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Human-centered design with Canva’s Nadia Surtees

Sometimes, you can’t see the answer to a problem staring you in the face because you’re looking at things from the outside in rather than the inside out.

8 minute read

Have you ever used a product or service that solved a whole bunch of problems you didn’t even realize were there? Take Spotify, for example. Back in the bad old days, we were buying songs one by one for $1.99 apiece or scrounging around in record stores (remember them?!) trying to find one CD.

Or look at HelloFresh. The three founders set out to solve a problem for time-poor professionals looking to eat healthy. The meal-kit delivery service with bespoke recipes and a data and analytics-driven fulfillment and shipping process is the result of a research-based, customer-driven design process.

And this is how human-centered design or HCD differs from traditional design approaches. Rather than designing from a singular perspective, HCD invites users to participate in the design process from the ground up. By placing the customer—the human—in the center and facilitating their participation throughout, designers can come up with a range of innovative solutions to customer problems resulting in products that magically improve people’s lives in ways they would never have foreseen. Such is the power of human-centered design.

Championed by IDEO, the design agency responsible for some of the world’s most famous products (Apple’s first computer mouse the Palm Pilot, the mechanical whale in the 90s smash hit Free Willy, for example), human-centered design emphasizes empathy for the end-user of the product through direct participant observation of the user’s life and problems. In short—research. Obviously, we’re big fans of a human-centered approach to design.

But what does it mean to be human-centered? Beyond the high-level stuff, what tactical steps can we take to implement these processes in our work? To help us navigate these waters, we’ve employed the help of Nadia Surtees, a former IDEO designer and current Product Design Lead at Canva, to steer the ship while we look to get her perspective of this customer-centric philosophy to product development.

Why human-centered design?

In Surtees’s words, human-centered design is the intentional focus of “cultivating empathy for the people and communities you’re designing for.” Further, one needs to look at the effects your design might have on that community in the near term and look ahead at the secondary consequences of what that design might entail.

“You’re designing with the needs of people you’re creating for at the center of your design process. And they’re part of it from day one. It leads to a product or service that people will be excited about and they’re going to use because you haven’t designed in a vacuum. You’ve involved them in the process,” says Surtees.

HCD isn’t only for customers, however. It’s great for designers themselves. Nadia explains how her own motivations as a designer naturally lend themselves to a human-centered approach. She tells me how she wants to make things that improve society and the quality of life of the people who interact with her creations.

“I don’t want to create things that satisfy the ego,” she says. “That’s such a small way of thinking, rather than the expansive sensibility of making other people’s lives better and acting as a channel for that.”


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But what can I do?

There are many ways to unpack human-centered design, but the approach involves three phases at its essence.

In phase one—inspiration—you “learn directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs,” according to IDEO’s human-centered design kit.

Phase two is ideation, where “you make sense of what you learned, identify opportunities for design, and prototype possible solutions.”

In the final implementation phase, you bring the solution to life.

While this general overview is a good launch point, Surtees tells me that human-centered design practices are much less about specific methods and more about a mindset in general.

The former IDEO designer emphasizes the importance of coming to a design challenge confident in your ability to sit with whatever comes up without having to be right or have the correct answers at hand. To be able to hold ambiguity. It reminds me of a similar idea Professor Genevieve Bell brought up during our conversation a few months prior. She told me that researchers and designers have to get accustomed to “productive discomfort”—holding the space of unknowing and not necessarily seeking solutions. It should come as no surprise that Bell also is a massive advocate for human-centered design.

Ask the right questions

“When you’re designing something, always begin with a really clear design question. One that’s not outcome-driven,” says Surtees. “We want to hit 20,000 monthly active users. That's a great product metric, but it’s not a generative design question. A great design question is ‘how might we empower families to feel more confident in the kitchen, for example.”

Building on hypothetical, Surtees describes how to start thinking about the people you are designing for. “Stretch the boundaries of what you define to be families. Are they families of five, of mixed backgrounds, living in rural environments, are the families living in really compact, urban dwellings?” she explains. “And then when you’re beginning to recruit and have conversations, get to know them, hold that space, ask them questions about their lives.”

The sacrificial concept

Surtees recommends bringing a prototype to your early conversations with users. These prototypes are known as “sacrificial concepts,” as the designer has no real attachment to them.

“They’re concepts you intentionally decide you’re not getting emotionally invested in because you don’t know what’s going to work,” says Surtees. “How could you possibly know what’s going to work for a family of five that lives in rural Byron bay when you are a single person who’s living in Melbourne. It’s so important to come to those conversations with an open mindset to understand the critique of the design.”

By placing distance between yourself and the design, Surtees says you can begin to understand how to improve the product if you remain open to hearing negative feedback. She says it’s these moments that help shape her thinking as a designer.

Human-centered analysis

We’re big fans of tagging at Dovetail, in case you hadn’t noticed. And so is Surtees. She offers some fascinating insight into what to look for while analyzing customer interviews during the design process.

“Look for the nuances of what’s happening. Sometimes we’re looking for consistencies, like quantifying how many times a person of a certain user group says something. But often, it’s those nuggets that feel different that are most interesting,” says Surtees.

Surtees believes that the fringe cases, the insights that don’t sit right, the exceptions to the rule, are often best for pushing a design forward. “It’s about holding both. It’s about holding that sense of patterning and repetitive nature of your findings, but also looking for the difference—the things that feel a little bit out of the ordinary—that can lead to some inspiring new design paths,” says Surtees.

Recruit the right participants

Our friends at User Interviews agree—the right participants can make or break your research. And just like User Inteview’s Head of Product explained in a previous interview, Surtees says that finding participants who are generative, opinionated, and who build on your ideas lead to richer design opportunities than people who give only one-word answers. That means screening your participants so that you’re not just looking for people who meet the profile but will show up to the conversation in a rich and insightful way.

How to engage your stakeholders with HCD

By now, we’re sure you’re sold on human-centered design approaches—if you weren’t already. But what good is being mindful, empathetic, and genuinely connecting with your users on problems if nobody else in your organization cares?

Bringing stakeholders along for the ride is an important part of any research and design process—that is, if you care about seeing your ideas brought to life.

Luckily, Surtees has some expert advice on this as well. She points to strong storytelling techniques as pivotal in gaining the attention of her stakeholders. “I’m a big fan of creating podcasts out of my interview audio and making it fun by putting it in our pre-read, and maybe having one of our team members do a voiceover to introduce the ‘three hero users’ of the research,” she says.

Surtees says to make the pods short and snackable—keeping them to about 5 minutes in length. “We need to design our research sharing to be pithy, memorable, and entertaining. Especially as everyone is time-poor. Choosing an engaging format is better than having a lengthy research report that’s difficult to digest.”

Getting started with HCD in your org

Start small and scale. Be realistic about the appetite the organization has for human-centered design. If you’re in a high-growth company that has big goals, and everything’s on a tight timeline, don’t start by suggesting a three-month ethnographic, multi-country schedule of research. Start with two or three interviews, or try one new method for a design project. In short: don’t overwhelm your team!

“From a tactical learning perspective, I’ll do a little plug for IDEO because they have so many courses out there with the right teachers, methods, and mindsets. That would be my strong recommendation,” says Surtees.

“Also, in everything you do, bring a lens of curiosity, bring a prototype early, start conversations with people, and even bring that level of human-centered design to your internal stakeholders. Think about how you can talk to them and get curious about what their needs are.

What’s keeping them up at night? What’s frustrating them? What do they wish was working better? Design thinking doesn’t just need to be like an external-facing way of looking at users. It can also be a way to look internally to think about what isn’t working in the way we’re approaching challenges and figuring out what can we do about that.”

About the contributors
Sean Bruce
Content Editor, Dovetail
Martini lover and word-wrangler.
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