How We Applied Design Thinking To Employee Onboarding At Our Startup

Have you ever been frustrated with the way you were treated by a company as a job applicant?

I’m guessing the answer is “yes.”

Through my work with multiple startups, I’ve learned that design thinking provides incredible benefits to the organization by leveraging both the organization’s and applicant’s point of views.

Photo: Tim Gouw, Unsplash

Step 1: Empathize

We were a little frustrated, and a little embarrassed at our recruiting and onboarding

To service a potential avalanche of customers for our new product rollout, we set aggressive goals for hiring multiple specialties across a couple teams.

Our company, Notarize, was still young enough that there was very little formal process in place. Every individual’s onboarding experience was unique and disorganized.

We felt that we were failing to communicate our values to potential hires, failing to efficiently and smoothly onboard new hires, and failing to make a great first impression for new team members.

Time to reinvent our onboarding

Our People Operations Director Anisha Jindia and I decided to turn to Design Thinking, a process with which we were only vaguely familiar, to learn a new tool as much as to fix our process.

The first step of Design Thinking as defined by Stanford’s is to empathize.

Empathizing is “the work you do to understand people.” It’s the observations and conversations you have with a potential audience or market to gain a better understanding of their challenges, needs, desires, etc.

Photo: Tim Graf, Unsplash

Step 2: Define

Wait, what’s design thinking?

Originated by the Stanford University Institute of Design, it’s a development pathway that was devised for use by designers and other innovation specialists. It has now made its way into the business mainstream in a big way.

Essentially, Design Thinking is a process in which various steps are knitted together to help guide innovation in virtually any area of discipline. That is, the process helps develop new products and services, new advertising or promotions, new package functionality or presentation, etc.

Here is the graphic Stanford created depicting the five key steps or “modes” of the process.(1)

For our onboarding project, we accomplished our empathizing work by reflecting on our own recent onboarding experiences, and simply discussing our teammates’ varying experiences with them.

We repeatedly heard pain points of disorganization, inefficiency, and lack of clarity around mission and values.

No surprise.

Stanford refers to the Define step as “bringing clarity and focus…based on what you have learned…to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement.”

We thoughtfully settled on the following mission statement, but we did not agonize too long in perfecting it.

We will design an efficient onboarding process to provide new hires with a distinctive experience which exemplifies our shared values at every step of their journey.

Our glorious 12-foot wide whiteboard wall of ideas. Photo: author.

Step 3: Ideate

“Idea volcano” time on the whiteboard

In the ideate step, we concentrated on idea generation, pushing ourselves to think broadly and deeply and generate as many ideas as possible.

1: Values

First, we identified the company values we hoped to exemplify through all interaction points with new hires.

2: Storyboarding

Second, we mapped out the entire new hire journey, specifying every touch point or potential interaction with our team or brand. Think of this as a customer journey, or storyboard, if you’re familiar with those tools.

3: 10-star experience brainstorming

Third, we brainstormed an excellent “5-star” experience all the way up to a ridiculously extravagant “10-star” experience for the new hire at each stage of the journey. I got this idea from Airbnb’s founding team:

Maybe 8, 9, and 10 are not possible, but if you keep going and push your boundaries you’ll find a sweet spot that is both feasible, and so remarkable that you tell everyone about it. You have to design the extreme to come backwards to something amazing. -Brian Chesky, Airbnb founder

We utilized the empathy mapping tool throughout each touch point. For example, we figured the 9-star experience for one’s first day would be a black limo pulling up to pick you up from your home. Inside are Snoop Dogg, Shakira, and our CEO having a party with you to take you to work. Sounds way better than your commute on your last first day of work, right?

The realistic 5-star solution we settled on for the meantime? The day before you show up for work on your first day, one of your new teammates sends you a $25 Lyft e-gift card with the address, so you don’t have to worry about parking, directions, or cost.

The result?

Our new hires felt a bit special and showed up less stressed and feeling more connected. Right in line with our identified values.

4: Feedback

Next we brought in current employees to share their personal experiences and get feedback on our ideas so far. We found that the more ideas we shared, the more people were able to use our progress as a launching-off point and share even more suggestions of their own.

Step 4: Prototype and Test

The goal of step 4 is to develop and refine rough ideas.

Photo: Pixabay

In order to design, test, and iterate our new processes, we identified general needs or gaps in our current state. For example, we were most lagging behind our ideals in keeping candidates informed and overall efficiency of the long hiring funnel.

From ideas to execution

We filtered out the ideas resulting from our brainstorming session and set simple stretch goals for the team. For example, mandating a 2-day turnaround for all candidate communication, or planning on having all IT needs set up ahead of time and personalized for each new hire.

Through discussions, we simply prioritized our projects, figured out the needed resources and team members to implement, and divided up the work.

By implementing our improvements on a rolling basis with successful waves of new hires, we were able to improve our recruiting and onboarding process and constantly iterate with continuing feedback from participants.


The simple ideas behind design thinking provide leaders with an actionable framework to critique and improve an organization’s processes and products from the perspectives that matter most: those of your users, customers, and potential recruits.

We highly recommend applying design thinking to your people-centric challenges today!

Enjoyed this post? Share your thoughts, questions, and suggestions with me here or at

Sources: (1)

Published by Patrick

I provide coaching to entrepreneurial leaders so they can build their businesses successfully and experience unrivaled personal growth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s