Human-centred design: A fresh approach that can power Canada’s COVID recovery

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In this edition of NousCast Shorts we speak to Nous Principal Kirsty Elderton in Melbourne and Nous Director Kelly Rowe in Toronto about how human-centred design is transforming the way governments tap into the needs of citizens in crafting public policy, and how Canadian government agencies can put it into practice.

Kelly and colleague Tess Lawley have written more about this topic on our website: “How human-centred design can transform government service delivery during COVID and beyond”.

About NousCast Shorts

The NousCast Shorts podcast series brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. Each episode of NousCast Shorts will feature a rapid-fire interview with a Nous consultant about an emerging issue in their area of expertise – in about the time it takes to have a cup of coffee.

Ari Sharp: Hi and welcome to NousCast Shorts, a podcast that brings you short and sharp insights from the team at Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I’m your host, Ari Sharp and today on NousCast Shorts, we’re talking all about human-centred design and how it can help governments in Canada to overcome some of the biggest social challenges posed by COVID-19.

Today, I’m joined by two guests. Kirsty Elderton is a Nous Principal based in Melbourne, who has worked with many Australian organisations to successfully implement human-centred design, including dozens of local governments to rethink the way they regulate businesses. And my other guest is Kelly Rowe, a Nous Director based in Toronto, who has worked for three levels of government in Canada as a senior advisor and in her career as a consultant, has worked with governments and public sector clients across the country. Lately Kirsty and Kelly have been working together to imagine the possibilities for human-centred design, often just called ‘HCD’, for government agencies across Canada to design more impactful social policies. So, just what is HCD and how can it be put to best use in Canada? Let’s find out.

Kirsty Elderton in Melbourne Kelly Rowe in Toronto, welcome to NousCast Shorts.

Kelly Rowe: Hi Ari.

Kirsty Elderton: Hi, Ari. Thanks for having us.

Ari Sharp: Kirsty, if I can start with you, you’ve done a lot of work on human-centred design with clients all across Australia and the UK and Canada. Can you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind HCD?

Kirsty Elderton: So human-centred design really is an approach to innovation that integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technologies, and what organisations need to be successful. I think how that differs really from other modes or other traditional ways of doing consultancy is that it tends to over-index a little on the voice of customer, the needs of users, because primarily organizations and the needs of policymakers tend to kind of rise to the surface and the needs of some of the people in community that are experiencing vulnerability. For example, they’ve used their needs, even with the best of intentions cannot get taken into consideration in the fullest way. So human-centred design really starts with empathy. It’s about creating experiences for people by immersing yourself in their world, their needs, understanding what their world looks like and designing policy, products, services, experiences around the insights that you glean from knowing them a little bit more closely.

And the way that we think about it at Nous, Ari, is that we have a bit of a process not develop by us, developed by the design council in the UK, where we have a bit of a methodology called the double diamond, which starts with that discovery phase where you spend lots of time in design research mode understanding all the needs of the different people in the service system, and then defining down what the real problems are within that, and really diagnosing them quite carefully. And then you open up again into this really creative process where you think about multiple ways that you might solve that problem.

And at that point, you’re really looking for kind of quantity of ways of solving problems rather than quality. And then we go through this very iterative prototyping process where you can develop your hypothesis, put it into action test and learn really quickly what flies, what doesn’t, what works, what sticks and rule some things in or out really quickly and make more evidence-based decisions.

Ari Sharp: And, Kirsty, can you give us some examples of how you’ve put it into practice in Australia,

Kirsty Elderton: Particularly one of the signature programs that we’ve worked on over the last last three years is a big piece of work to redesign the regulatory environment for businesses to open more quickly. And of course this was important work before the global pandemic, but since the pandemic, the work in that space has just been accelerated. So really understanding the intent of the regulatory environment to keep consumers, businesses safe, but then thinking about how the regulatory intent gets turned into process and practice by the regulators and then understanding the needs of those that have been regulated, in this case businesses, and trying to find the sweet spot of making all of those things set together.

And we’ve had quite a lot of success in redesigning some of those processes and services for small businesses so much so that in a couple of the projects that we’ve been working on, the experience for businesses to get their businesses open, one of the really important things for business is time. So, the more quickly they can get open, obviously the sooner they can start earning money, employing people and all of those things contribute to the community. But we’ve managed to reduce the time it takes for businesses to open by 75%. And so that has a real impact, not just on the quality of lives of those people, but also on the economic prosperity of those communities.

Ari Sharp: Kelly, if I can turn to you listening to what Kirsty said about the potential for HCD to improve government processes, what are some of the big challenges that governments in Canada are facing and what role do you think HCD can play?

Kelly Rowe: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, right now in Canada, we are obviously going through, COVID like much of the world, however, we’re a little bit different in that we’ve actually been in, I think, one of the longest lockdowns globally. And so what that means is that a lot of businesses are actually suffering quite a bit. So sectors such as accommodation, food and beverage, arts and entertainment, and even small main street retail have really suffered the greatest.

So what can governments do about that? I think aside from providing obvious financial support that some sectors might need, governments can get a little bit more creative in how they support the sectors by using human centered design to really redesign some of the regulations, policies and the processes around those regulations and policies to just make it easier for those businesses to operate while still being strict on the policy or regulation as it relates to the public interest.

I think broadly this could involve a few steps. First one is really just to take stock of the range of policies and regulations that apply to that, say one particular sector. So, maybe start from a point of data analysis and then understand how your policies and regulations impact businesses within that sector by engaging directly with them. So, as Kirsty said, this is really a process that involves deep engagement and making sure that you’re kind of extracting the voices from the sectors and bringing them through, into the policy and regulation process.

From there it would involve really working quite closely with those identified stakeholders to start to tease out some of the issues with that particular policy or regulation. And that could involve anything from how it’s applied to the way it’s operationalized through the process. And then, governments could engage those same businesses to really redesign aspects of that regulation or policy through focused ideation sessions. And I think once you have that preferred prototype of that regulation or policy, ideally you would go out and kind of test it more broadly and iterate and then implement while you’re kind of evaluating the impact that it’s having and making sure that it’s kind of being applied as intended.

Ari Sharp: And Kelly, can we talk about a couple of groups that have been hit particularly hard by the economic effects of COVID? And a lot of businesses, as we know we’re doing it really tough and a lot of families that are juggling childcare obligations, as well as work. Can you talk us through how human centered design might be helpful in constructing policies to help those groups?

Kelly Rowe: No one can really deny how impacted families have been by the pandemic, both men and women, but I think statistics have shown that the impacts on women specifically have been more acute and disproportionate. So in Canada, it’s actually been referred to as a she-session instead of a recession. So what could governments do about that? They can really support those most impacted groups of women by taking this human-centred design approach. And what that could look like in practice is so say the government wanted to develop a new program, understanding that women have been disproportionately impacted and so go, “How can we go about addressing their issues?”.

And ideally that would start from a position of again, understanding the data, really understanding the gendered impacts of COVID across segments of the population. And then using that data to then go out and actually identify those who you want to bring into the process. And say this particular program was to help let’s say female entrepreneurs. So you’d want to go out and really make sure you’ve got a good representation of those individuals, pulling them into the process and start to identify one of the challenges they’re facing. So having an open forum where they’re kind of sharing those issues with you, and then co-create with those female entrepreneurs, what the future program could look like that will directly address their needs.

Ari Sharp: And Kirsty, can I ask you what would be a sensible first step for an organization that was just dipping its toe in the water with HCD? Where should they start?

Kirsty Elderton: I think, Ari, a really good place to start is with that design research phase at the beginning, one of the things that I’ve learned during this process, having worked on gosh, hundreds of projects with government now over the past sort of five to 10 years, there’s no shortage of passion or compassion within government to want to provide better services. But often either through tricky procurement processes or by the way that those project teams are structured often the pressure is to get to the solution really quickly.

My advice would actually be start slow to go faster later. So really spend time in that discovery space, listen to the different voices within that community, understand the problems that you’re trying to solve from their perspective. And actually, one of the things that we’ve noticed over kind of doing this work, when organizations participate in that discovery work themselves, it actually puts a bit of fire in the belly to really define that problem well, and see it through to implementation. Because sometimes our processes and ways of going about improvement can almost put a barrier between people doing the work and community and it dehumanises the process.

But as soon as you have to look a business owner in the eye and hear that they’ve had to re-mortgage their house because it’s taken over a year to get their approvals up, that they’re now receiving mental health support because that’s been so stressful for them, that their marriage is on the rocks. Suddenly there’s a bit more… the human face of the process becomes much more real and it puts a bit of fire in the belly about making that improvement happen and making it happen really quickly.

Ari Sharp: Kelly, you’ve had lots of experience working in government in Canada. What level of government do you think would be most suited to using HCD or in fact can all of them benefit from it?

Kelly Rowe: Yeah, I think all of them could benefit from HCD in terms of how they approach program design and service delivery more broadly. But specifically for kind of helping businesses. Definitely the provincial governments who do a lot of regulating of businesses within provinces. And then I think also at the municipal level, there is bylaws are created by city governments here and those impact a number of in the cities. So they could also kind of look at how HCD could kind of help them develop new regulations or new processes.

But I think just as a skillset, human-centred design is not kind of widespread in governments. So, we’re well aware that across levels of government, there is kind of a bit of capacity building that’s been going on over time. And so it’s not directly embedded in the automatic way that a public servant will go about designing a policy or program or a regulation. And so I think if that becomes a more developed as a skillset, we actually might see kind of a larger scale transformation in government and the way they deliver services.

Ari Sharp: Kirsty and Kelly, thanks so much for talking to NousCast Shorts.

Kelly Rowe: Thanks, Ari.

Kirsty Elderton: Thanks so much for having us.

Ari Sharp: That was Kirsty Elderton in Melbourne and Kelly Rowe in Toronto. Kirsty and Kelly, along with colleagues, Tess Lawley, have written more about this topic in an article on the Nous website. You can contact Kirsty and Kelly directly via email and LinkedIn. We’ll provide links in the episode notes. Before we go, some information on us at Nous group for more than 20 years Nous has offered a broad consulting capability that allows us to solve our client’s most complex strategic challenges and partner with them through transformational change. We’ve contributed to significant agendas in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, including shaping the future of higher education, digitally transforming service delivery and developing models of regulation. You can find out more about now, meet our people and read our insights at our website. That’s

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