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At a time when almost every industry is looking at new ways of working, could embracing empathy, curiosity and creativity pave a pathway to a kinder world and better profits? We spoke to Glyn Thomas, a purpose-driven leader who has been part of radical digital transformation in the health insurance and banking sectors, about what human-centred design has to offer in a rapidly-changing world.

Demystify human-centred design for us, Glyn! What is it?

We ‘design’ a lot of things in society, from simple physical objects like cardboard boxes, to large and complex processes, experiences or products like apps or bank branches. Sometimes we might design a supply-chain, where one thing moves logically along from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and everything can be controlled. The problem is – even when designing those seemingly logical things – that the impact of our design solutions on the many people around them isn’t as easy to control. Humans don’t always behave logically; they have fears, desires, and perspectives that influence how they interpret information and how they respond to, or use, our designs. So a mistake we often make in designing things is forgetting about the humans who are going to be involved in contributing to it, or about those who will ultimately use or benefit from it! Human-centred design is an approach to problem-solving that encourages decision-makers or designers to really integrate human perspectives into their solutions. So it starts with empathy – getting a deep understanding of the needs and motivations of people – and uses collaborative and creative processes to encourage and experiment with ideas or solutions that centre those human perspectives. 

So what does human-centred design look like in practice?

What I’ve found is that it’s never the same thing all the time! Sometimes it can happen in a short meeting; other times it’s a much longer and deeper process. There’ll be big consulting companies who say that there’s ‘a way of doing’ human-centred design and you’ve got to do it that way – they’ll even accredit people in it as a process or as a method. But accreditation systems and big consulting approaches offer very little value to most businesses; human-centred design really increases in value when applied more broadly. When applied broadly, it calls on a core set of key mindsets that we, as humans, have already. It’s really helping us purposely go back to some natural human traits that we already know help us in life (like empathy, curiosity and creativity), and apply them in a business setting. You’re probably already familiar with what the results of a human-centred design process feel like, even if you haven’t put a name to it before; it’s things like what makes a coffee shop feel warm or welcoming, or the kinds of process improvements that make it feel much easier to get your driver’s license now that it did 10 years ago! To do those kinds of things well, you really need to connect with people and their motivations and you need to be curious enough to pull something apart to find out how it works (or doesn’t). This will come more naturally to some people than others, but these traits are in all of us. And there’s some great frameworks to help with this, of course, to help put some structure in place. 

Tell us a bit about the role of those frameworks. How do they work?

The frameworks are really there to help us avoid making mistakes or falling victim to our own biases, many of which we’re not consciously aware of. For example they may help us ensure that we don’t just brush over the hard work; after all, it’s tempting to think ‘I’m empathetic!’ and be ‘done’ with it! So there are frameworks there to add some rigour to our natural empathy and curiosity. They’re also really helpful for containing our enthusiasm for big and exciting ideas – as designers we naturally bring a ‘designer’ mindset to solving a problem and we’ll keep exploring new ideas, and we’ll continue to be curious, exponentially! So the frameworks are there to help us broaden and diversify our thinking in the first case, and to help constrain our ideas in meaningful ways by introducing things like ‘convergent thinking’. Once we’ve broadened our thinking and have come up with some potentially great ideas, we can then start asking questions that remind us what success looks like; questions like ‘how are we going to prioritise those insights from our customers?’ or ‘what’s the cost of delivering that service?’ or ‘are we legally compliant?’, questions that really bring our creativity back to its context. So a good human-centred design process isn’t just creative, curious and empathetic. It’s decisive, evaluative and iterative, and that’s where the frameworks have real value.

What roles are well-suited to embracing human-centred design?

Every role can benefit from learning some of the skills and thinking that come with human-centred design, simply because unless your role only ever deals with simple technology in which no other people are involved, then there will always be humans whose perspectives and motivations you could understand to improve your work. But more specifically, if someone finds themselves naturally gravitating towards those mindsets of empathy, curiosity and creativity – and loves making things – then there’s careers in user-experience (UX) design or digital product design that are perfect for this kind of thinking. Human-centred design is particularly powerful in these fields because it enables technology and humans to work harmoniously. For example, in a customer-service setting, that harmony allows your customer-service officer to focus their energy on the people they’re serving, rather than being frustrated or held-back by the technology that should enable them to do their job. Then of course there’s customer experience and service design, which applies this thinking to a broader view of the ecosystem. I’ve found that people in these kinds of roles who are naturally curious are also then able to pick up new skills in business and leadership, too, which opens up new pathways beyond the pure ‘design’ disciplines and allows organisations to benefit from the perspective of a designer’s mindset in new settings and roles.

What resources would you suggest for a UX, UI or web design professional who is keen to learn more?

First and foremost, find a community of people and get connected. One of the things we’re seeing at the moment, and this is true of probably every career, is that things are always changing. So whatever tool is the best today might be gone in six months, or might have morphed into something else. So being part of a design community – whether that’s in-person (once COVID passes) or online through Slack forums and the like – is such a great way to learn, connect and grow. Here in Newcastle we have a local IxDA meetup that is centred on interaction and experience design, but also covers broad topics like behavioural design and service design. Find a community that works for you – soon enough you’ll be talking about ideas and finding new opportunities. I’d also recommend a great podcast called ‘This is HCD’, which is fantastic for sparking curiosity. And then there’s online courses, which can really open you up to where the industry is going or help you with the basic foundations if you’re getting started. IDEO U is probably the leader in this field and they’ll show you some truly inspiring stuff where designers can really change the world. But I’d also say don’t lose heart if you then feel like what you’re working on, or the organisation you’re working for, isn’t changing the world! It’s really important to look for the energy in whatever problem you can solve. Overall though, just keep exploring! This might be challenging to any young designer out there, but don’t just focus on the design disciplines. Think about what other interests in life would add strength to your ability to influence or drive better outcomes. I find myself reading a lot about psychology and how the mind works; about decision-making and behavioural economics. And that’s what I’ve found in my own career – that exploring my interest in the environment I’m working in has really added good strength to my own design decisions. 

Finish this sentence. On Sunday mornings, you can usually find me…

…finding balance and perspective! My Sunday morning has a varying combination of cycling, reading, family, coffee and church. A mix of exercise, family fun, inspiration and broader perspective – I’m never just doing one thing!

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If you’re looking for a digital or tech expert to take your organisation to the next level or seeking a new position, reach out to Liz Folpp today on 0402 767 365 or email liz.folpp@gwg.com.au. 

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