ATD Blog

First Impressions Count

Thursday, May 18, 2017

First Impressions
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

It only takes seven seconds to make a first impression on another human being, according to a Harvard study of communication. When we meet people for the first time, we make quick decisions about them based on their eye contact, appearance, handshake, and verbal and nonverbal cues. The same is true for your organization. New hires quickly decide whether they want to stay at an organization, and it begins the moment they walk through the door on their first day.

What impression does your onboarding program make? Do you know what your new hires want in an onboarding program? Is your onboarding program keeping pace with the changing needs of your organization?

Where to begin? Turn to design thinking.


Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation or problem solving that instills deep empathy for the people you hope to serve. It integrates the needs of people with the needs of the organization. Design thinking increases the chances of your initiative being successful by putting the user at the center of the experience.

Here’s how design thinking can help you improve your onboarding program: 

  • Start with questions. Starting with a question is more important than knowing the answer. All too often solutions are designed without taking into consideration the people who will use them and the environment in which they will be experienced. This puts solutions at risk for failure. Design thinking doesn’t assume to know all the answers at the beginning of the process. Rather, it starts with questions. Sometimes the simplest questions are the most powerful: What’s working? What’s not working? And then you listen—deeply—to what someone is saying, thinking, and feeling. 
  • Mine for insights. Insights are at the heart of design thinking. They begin to emerge from what you heard. An insight is an unmet need. Taking a design-thinking approach means discovering people’s wants, needs, and behaviors, and creating something of value for them and the organization. Insights allow you to brainstorm potential solutions that will meet the needs of your new hires and the organization. This increases the likelihood that your solution will be successful. 
  • Instill empathy. Design-thinking methods allow you to experience the power of empathy. For solutions to take hold, they must be rooted in empathy for the people who will be using them. Through methods such as observation, interviews, and listening, you develop deep empathy for new hires. You find out what they really think about your onboarding program, along with their hopes and fears. You understand the high points and low points from their perspective (not yours). 
  • Create a memorable experience. Once you’ve uncovered insights, you can design an experience tailored to new hires’ needs. When designing that experience, you identify the important touch points along the new hire journey. You design for not only the functional needs but also the social and emotional needs. That’s the magic of design thinking. You answer questions such as, “How will the new hire enter this experience?” “How will they engage in this experience?” and “How will they exit the experience?”

Design thinking equips us to move from our perspective to the user’s perspective. It allows us to shift our thinking from developing programs to designing experiences. It instills in us a deep empathy for the people for whom we’re creating these great experiences. It teaches us that questions are more powerful than answers.

Interested in learning more? Come to the Onboarding Meets Design Thinking breakout session at the TalentNext conference. I’ll share with you practical methods and tools you can apply to turn your onboarding program into a memorable user-centered experience. I look forward to seeing you there!

About the Author

Kathy Glynn is the owner of Blue Sky Thinking. She is a design thinking facilitator, coach, and trainer and an adjunct professor at Kendall College of Art and Design. She was a senior performance consultant for Steelcase Inc. where she designed, developed, and implemented user-centered learning solutions for optimal organizational performance and business outcomes.  Glynn has over ten years of experience in performance improvement and is responsible for analyzing needs and creating learning solutions as well as measuring the effectiveness of learning solutions. She has managed major initiatives in sales, marketing, sourcing, legal, and leadership.

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