Applying Design Thinking to the Challenges of Virtual Recruitment #RecFestOneWorld Learnings

David Shull
October 8, 2020

One challenge that faces companies with the large scale move to remote working is how to catalyze innovation in a world where whiteboards have been replaced with screens and the energy of an in-person brainstorming session is traded for the dance of whose turn it is to talk on the Zoom call. 

This has made it harder to craft new strategies to engage early talent at a time when the entire industry has been turned upside down. It was against this backdrop that we decided to use our workshop at RecFest to share some of the approaches Handshake has taken to innovating in this remote-first world.

Design Thinking in a Virtual World

Put simply, design thinking is a framework for creating products and experiences that puts the end user at the heart of the process. It’s broken down into five key phases which we introduced the workshop with.


Graphics from Marvel App Design Thinking Workshop

Step 1: Empathise & Putting Students First

The first stage of design thinking is to empathise. To design succesful products and experiences you need to first understand how they are thinking and feeling. Many organizations skip the first two steps and end up solving problems that the users don't have, or only have as a result of a deeper problem that the product should be focused on.

At Handshake, one of our core values is #StudentsFirst. We believe that if we do right by students, we'll do right by our university and employer partners. With this in mind, we started the design thinking workshop focused on the student experience. To help participants of our workshop get in the minds of students, we defined three personas to help frame their thinking.

After introducing the participants we asked the audience to imagine how they might be feeling as they approach the 2020/21 academic year. We used an interactive polling tool to collect emotions from the attendees. Here is what they had to say: 

We then asked the attendees to zoom in on how they might be feeling specifically in regards to the recruitment process and the fact that there was unlikely to be any in-person recruitment happening this year. Here is what they had to say:


With this emotional context we asked attendees what it was about in-person recruitment experiences that might trigger these emotions given its absence. These responses were free-text. We've summarized the themes below:

  • In-person experiences give the ability for students to stand out. When given the chance to meet a recruiter face-to-face they're more than just a piece of paper or a number in an ATS. They have the chance to share their story and what they bring to the role.
  • Serendipity: in-person events offer more opportunities for students to stumble upon the employer. These connections can lead to powerful and impactful connections.
  • Relatability: Being able to see people like you engaging with employers (or importantly, representing employers) can lower the percieved barrier to entry for some of these roles.
  • Experiencing the culture of the company: these events offer a unique experience to see how the company interacts beyond the posters and flyers.
  • Freebies: who doesn't love free stuff? 

Now if we were actually designing a product or service, we wouldn't just guess how students are feeling... we'd talk to them! That's exactly what Handshake did as we built our virtual fair tool. We're happy to report that the audience identified many of the emotions students shared as they thought about the recruitment process this year. This exercise also helped remind us that for students, finding a job is only one part of the process. There are so many other things competing for the time, attention, and emotional bandwidth that we need to be aware of as we design for them.

“I know university should be my biggest concern, but my biggest concern right now is maintaining relationships with people that I'm not gonna be able to see for a while. And trying to utilize technology to be able to video chat them.” —Second Year Student, April 2020

Step 2: Define the Problem

To help define the problem, we asked the attendee to reflect on their experiences. Specifically, in attending in-person career fairs (or conferences) and their virtual counter-parts. Here is how the audience responded: 

As we worked through this exercise we started to see contrasts in the emotions that attendees felt between the in-person and virtual experiences. Particularly how these emotions in a virtual fair (distant, anonymous, distracted) contrasted with some of the value we identified for in-perosn experiences (relatability, serendipity, human & personal). With this framing, we asked the audience what challenges might this suggest exist in the transition to virtual recruitment. We've summarized this free text below: 

  • Lack of energy: students aren't seeing the buzz that occurs in a large-group context.
  • Anonymity: particularly in group sessions where it's easy for students to be just a fly on the wall.
  • A lack of human interactions: this is particularly true depending on if the platform uses live video or not.
  • Gaging interest and tailoring conversations: it's hard to pick up on the energy and nuance in the same way over virtual.

We summarized these down into: Often times virtual recruitment loses the sense of authenticity that comes with in-person connections. This is the same conclusion that Handshake came to after hundreds of interviews with students, employers, and universities. These events were meant to facilitate authentic connections between students and employers at scale.

Step 3: Ideate

The final step of the workshop was to start to ideate on how we might create a more authentic experience. Attendees had many ideas for this. You can see a few of them highlighted below.

Other ideas included: 

  • Bringing together existing employees (recent graduates) to make the experience more approachable
  • Introducing gamification into the process early on
  • More 1:1 sessions with real people
  • Virtual tours of the organisation

By far the most common theme was 1:1 video chats-which more than 15% of the audience submitted as a way to increase authenticity in the process. Again, this is supported by Handshake's research. We've found the best way to facilitate authentic connections is through high-quality & cross platform video 1:1 video connections.

Now, at this point, normally we'd break into the prototype, test, and repeat loop of the design thinking process.. but in a virtual workshop with limited time we had to call it quits here.

The Virtual Fair in Handshake

In March 2020, we refocused our product roadmap to develop features that would help our higher ed partners succeed in a virtual environment. As a major mechanism for facilitating student-employer engagement and driving career center revenue, we knew that building virtual career fair features was key. Our team had recently moved to fully distributed working but we were still able to apply the design thinking principles to creating our solution.

We spent the spring conducting extensive research with our higher ed partners, students, and employers to determine how we could maintain the value of in-person fairs while redefining the experience in a virtual setting. From this research, we built a tool that is focused on authentically connecting students and employers at scale.

Meaningful connections between students and employers, virtually

In-person career fairs give students the opportunity to learn about new companies and make face-to-face connections with recruiters.

At a Handshake virtual career fair, students can learn about employers and share their profile in intimate group sessions or get 1:1 facetime with recruiters—all from their browser or Handshake’s mobile app. Each employer will be able to schedule the following during each virtual career fair:

  • 30-minute group meetings that accommodate up to 50 students each. Multiple recruiters can attend, talk with students, and share their screen.
  • 10-minute 1:1 meetings with students hosted by recruiters. Each recruiter can set their own schedule and choose qualifications students must meet to attend.

Employers will be able to see profiles and public resumes, as well as message the students they engage at the fair, making it easy to prepare for and follow up on all of their sessions. You can read more about the employer scheduling process here.

Students and employers will have access to video, audio, and text-based chat during these meetings, enabling the personal connection of in-person fairs in a virtual, accessible setting.

Efficient experiences for students

Handshake virtual career fairs give students a more curated, efficient experience without having to wait in line. Before the fair, students will receive session recommendations via email and be able to easily review the list of attendees based on their interests.

Some students know what they’re looking for and want to pre-plan their day while others want to arrive at the fair and meet with employers of interest. Not only can both of these approaches work in a virtual environment—they’re even more efficient virtually.

Instead of plotting out a map of booths and waiting in lines, pre-planners can now browse employers ahead of time and schedule all of their sessions in advance. The day of the fair, students simply log into Handshake to attend their meetings.

For students who aren’t planners, it’s still possible to log onto Handshake to attend the fair on the day of the event and use filters (and our recommendations) on the fly to find relevant employers with sessions they’d like to attend. You can learn more about the student experience here.