How Design Thinking Can Help You Launch an Awesome Recognition Program


I recently spoke with a customer who was preparing to launch HeyTaco. They were worried because they had no real plan as to how to introduce it to their team, what kind of rewards to have at launch, and how to use the leaderboards. They were planning to go to the drawing board for a month or so to get a full plan in place before they even gave their first taco away. 

And that is not that uncommon. Oftentimes, our customers fall in two camps. In camp A, they create beautiful plans ahead of launch that include anything from objectives to KPIs, the types of rewards they want to use, to company-wide celebrations that the HeyTaco leaderboard will inspire. Those plans are beautiful, clearly thought out and defined, and the team that put them together clearly knows what they were doing. 

The other people in camp B often don’t know where to start, and as a result, never get started. They want to create a complete plan like the folks in camp A above, but never get around to it because, understandably, there are so many other initiatives and things to take care of. 

At HeyTaco, I have seen many launch and use HeyTaco to the point where tacos become synonymous with thank you. Tacos and thank you's become part of their DNA to the point where new employees think HeyTaco is a solution the team developed in house. I love hearing that! We love being a part of a team to the point where the lines between us and them are blurred; it’s all about us sharing gratitude together. When I look at what those teams that have built a true culture of gratitude powered by tacos have in common, one thing stands out: they launch and manage HeyTaco as an evolving thing, often unknowingly guided by Design Thinking principles. 

Those principles, applied from the start, bridge the gap between having all your ducks in a row before even starting the HeyTaco free trial and not having any plan at all. There is a golden middle that can be reached when you spend just a little bit of time designing and thinking your way through what you are trying to accomplish. 

What is Design Thinking? 

Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that focuses on understanding the experiences and needs of people in order to come up with innovative solutions. Companies use Design Thinking to ensure that they are solving real problems for real people, and that the solutions that they create will solve these problems. This approach encourages empathy, creativity, and having an iterative mindset.

Since Design Thinking emphasizes focusing on humans, what better place to use it than in HR?! As a member of an HR team, everything you’re doing is focused on the humans within your organization and improving their experiences. As much as you may want to think about improving processes, we know that it doesn’t always work when you bring humans into the picture. They may not follow the new process as expected, they may be frustrated by the change, or it may not be a process they need at all! It’s a terrible feeling to spend months developing a plan and a solution that doesn’t end up being used.

Using tools from Design Thinking can help you better understand the needs and desires of your employees to design programs and solutions that create the most value and have the biggest impact. Design Thinking enables HR professionals to step into their employees' shoes and understand what truly matters to them. This understanding is critical when launching or revamping employee recognition programs. Instead of spending a lot of time designing and implementing generic programs without knowing if they'll actually resonate with employees, you can use Design Thinking to empathize with employees, understand their motivations and challenges, and iteratively create the best solutions for them. 

HeyTaco and Design Thinking


How can Design Thinking help you create a successful recognition program with HeyTaco?

The Design Thinking process involves 5 key steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Empathize: Learn about the humans who are impacted by the current problem by conducting surveys, focus groups, and interviews to understand what is important to them and what their current pain points are. An empathy map is a great tool to use at this stage to brainstorm with your team and visually display the information you’ve learned about your main customers (in this case, the employees at your company). You can even consider doing empathy maps for different types of employees as it makes sense for your company! For example, newer employees and tenured employees.

🌮 When creating a recognition program with HeyTaco 🌮

Ask your employees direct questions, but also observe their behavior and interactions. Some questions to ask them directly include ‘How do you like to be appreciated? How do you like to express appreciation?’. Five languages of appreciation in the workplace is a great framework to understand where your employees fall on the scale. In observing behavior and interactions, notice whether leaders share recognition in a public forum, is there chatter in company collaboration channels that are not tied to work. Observe whether there is a feeling of connectedness and camaraderie on your team and whether everyone understands how their work and role fits into the bigger picture.

Define: Based on the information you gathered in the previous step, you can now better define the problem you’re solving and the outcomes you want your solution to achieve. These are concrete statements that you can use for more productive ideation.

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You might learn that people feel recognized by their managers, but would like to be seen more by their colleagues in their daily flow. The outcome you might be looking for is that taco messages of appreciation are sent in your public channels every day (as opposed to at the end of the week or month).

Ideate: Now it’s time to get creative! In this stage, you brainstorm different solutions to get you to the outcomes you want to achieve. 

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There is no one size fits all with HeyTaco, so coming up with ideas that work well for your team is key. Some ideas for the problem you defined above could be encouraging leaders to send daily taco messages, YOU as the leader of the initiative committing to sending a few tacos a day to people you appreciate and adding ‘taco shoutouts’ as an agenda item to your All Company meetings where you get to publicly recognize the awesome taco messages being shared amongst your employees.

Prototype:  After brainstorming, you should pick a couple of the top solutions and create very low-effort ways to try them out. These could be pilot programs or website mock-ups, but the point is that they should be very small-scale to allow for refinement and testing.

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The ideas above might be great in theory, but your team might not like them. In this stage, try doing ‘taco shoutouts’ in your company meetings a few weeks in a row and see how people react.

Test: Gather feedback about the prototypes and make adjustments based on what you learn. This is where it’s important to be iterative! Since you started small, it’s easier to make changes and tweaks so that the end result is one that people actually need and will use. Or if it’s not working out, then you’ve ‘failed quickly’ and haven’t wasted a lot of time and effort, and you can go back to the ideate phase to work on a new solution!

🌮 When creating a recognition program with HeyTaco 🌮

You might find that people don’t like ‘taco shoutouts’ at public meetings, but they really like the summary of all the awesome things people are appreciating. That might cause you to try sharing a written summary in a weekly email, or Slack/Microsoft Teams; or you might learn that ‘taco shoutouts’ are more fun in public meetings when you do it quarterly. There is only so much one can see from a single vantage point, so testing and learning is the key to finding a mix of HeyTaco practices that resonate with your team.

To sum things up, on the spectrum of being thoughtful and rash, there is a middle ground and that middle is thinking and designing your way through a solution. It’s a perfect combination of being thoughtful and acting in order to find a way that will take care of what is important to you. 

If you need any help getting started with HeyTaco, let me know. And if you are ready to start testing your way through an awesome recognition experience, you can get started with HeyTaco any time. 


This blog post was written with Caitlin Anderson from Thinkly Solutions. If you’re interested in training your team or organization on how to embrace human-centered and iterative mindsets in their daily work to boost impactful outcomes, please reach out to!

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