A successful product puts people first, and people are at the heart of your business and why you do what you do. Design thinking can help you create programs that attract and retain employees—and delight them along the way, too. When organizations infuse classic benefits program design with the ideas that product designers have been using for decades, they can create meaningful solutions and engaging products.

More intentionally designing benefits and communications will help you achieve better results.

As human resources and benefits managers, you’re also a “choice architect”—a professional who designs how choices can be presented to impact the decisions people make. Therefore, the decisions you make around the programs you design influence employees’ actions, and you need to make sure you can get people to take the right action at the right time. More intentionally designing benefits and communications will help you achieve better results.

At the recent Silicon Valley Employers Forum Benefits Communication Summit, held in Mountain View, California, we facilitated a panel on “How to think like a product designer,” where benefits leaders from Adobe and NetApp shared their recent successes of applying design thinking to the work they do.

You, too, can use these tenets from design thinking to push your benefits program design forward: Define the problem, conduct user research, brainstorm solutions, test ideas, iterate, and launch.

1. Define the problem

Many designers frame their problem into a “problem statement.” While this may seem like an obvious first step, using this formula to frame your needs allows you to define your problem in a more granular way, which helps with the next steps.

For benefits and HR professionals, your problem statement will evolve from a thought like this: “I’m creating X so I can help employees with Y.” You already do this daily. How often have you had thoughts such as, “If only I could reduce the number of employees struggling with diabetes?”

Ask yourself what you’re itching to help your employees with. Then, use your strong point of view to define meaningful, specific, and impactful problems to solve.

2. Conduct user research

User research is the process of talking to your employees about their needs, and it is a critical step in product design because this is how you gain empathy and insight into those you are creating solutions for. For example, you could invest significant time in restructuring your wellness program incentive to make it easier to complete—only to discover that it wasn’t the steps themselves that were preventing people from earning the incentive, but rather that the reward for completion just wasn’t motivating enough.

Talk to your employees to get honest feedback about what's holding them back—and learn what motivations can help move them forward.

We can’t emphasize this enough: Talk to your employees to get honest feedback about what’s holding them back—and learn what motivations can help move them forward.

User research is easier than you think, too: It’s fairly easy to recruit employees to interview, and generally, employees love to give HR and management feedback. The type of feedback you’re looking for—how someone feels about X or how someone interacts with Y—can help determine which method you should use to collect it. Focus groups, interviews, observing employees trying to complete a task, and conducting surveys are all great ways to gather user research.

3. Brainstorm solutions

Get creative! Brainstorming can generate non-traditional ideas for you to implement in the workplace and into your program designs.

One of the many benefits of brainstorming is bringing together people with diverse backgrounds to generate a broader and richer array of ideas. Including stakeholders at this early stage can help you get buy-in and support for your program rollout because they will feel like they had a voice in the solution, rather than being presented with an option they don’t like later down the road when it’s costly to change course.

What’s more, brainstorm sessions can be effective with just a 30-minute time commitment and 5 to 10 people, and the ideas generated can save you time down the road. An effective brainstorming session includes a mix of individual and group time, encouragement for all to contribute, employees from many departments and different job functions to get multiple perspectives, and enforcement of time limits to encourage participants to work smarter and faster.

4. Test your best ideas

How many times have you seen something rolled out to the business, such as a new leave of absence vendor or employee ticket system, only to have it not work as expected? 

Product designers often use prototypes to test their ideas, and there are many quick ways to do this in HR.

Testing your ideas allows you to see what works and what doesn’t before you commit to a costly and, perhaps, incorrect solution. Product designers often use prototypes to test their ideas, and there are many quick ways to do this in HR.

A prototype doesn’t have to be complex or fully developed to be effective, and it certainly doesn’t have to be refined. Prototypes can be anything—for example, mockups of communication samples to see how they are received, or a pilot program rolled out only to a small group of users to test its effectiveness. It can even be a simulation of what you want someone to experience. Let’s say you’re launching a new HR Portal. You can test assumptions about how content should be grouped, see how users interact with the content, and see how easily they find information or take desired actions with a prototype. In this case, it could be as simple as a card-sort activity for categorization.

Pilot programs involve rolling out your beta program to a small group of users, then seeing how they interact with it and assessing whether it gives you the desired results. You can do this on a very small and informal basis and, at the same time, gain valuable insight.

5. Iterate and launch

The nature of benefits is to evolve on an annual cycle. When you build iteration into your planning process, you can make those annual changes much more effective. Iteration is how you refine the best ideas you tested. The process generally involves taking everything you learned in testing to update your idea; running the version back through users for feedback; then continuing to update and adjust your program design as needed.

Make sure you have a strong plan in place for delivery and execution. Without it, even the best-designed program will struggle to be successful.

Benefits program design doesn’t have to be limited by commonly accepted practices. Design thinking can be used both for large rollouts (like new programs), and to help you find smaller-scale solutions that help you meet your program goals. Try thinking like a product designer to give your programs and work an innovative boost that will draw in employees—and keep them engaged.

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