What Roman Mars Taught Us About Design Thinking in Recruiting

Roman Mars, the host and creator of radio show 99% Invisible, joined us at last year’s Talent Innovation Summit to discuss design and architecture. He began by saying, “I’m not going to talk about hiring… I’m going to talk about some other stuff—but I think you’ll figure out where it applies to you in your life.” As he told his stories, we were reminded that design thinking can have a profound impact on recruiting.

Design a good user experience

Roman told the story of a hospital that was losing money, and began to look for other hospitals with processes and procedures better than what they were already using. He never found one, but ended up at a Toyota factory in Japan and decided to adapt their production system to his organization. The first step was to look at a map of the hospital and trace the path a cancer patient would take on a typical visit. The hospital staff were appalled at how much cancer patients would walk in a single visit—especially when they were already short of breath from chemotherapy treatments and carrying oxygen. This exercise allowed them to better understand the patient’s journey.

Over the next several years, the cancer center was redesigned to be more efficient and put the patients first. Patients were given the space on the outer edges of the building, with natural light and nature views. To create an environment of healing, the decor was done in natural colors like yellow and green, and a water wall was put in. The results were astounding. The hospital became a safer place, and their insurance declined 37 percent. They became more efficient, and were able to increase the number of patients they treated without any additional staff.

How this applies to design thinking in recruiting:

Too often, the candidate experience is overlooked. Organizations put their own needs first, but fail to consider the candidate’s perspective. In our candidate-driven market, organizations can improve their recruiting results by taking a walk in the candidate’s footsteps and making improvements to their experience. Begin by walking through your application and interview processes to see how long they take to complete, and if there are any steps that can be eliminated. Gather feedback from current employees and recent candidates to ideate other ways to improve your candidate experience.

[Read more about how to leverage design thinking to enhance your candidate experience.]

Provide a little more structure

Roman also shared with us the evolution of basketball. It was invented as an indoor sport to play during New England winters. It was originally played with a beach basket and, later, a hoop with a net—but that net was closed at the bottom. When someone scored a basket, the game had to stop and someone had to hit the ball with a stick to get it out. It took nearly 10 years for someone to come up with the idea to put a hole in the bottom of the net.

But that wasn’t the best change to the game—the shot clock was. Before the invention of the shot clock, the team winning in the first half of the game could hold on to the ball and, eventually, win. It didn’t make the game very exciting, and often meant that one team could monopolize the entire game. The shot clock introduced more structure into the game, so that each team had a chance of winning—even in the final moments of the game. As a result, scoring increased by about 30 points per game, and attendance went up 40 percent.

How this applies to design thinking in recruiting:

Introducing a little more structure into your recruitment process can even the playing field for your candidates. A structured interview process ensures that all candidates have the same experience, and are evaluated on the same criteria, so that the best candidate can win the offer. Still, it’s important to go with the flow of conversation, to dig deeper into specific questions and answers, or to better accommodate in-demand candidates.

[Read more about how to create the perfect semi-structured interview.]

Look beyond the surface

Roman’s final story was his own. While working on his PHD in genetics, he often listened to NPR in the lab. The radio host Ray Suarez was discussing modern day heroes, when someone called in to say that Ray was his hero. Roman decided that Ray was his hero as well, and that he wanted to work for him. Someone at the station decided to look beyond the surface of his strange resume and took Roman in. He volunteered, unpaid, at the radio station for 3 years to learn the ropes.

Now, Roman’s podcast is one of the most popular in the world, with over 200 million downloads. Roman was named by Fast Company as one of the 100 most creative people in 2013, and has the most popular TED Talk about design (with over 4 million views).

How this applies to design thinking in recruiting:

Look beyond the surface, and give people a chance—even if they “have no business doing it whatsoever.” Roman was passionate about working in radio, and an internship allowed him to develop that passion into unbridled talent. There’s a lot to be said about considering candidates without the traditional work experience and education. In fact, Anna Lambert of Shopify said that when you pair these people with those that have done it before, it’s “pure magic.”

[Read more about Shopify’s stunning growth strategies.]


Roman says that good design is invisible, but that you notice bad design. Whether it’s a tedious application process, an unprepared interviewer giving an unstructured interview, or a passionate candidate who has been prematurely screened out, poor recruitment design can hurt your reputation as an employer. However, your good design may not go unnoticed in the recruiting world. When many companies overlook good recruitment process design altogether, yours has an opportunity to stand out to top-choice candidates by implementing design thinking.

To learn more about design thinking in recruiting, download our free report:

New Talent Acquisition Research: The Role of Design Thinking in Creating a World-Class Talent Organization