Design Thinking Tools for Candidate Experience: A Starter Guide

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What is design thinking? How does it work? Can it help innovate talent acquisition? This quick guide will answer your questions and get you started.

Design thinking for candidate experience in recruitment

Credit: Christian De Pape

Candidate experience poses a wicked problem. It’s complex, difficult to grasp, and tied to irrational thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But it also poses a tremendous opportunity: employers who deliver an excellent candidate experience stand out in the marketplace, earn more referrals, recruit faster, and gain excited new employees.

So how do you tackle this wicked problem/tremendous opportunity?

You start with design thinking.

This guide will explore design thinking methods and how you can start using them in your day to day work. By exploring how people experience your recruiting process, you will uncover opportunities for improvement, innovation, and differentiation.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a method of creative problem-solving. It applies practices from traditional design professions to other types of business and life situations. Candidate experience, for example.

By balancing both intuitive and analytical approaches, design thinking seeks to understand complex challenges, brainstorm potential approaches, and realize innovative solutions.

Design thinking is…


You focus on real people: real candidates, real hiring managers, real recruiters. You explore their individual experiences and problems with empathy. You seek and listen to their feedback. You always keep the end-user in mind.


You bring together collaborators with different backgrounds and viewpoints: new hires and declined candidates, recruiters and hiring managers, senior managers, and coordinators. Diversity fosters new insights, ideas, and innovations. It also makes the process fun.


You tap into your curiosity, intuition, and imagination. You explore the full spectrum of opportunities and dream up original, unexpected, and even wild ideas. Design thinking is a lot like play.


You look at the whole picture. You explore extremes. You dig deep. The environments, contexts, and root causes that shape a problem can also shape the solution.

How design thinking works

There is no one, universal design thinking process. Different practitioners define the steps differently. The British Design Council’s “Double Diamond” design process is well known and provides an easy to remember four-step framework:

Design thinking step 1: Discover

1. Discover

Conduct research to understand your users, their wants, and their needs.


You talk to recent hires about their interview experience and shadow hiring managers as they meet with candidates.

Design thinking step 2: Define

2. Define

Analyze your research, find user insights, and spot where their problems exist.


You journey map the onsite interview experience and pinpoint the lunch break as a critical moment of confusion; candidates are often left alone for half an hour without any explanation or instruction.

Design thinking step 3: Develop

3. Develop

Explore the possibilities and generate a range of creative (even crazy) ideas.


You hold a brainstorming session exploring ways the lunch break can be made into a positive experience for candidates. Ideas range from catering a gourmet meal to removing the lunch break altogether.

Design thinking step 4: Deliver

4. Deliver

Build prototypes for a range of promising ideas. Then, ask users for feedback.


You storyboard a scenario where the candidate is taken for lunch by a recent hire who shares their experience. You show the storyboard to recent hires, ask for feedback, and make revisions based on their suggestions.

The double-diamond design thinking process for talent acquisition

The process is iterative and nonlinear: you repeat the steps and jump back and forth between them to continue solving problems and refining solutions.

Note that the sequence goes back and forth between divergent and convergent thinking. This is illustrated by the diamond shapes in the double diamond. It can be helpful to think of these alternating perspectives as “creating choices” and “making choices.”

Start small

Design thinking provides a model for tackling big, complex projects, like overhauling an application process or developing an interview training program. Persona development, journey mapping, and service blueprinting – design practices can help you remodel your candidate experience – are worth the time and effort they take.

But design thinking also works on a much smaller, simpler scale. It can give you a fresh perspective on the choices and challenges you face on a daily basis. Simple questions, tools, and exercises can help you begin to understand the candidate experience and make small but impactful improvements.

To help you and your team begin playing with design thinking, here are some tools to try:

Design thinking tools

Conversation starters
Conversation starters

What is it? Thought-provoking, open-ended questions can spur your team to talk about wicked talent acquisition problems.

Why is it used? Conversation fuels co-creation. It can spark interesting new ideas and get your team excited about tackling important design challenges.

How is it done? End your next team meeting by asking one of the following conversation starters. Don’t be afraid of silence; it might take a minute or two for people to warm up. Throwing out a few silly ideas or observations can help get the conversation going.

Conversation starters:

  1. What does a good balance between technology and human interaction in the recruiting process look like?
  2. What is the process by which our talent acquisition function delivers value? Is it as efficient as it could be?
  3. How do we know what our candidates want? What have we found to be effective strategies for hearing their thoughts?
  4. What motivates our candidates? What are their needs?
  5. What motivates our hiring managers? What are their needs?
  6. Are people at the center of our recruiting process? Which people?
  7. How can you apply design strategies to everyday issues, like finding candidates and getting along with hiring managers?
  8. When faced with a brand new role to fill, what is the first question you ask?

The Five Whys
The Five Whys

What is it? The Five Whys are exactly that: a series of “why?” questions.

Why is it used? Following up with a “why?” question helps uncover the motivation behind an action. The Five Whys technique is an effective approach to digging deep. Each new question peels back a layer of reasoning until you uncover the root motivations, emotions, and processes causing surface problems.

How is it done? Ask a chain of “why” questions, each subsequent “why” question triggered by the previous question’s answer. For example:

(Q1) Why are we having trouble filling this role?⠀
(A1) Because the candidates keep dropping out.⠀

(Q2) Why do the candidates keep dropping out?⠀
(A2) Because they’re accepting other offers.⠀

(Q3) Why are they accepting other offers?⠀
(A3) Because those offers come before we have the chance to offer.⠀

(Q4) Why are those offers coming before we have the chance to offer?⠀
(A4) Because our interview process takes that long.⠀

(Q5) Why does our interview process take that long?
(A5) Because we do five rounds of interviews.

Empathy map
Empathy Map

What is it? An empathy map enters a person’s senses to connect with their feelings and needs.

Why is it used? Preparing an empathy map can help you switch perspectives and empathize with someone else’s experience. For example, you might create an empathy map to understand the candidate experience arriving at your office for a day of onsite interviews.

How is it done? First, clearly describe your user and the moment or scenario they are experiencing. Then, move through the following steps in order:

  1. Seeing: What is the user literally seeing?
  2. Hearing: What is the user hearing? Describe both the speech and ambient sounds.
  3. Doing: What physical movements are the user performing? What physical behaviors are they displaying?
  4. Saying: What is the user saying? Summarize the most revealing words and phrases.
  5. Thinking: What is the user thinking? Take a guess at several of the thoughts that might be crossing through their head.
  6. Feeling: What is the user feeling? Take a guess at the different emotions the user might be experiencing.
  7. Wants: What does the user want in this moment? Take a guess at some of the possibilities.
  8. Needs: What does the user need in this moment? List possible unmet needs that may exist.

“Yes and…” brainstorming
“Yes, and …” Brainstorming

What is it? A simple framework for sharing ideas during a team brainstorming session.

Why is it used? Brainstorming is about generating as many ideas as possible. The “Yes, and…” format stops participants from judging ideas too soon. It enforces that every idea is a valid one and creates a safe space for sharing any suggestion – even far-out suggestions – without hesitation.

How is it done? As a group, stand together and come up with ideas. Respond to each suggestion by saying, “Yes, and …” and building on the idea.

For example, you may be brainstorming ideas in response to the question: “How might we welcome new employees on their first day?”:

  • We could leave a welcome basket of swag on their desk.”
  • “Yes, and… we can decorate their desk with a welcome banner.”
  • “Yes, and… we can bring them a hot mug of coffee as they settle in.”
  • “Yes, and… we can light scented candles that smell like fresh baked cookies.”

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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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