Sept. 1, 2021
Design is a field that draws thinkers, creators and communicators from a multiplicity of backgrounds. As a discipline, it demands a culture of psychological safety, trust and authentic connection in order to facilitate the kind of creative exchange that leads to innovative problem-solving. Quality human-connection is thus not just a nice-to-have but fundamental to the generation of team cohesion and process of knowledge creation that forms the foundation of collaborative design. Covid-19 and the isolation imposed on us as a result has disrupted the free-flow of creative exchange that would normally occur by virtue of meeting together, exchanging ideas, thoughts and workflows. All of a sudden, we’re working in teams whose individuals have often never interacted with each other in person within a period of time where the establishment of psychological safety and trust have been more essential than ever. The booming question within Design communities, globally, has been “how do we authentically connect with each other without all the traditional means previously so integral to the process?”
Image by Glenn Harvey via NY Times
“Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” Storytelling and fireside chats are not novel ideas. Neither are these new or unique questions. Since the discovery of fire by humans, we have been gathering together in order to find ways to communicate and exchange histories, ideas and means of solving problems. What is new - is that we’ve now needed to do this through little electronic screens in separate rooms alongside emerging buzzwords like “Zoom Fatigue” and “Covid Stress Syndrome.” Deploying tools offered up by Design, we wanted to explore just how effective supportive allies such as “imagination” and “visualization” could be in helping overcome the barriers to creative exchange imposed by Covid-19. So we took some time out from our busy week and began the session by imagining a natural landscape, a bonfire much like humans first did when storytelling first became a feature of development... As the realism of the hot mugs of tea we sipped on fused with the surrealism of a team sitting around a crackling fire... What emerged was a heartfelt conversation that we now invite you to join… “Who are the people that form part of Unboxed’s Design Team?”
Image by Michael Byers via The Wall Street Journal
Martyn, Director | Dawn, Designer & Researcher | Ali, Designer & Researcher | Lawrence, Designer & Researcher | Yasmeen, Designer & Researcher | Kassie, Writer & Researcher
Image via Getty Images
Ali: I originally applied to do a nursing degree but didn’t get in. One of my teacher’s suggested ‘Art and Design’ and that got me started in Graphic Design which evolved into Service Design. It was quite organic.
Martyn: I studied Fine Art at art college in the late 80s/early 90s and, to be honest, we considered "design" a slightly inferior art form. I then spent many years as a database/web developer at a time when design and development were quite separate. There was a real need for the two to come together and I discovered LeanUX around the time I joined Unboxed. It really helped us find a way to bring user-centred design and agile delivery closer together and made design much more accessible to me.
Dawn: I’ve always loved music and used to work for Classic FM - writing online content. Part of my job was interacting with their listeners and users who used to write emails moaning about this and that. I didn’t love the moaning so much. But, it caused me to start thinking about their experiences which got me curious about how they could be improved. I didn’t know that it would lead me into a career in Design at the time but here I am… Goodness, I’ve come a long way since then.
Lawrence: Like Ali, I started off in Graphic Design. I worked for an engineering firm and quite liked the environment but resented only being included at the end of their design process. My role was restricted to making the product look good and my creativity was stunted by their really rubbish brand guidelines. This frustration led to me actively exploring alternative disciplines. I came across Service Design, completed a Masters Degree and then started at Unboxed. I feel a lot more stimulated and fulfilled now that I can participate in the full process: how things look AND the mechanisms that make things work.
Yasmeen: For me… It all really started when I began to question my practice. I worked in Advertising for many, many years and relied mainly on analytics and quantitative research to see if something was working. It didn’t feel right. I came across an online course offered by IDEO which went on to become my first encounter with Design Thinking. Human-Centred Design applied to all practices made so much sense to me that I decided to resign from my job in advertising, go back to school and complete a masters in Service Design. The same programme that Lawrence did and now we’re both at Unboxed.
Kassie: I started off as a paramedic in South Africa and after 6 years found myself a little crushed by the suffering I’d witnessed. Like Yasmeen, I really started questioning my practice. I wanted to explore proactive, preventative solutions to systemic problems as opposed to ineffective, reactive bandaids. Human-Centred Design as recourse just made both logical and intuitive sense. I resigned from the ambulance service and after a bout of failures with a couple of dodgy tech companies got my first break leading a community building project for a Women’s Health company. My role had nothing to do with Design initially but it quickly became apparent that the company didn’t understand who their end-user was. I started trying to find ways to gather insights in order to bridge this gap and reached out to Martyn for some advice on how to synthesize them. ‘Do you know anything about a thing called User Research?’ I’d asked naively. ‘We know a little...’ he responded and then invited me to ‘Design Club’. I’ve been here ever since.
Image via Stocksy
Martyn: I’ve so many! Mostly humbling since they usually revolve around assumptions… One was a project with SH24 and the goal was to try and understand how we could help people feel more comfortable taking blood tests. We thought it would be a great idea to make a demo video and spent a whole day filming one. It was good fun. I then took the footage to the waiting room at the sexual health clinic at Camberwell and started talking about home-based HIV tests. I followed the pitch up by placing my laptop in front of someone in order to play the video and they responded with a… BOOM! [Slammed the laptop shut] and said, ‘No! I do not want to watch a video of someone pricking their finger and squeezing blood!’ So yeah… We thought that it was a great idea but learnt that if people are nervous then the last thing that they want to do is watch a video of someone squeezing blood out their finger. Assumptions… Assumptions.
Ali: Mine was also a humbling experience. As part of my Masters degree, I completed a project centred around homelessness within the borough of Camden. For the User Research component, I went to Euston Station, sat down with my assigned research participant and started asking him questions. But everytime I asked a question, we hit a block. He really didn’t want to share anything with me. I decided to ditch the questions and use the time to have a nice conversation instead and what a nice conversation it was! The experience really reinforced the learning that people’s wellbeing and mental health should always be prioritized over work.
Kassie: Mine was pretty embarrassing and happened to be my very first Design Club session... I didn’t know what I was walking into or what ‘Design’ really meant in this context but I showed up anyway and everyone happened to be using this thing called Miro. I had never used Miro before so I found myself blankly staring at this big white screen, rapidly trying to figure out how to navigate it. Unfortunately for me, it was an interactive session so I couldn’t hide my lack of knowledge. The presenter asked us all to write our reflections down onto Post-It’s and show them to the group. Unable to figure all the buttons out, I panic-drew some Post-It’s onto a notepad and held them up… Everyone sort of smiled sympathetically… I felt so technologically backwards. I eventually did manage to figure all the buttons out and now I can’t get enough of using Miro. It’s so much fun!
Yasmeen: I’m thinking back to the very first time I designed a prototype. I remember feeling so proud at first because I’d felt that I’d done a lot of research and thought I was ready, ‘you know, this is going to be great!’ [Narrator: it was not great] So I had one of my very good friends who is an amazing UX designer to look at it and she was like, ‘you made this?’ And I was like, ‘Yes!’ and she responded with, ‘oh, it’s so cute!’ That’s not uh… The answer I was looking for. But, she was really nice about it and she poked so many holes and made me relook at my user flow and it was a really great learning experience for me but yeah… ‘Cute’ was not the word I was looking for.
Lawrence: Mine was both humbling and embarrassing. Maybe funny... But only in hindsight. Dawn was there for this one. We were both also quite new to Design and had been tasked with hosting a workshop in which we had to present our findings after a short Discovery phase. It was a cold, cold room. There was one person in particular who just kept on tearing into all of our research. He had said, ‘okay, so you’ve talked to 5 people and how come you know more than what we know? We’ve got 20 000 people registered with us…’ He then got out his phone and was on his calculator and was like duh..duh…duh [furiously pressing buttons] and said ‘there we go, that’s the percentage of people spoken to…’ The room froze completely. Not knowing what else to do, we said, ‘Okay, we haven’t spoken to that many people but we’ve got some good insights… Can we share them with you?’
Dawn: I’ve never been as hot as I was in that room.
Lawrence: Yeah.. It was a baptism of fire. But, a really important lesson in developing confidence and standing up for your discipline.
Dawn: Absolutely. Also, such a common and so-very-human experience. I’ve frequently walked into workshops where I’ve felt like the most hated person in the room. Generally, you’re there because you have to be and often the initial response is like, ‘look at you with your post-it notes coming in here…’ Nerve wracking. But I’ve also had many heartwarming moments. For example, Martyn and I once did a User Research sprint with patients at Guy’s and St Thomas. The patients suffered from a rare autoimmune disease called Epidermolysis Bullosa which is an extremely painful condition that causes their skin to blister and often leads to cancer. I was really nervous about how to deal with the situation because I wasn’t sure how to approach the questions without saying the wrong thing. It ended up being one of the most inspiring and uplifting moments of my career. The patients were so lighthearted and full of joy - they laughed, joked and posed for photos. They seemed so accepting and at peace. I walked away full of gratitude and so very humbled.
Image by Altspace VR via Medium
Kassie: So I’ve only completed one project so far which is the Women’s Health Project that I mentioned earlier. It signalled a huge turning point in my career where basically overnight I jumped from being a little girl with big ideas fumbling around various internships to leading a project for a major PLC and really having to confidently test and trial these ideas into a real world setting. Finding ways to bridge the gap and develop real-human connections between the private health sector and the women using their services while simultaneously building a community that could support thousands of women struggling with unaddressed and underressearched hormonal health conditions was extremely fulfilling. It was tough, tough work but I look back at that time and still feel such pride.
Ali: My proudest project was also Women’s Health related. It was the end-project that I did for my masters and within it tackled what is often considered a female-only problem: “the pelvic floor.” It felt so good to be able to own a conversation that is often riddled with shame and embarrassment. We then also had the opportunity to integrate the project within a local GP practice. By the end of it, the nurse was like, ‘I’m going to continue to have these conversations because it’s been really valuable.’ And that’s what makes me feel such pride… Even if the things that I designed aren’t ever used, the fact that the conversation was still there when I left it felt like a very big achievement.
Yasmeen: Mine is also my final major year project for my Masters because I got to work on two things that I’m really passionate about which is Arts & Culture and Sustainability. I spent a month in Venice doing research and what made it so incredible was that I was able to see the project evolve from just an idea to an actual, tangible thing that could become something one day. It was very rewarding. It’s both being able to take ownership and the fact that it’s your own… Blood, sweat and tears. I poured my heart into it. And, I always think about it as something that I will one day go back to and revive because I don’t feel like it’s finished. So it’s not completed but to be completed… Watch this space.
Dawn: Undoubtedly, the Hackney Project. Partly because I’ve spent a lot of my career on it and partly because of the engagement that we’ve been able to achieve. I’m also really proud of the product that we’ve managed to create - The Repairs Hub - we recently made a comparison video which showed how much time could be saved for the users using it and that’s exciting! But mostly, it’s the quality of relationship and all the conversations I’ve been able to enjoy as a result that makes me feel so proud to be a part of this project.
Lawrence: It’s quite hard to choose but I think mine might be Newham. It was a turning point for me too. I always used to think of us as designers and clients as clients and our job was to go to clients and extract what we needed in order to be able to do the work. But in this particular project, the client was really friendly, really involved and really engaged in the process. I remember thinking ‘okay, wow! It’s not just about going in, facilitating a brain dump and then walking away’ rather, it’s about creating a space for people to talk about the process, their problems and workflows and then really… Collaborate in order to co-design a solution together. This realisation has made my work so much more enjoyable.
Martyn: Proudest moment? Probably when Dawn came and said, ‘I’d like to work for Unboxed!’ In terms of projects, I don’t think that there’s a particular project that stands out. It takes a very long time to get things out there. It’s really more the process that I’m proud of: Human/User-Centred Design, research and Agile delivery. I get a lot of joy out of going to a local council or service where people have become so disconnected from their users that they’ve begun to think of them as a problem. We get to go in and say, ‘let’s try redesigning the service!’ It changes the way that people engage with their work in a productive and positive way. I love that about the work that we do.
Image by Martin Stampka
Martyn: Another benefit to Agile-empowered, cross-functional teams and Human/User-Centred Design as a practice is that I no longer have to be the guy who has all the answers. I’d spent way too many years trying to be this guy... People wanted to know, “How are we going to do this? How long is it going to take? How much is it going to cost? How do we fix this?” I’ve always instinctively known that this is wrong but when you become the person who asks good questions instead of pretending to have all the answers - it’s a revelation! The whole point of User-Centred Design is that you are not your user, you don’t know the answers, everything that you think is an assumption and that’s a real relief in some ways… Not to have to know the answers but to be able to say, “I know how to find the answer!”
Yasmeen: My biggest revelation has been that I previously didn’t know that I’m a person who is capable of empathising to a level that makes me feel almost like… I’m affected by whatever users are going through… Even if it’s a simple thing. Design demands a different level of empathy because you’re actively trying to relate to a user. I think it’s really changed the way that I look at things and feel things and understand things.
Ali: I love the fact that in the job that we do, we’re continuously learning. Not just new skills but also about different people’s experiences. I also think that it’s incredible that you get pockets of information about things that you would normally never get the opportunity to learn about. Like two months ago, I knew nothing about Back Office Planning Systems. ‘Continuously Learning’ is a great lens to view the world through.
Dawn: I think I scrutinize and question things a lot more than what I would otherwise. I know that I annoy my husband all the time because I always say, “Oh, look at the way they’ve done that… No, I wouldn’t have done it like that.” He’ll say, “yes, we know that you think it should be different.” But I really enjoy having that different view: seeing what things could be rather than just accepting them as they are.
Lawrence: Similarly, I spend a lot of time looking at things that aren’t good about websites and services and I’m quite good at expressing my views out loud much to everyone around me’s dismay. But it’s not criticism for criticism’s sake. I invest in the process of feedback quite a bit because I know that there’s someone behind the scenes looking at the data and making changes based off of it. I’ve always enjoyed obsessing over how things work but I think working as a Designer has really enhanced this quality… I often catch myself in the queue at Greggs building a process map in my head of all the different interactions that are happening. I think that’s quite good. I really like it.
Kassie: My world-shaping insight is more about the community who support design rather than design in isolation. I really struggled when I first began the career transition from paramedic to writer/designer. As a medic, I had access to a set of systems, frameworks and tools that I trained and disciplined myself in to such a degree that even in dangerous mass casualty or trauma scenes, I seldom felt anxious. There was, in fact, a really beautiful synergy. You have a team of people, working together to solve a problem and everybody has a clearly defined role to play. In the tech and business world, initially, I felt really insecure because I had no idea how to translate these skills and so found giving presentations and meeting deadlines far more terrifying than coordinating resus scenes. But then, I discovered a Design community who taught me a new set of systems, frameworks and tools. “There’s no need to struggle alone” is a value that is continuously reinforced within this space. So now… Even when there’s chaos, when I feel overwhelmed and inadequate, emotions are flying and deadlines are looming… There’s a system that we can work through, a team that we can ask for help from and a process to help us navigate the complexity and that... Makes all the difference.
Stories as told through illustrations via The Economist
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