Designing a Better Hiring Process: Q&A with the Founders of Practical Service Design

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Erik Flowers and Megan Erin Miller use talent acquisition examples to explain service design basics and discuss why recruiters are actually designers.

Erik Flowers and Megan Miller, founders of Practical Service Design

Erik Flowers and Megan Erin Miller (Courtesy: Practical Service Design)

Erik Flowers is a principal customer experience designer at Intuit, and Megan Erin Miller is a service designer manager at Stanford University. Together, they are the founders of Practical Service Design, a resource and community meant to help make service design more accessible, practical, and teachable for designers and non-designers alike.

Over email, we discussed how the approach can be applied to talent acquisition, to improve both the hiring process and candidate experience.

“If we can’t fix or enhance who we are on the inside, how can we expect a candidate to be excited to work for us?”

You define service design as “a human-centered design approach that places equal value on the customer experience and the business process.” Is this a method that could benefit the candidate experience as it does the customer experience?

Absolutely. The word “customer” in this sense is just a shorthand for “the ones which we are serving.”

In this case, the candidate is the identified actor that the service is built to accommodate. Regardless of the context, there is something performing a service for someone. In this case, it’s the talent acquisition service and the candidates they are trying to attract. There’s still an exchange going on that is mediated by the service. You want the best candidates, and they want a job that fits their needs. It’s not an exchange of money as payment, it’s an exchange of time. You’re asking them to pay with the experience they go through, and what they’re trying to buy is the eventual outcome, the job offer.

How might you apply service design to improve an organization’s hiring process?

This is sort of a trick question; you’d apply it the same way you would to anything else!

In fact, I [Erik] am working on our recruiting and candidate experience at Intuit, as an extracurricular project dealing with how we recruit from college career fairs, take people through the screening and interview processes, through their internships, and to the eventual hire or not. This is a classic service design project; we’re looking at the front stage experience of the candidate, and then linking it with the backstage experience of our internal actors who make it happen. It’s a process that happens over a period of time, with multiple actors, policies, systems; textbook service design and blueprinting. When you look at the choreography it takes behind the scenes to make this happen, it’s quite a process. Blueprinting this out is letting us find opportunities where we can improve our internal processes, as well as the candidate experience. If we can’t fix or enhance who we are on the inside, how can we expect a candidate to be excited to work for us?

“Candidate experience” is much discussed in the talent acquisition community, but poorly defined. Often, it is described in tactical terms (“we have a great candidate experience, we send applicants an email acknowledging receipt of their application!”). How would a service designer define candidate experience?

This goes back to Practical Service Design’s core tenet of seeing things end-to-end, surface-to-core. A candidate experience could spans days or weeks, and if you were to map it out, contain dozens of steps to get from initial awareness to the final resolution. Think of how many touchpoints – the points of interaction you have with a candidate – and how many channels you use to carry out those interactions. If you truly decomposed and unpacked the candidate experience, you’ll find dozens of touchpoints crossing many different channels, all along a timeline that occurs in a linear fashion for each candidate. And the beauty, and curse, is that no matter how well you think you design your service, the candidate still chooses how they traverse it and designs their own experience each and every time.

We can only design for service, we can’t design their actual personal experience.

Journey mapping is gaining traction in the talent acquisition space; talent teams at organizations including HomeDepot.com and Airbnb have developed maps to visualize and improve the candidate experience. Could service blueprinting also prove useful for that purpose? What might that look like?

Service blueprinting talent acquisition scenarios is a perfect application. There is the frontstage that the candidates see and interact with, the backstage where the talent and recruiting folks operate to keep that frontstage working and the candidate moving along, as well as a hidden behind-the-scenes that is dictating what can or can’t happen given how the service is set up.

What is important to note about the service blueprint is that it’s not documenting how the experience was designed. Typically, how we think the candidate journey is designed is how it actually occurs. This is rarely the case. The service blueprint goes deeper to actually map that end-to-end, surface-to-core reality of how the service is delivered. Think of a journey as a “tale” and a blueprint as a “script.” They reside at different ends of the subjective/objective continuum.

“Sloppy experiences are easy for us, hard for the candidate. Good experiences are hard for us, and easy for the candidate.”

What is the difference between “frontstage” and “backstage?” Can you offer a hiring-related example to illustrate?

The frontstage is where the candidates live. This is the terrain they traverse as they try to get from beginning to end. Everything that happens in the frontstage is visible to them. This could be an applicant tracking system, an interaction with a recruiter, a campus visit, a phone call, an on-site visit, or anything else that the candidate can see on their side of the “stage,” as if they are an actor in a play but don’t know it.

The backstage is what is going on outside of the view of the candidate. This is what the talent acquisition folks are doing to keep the process moving. Reviewing resumes and portfolios, doing background checks, setting up interview dates and times, updating job postings, arranging the accommodation for on-site visits, discussing compensation packages with hiring managers, or having to prepare letters of acceptance or rejection. All the things that make that frontstage possible. All of this should be hidden from the candidate on the frontstage. You don’t want to break the illusion of a seamless, quality delivery of your service; that service being a hiring experience.

Can – should – recruiters think of themselves as designers?

Absolutely. Everything is designed, it’s just that sometimes it’s not designed well or intentionally. But if you look at the power a recruiter has in how they want to set up the choreography of the candidate experience, they’re now the designer. Design is just a fancy word for someone who arranges. If you arrange the sequence and interactions of an experience with good intent, rational, principles, and foresight, well now you’re not just a designer, you’re a good designer. All the principles of service design and design thinking apply directly. Keep the experiences backed by customer research, experimentation, and empathy for the candidate. Throw in some reading materials on design processes, and you’re streets ahead of everyone else who isn’t thinking with design.

As service designers, what advice would you offer talent leaders for improving the hiring process?

Approach everything from the candidate lens, putting their experience first and making it as seamless and burden-free as possible. Sloppy experiences are easy for us, hard for the candidate. Good experiences are hard for us, and easy for the candidate. Remember, if you’re a talent leader, you’re there to serve the candidate. They’re your “customer” if we go back to that word. Without candidates, you have nothing.

But don’t just look at the candidate experience. What about the first 30 days of being hired, or the first 90 days, or the first year?

There’s always what is called the “service anticipation gap,” a phrase coined by Adaptive Path President Brandon Schauer, that talks about how you might be building up this great recruiting experience, only to let it drop off and “sag” once you’ve got the offer signed. It’s a crash of emotion and expectation for the candidate. So instead of a big ramp-up of good experience followed by a crash of “our job here is done,” think about how you can ease the anticipation down gently through the onboarding and new hire experience. Your job as a talent leader isn’t done as soon as a candidate signs on the dotted line.

To learn more about service design, read “Service Design 101” and explore the Practical Service Design blog.

Erik and Megan also invite talent leaders to join the Practical Service Design Slack community: “The more diverse the backgrounds of our members, the better – and talent acquisition is a perfect addition. A lot of people would love to hear those challenges and perspectives.”


Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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