Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas about using human-centred design for social change

Published on 29/03/2022

With a growing number of barriers to accessing vital services, we need to think critically about accessibility and people’s services experiences in the social and public sector. Human-centred design is an approach which centres the voices and lived experiences of people who are impacted in the design or re-design of a program or service.

During this session, Galen MacLusky and Nandita Bijur of Prosper Canada share the mindsets and principles that have helped their organization introduce and integrate human-centred design into their projects. Specifically, you will hear how they used human-centred design in their work integrating financial empowerment into municipal services and in designing impactful frontline services for people living on low incomes. Human-centred design can often feel overwhelming, but this session will help you think about small shifts you can implement in your practice and decision-making that could make a big difference.

Prosper Canada began its human-centred design journey in 2016 with an in-house design research manager and consultations with Bridgeable, a leading design firm based in Toronto, Ontario. Since building design methodologies into its project work, its staff and program delivery partners have been able to learn more about the experiences of people living on low incomes, pinpoint organizational needs, and ensure programs and resources are designed with these learnings in mind. A human-centred design approach also helps Prosper Canada think about how to best integrate programs and resources within its partners’ existing services.

Five Good Ideas

  1. More poetry, less long-division
  2. Use design tools as a scaffold, not a checklist 
  3. Start and end with people’s experiences 
  4. Focus on the “why’s” when creating together, not the “what’s” 
  5. Use boundaries and constraints as creative springboards 


  • Creative Reaction Lab’s Equity-Centred Community Design (ECCD) approach – An excellent guide to doing values-based and equity-driven design work. This includes a field guide on how to centre equity in the design work you’re doing. 
  •  + Acumen’s free Introduction to Human Centred Design course – A free, online, seven-week course that takes you through the basic tools and approach behind Human-Centred Design. It’s a great way to build your toolkit and understanding of what this practice can offer you in your work, from two amazing organizations.  
  • Service Design Tools – A curated selection of service design (a practice within Human-Centred Design) tools that you can use as a scaffold for your own explorations into research, idea-generation, prototyping, and implementation activities.  
  • Mental Wellness at Work in Toronto’s Downtown East – A helpful case study by the Health Commons Solution Lab that gives insight to how to frame challenges and design an approach that meets the needs of participants. 
  • Conceptual Blockbusting, by James L. Adams – Complete with activities and stories, this book can  help you understand the psychological barriers to creativity and how you can “unblock” them. A great resource for anyone who wants to support their own and others’ creative ideas.  


Presentation transcript

Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac: While many of you are dialing in from across Canada and perhaps beyond, I’m speaking to you from Toronto. I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I would encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnaabek, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit, and the territory is covered by the Dish With One Spoon wampum belt covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

So, for today’s session, with a growing number of barriers to accessing vital services, we need to think critically about accessibility and how people experience services in the social and public sector. Human-centred design is an approach which centres the voices and lived experiences of people who are impacted in the design or redesign of a program or service.

During today’s Five Good Ideas session, Nandita Bijur and Galen MacLusky will share the mindsets and principles that have helped their organization, Prosper Canada, introduce and integrate human-centred design into their projects. Specifically, you will hear about how they used human-centred design in their work integrating financial empowerment into municipal services and in designing impactful frontline services for people who live on low incomes.

Both Nandita and Galen are with Prosper Canada in the Program Delivery and Integration department. Nandita is the senior officer, and Galen is the manager. For their full bios plus today’s ideas and resources, please download the handout that is in the chat. It is now my pleasure to welcome Nandita and Galen. Please turn on your cameras.

Galen MacLusky: Perfect. Thanks so much, Elizabeth, and thanks for having us today. We’re so excited to dive into the conversation. I wanted to start, before we get into our five good ideas, with just some definitions and orienting around what human-centred design is. Many of you might be joining this call and hearing about human-centred design for the first time. Maybe some of you have had more experience or know a bit more. But we wanted to start by just clarifying that from our perspective, human-centred design is, first and foremost, an approach to problem solving and one that centres people’s experiences in that approach.

There are lots of different types of activities that you might see in a human-centred design process. There’s usually a research phase or an opportunity to engage with people to build empathy for people’s current experiences. There are activities around sense-making, around taking what you hear and see and translating it into what you think the opportunities are for improvement or design. There are activities around prototyping, around generating new ideas and building them, often together. And then there are also activities around testing. Once we’ve built ideas, we put them in real people’s hands to get feedback on them, and put them out in the world to see how people respond. These are all activities that are part of human-centred design.

There are also lots of tools and methods out there, and we find that this is one of the key ways that people will hear of about human-centred design. They hear about things like journey maps or empathy maps. We’re not going to talk too much about those tools today, but I really want to encourage you to check out the service design tools link that we have in the five resources in the handout, because that’s a great way to orient yourself to some of the tools that are out there in the world of human-centred design.

The other thing I wanted to be really clear about before we dive in is that you’re very likely already doing a lot of the things we’re going to talk about. You’re very likely engaging people to learn from their experiences. You’re very likely testing ideas and running pilots and experiments. But what human-centred design can offer is an approach to help strengthen what you’re doing already, and maybe some new ideas to augment your practice as well.

Another piece of context I want to share is where we’re coming from as Prosper Canada, and where Nandita and I are coming from in our practice. Prosper Canada is a national charity that’s dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for Canadians living in poverty, and we work at both the program and policy level. Since 2016, we’ve been incorporating human-centred design into how we do that work and really focused on a branch of human-centred design called service design, which is applying human-centred design methods to the design of services that people engage with.

The examples that we’re going to share as we share our five good ideas are primarily pulled from our Prosperity Gateways program, where we work with governments to find ways to integrate things like access to benefits supports, one-on-one financial counseling and coaching into existing municipal programs and services. We work without necessarily having a solution in mind, and we start by exploring what might be possible, and then working with the government that we’re working with to identify what we can create that will be most impactful for the communities they serve.

So, the five good ideas we’re going to share today are intended to be a starting point for your practice as you look to explore human-centred design or deepen your practice. These are lessons that we feel we’ve learned from our practice, within both Prosper Canada and the Prosperity Gateway’s work, and also the broader work in human-centred design that both of us have done.

1. More poetry, less long-division

We debated if this was the first idea we wanted to share, because it can be a bit challenging to wrap your head around. The central idea is that in encouraging these kinds of methods, you really need to encourage more poetry and less long division. What do we mean by that? Long division is a shorthand for tools that are highly repeatable. You take a number, you have a process to work with it, and you can be sure that you’re going to get the same result every single time. It’s very predictable, very structured. Whereas in poetry, there are heuristics about what makes good poetry, how to write poetry. People are actually breaking rules all the time about what good poetry looks like, and it’s an evolving practice. It’s also emergent. You don’t know what you’re going to end up with. That concept is really critical to a human-centred design approach.

One of the core things is that these approaches centre on people’s experiences. So at the outset you often don’t know what intervention you’re going to be building, or what you’re going to end up with. So much depends on what you learn from people along the way. If you’re thinking about adopting human-centred design approaches, we’ve seen that there’s a tendency to try and systematize or make them highly predictable, sometimes even starting with the end in mind. We’ve found to do this really well, you need to be creating more space for poetry, more space to learn from what’s going on and reacting to what’s in front of you, and more of a space for craft and creativity, rather than highly systematic approaches.

You may be wondering, though, how do you actually manage that in a project that has defined timelines or if you have funders with specific deliverables? In our Prosperity Gateways work, we really try to balance our structure with this kind of flexibility. So, number one, we don’t know what our final solution or end product will be when we start engagement with a government system. We might have ideas about what it could be. For example, maybe it’s access to banking supports, or one-on-one financial coaching or counseling. We set up a process to help explore the possibility before we start to dive into actually creating it and working to implement that kind of solution.

We typically follow four phases. We have a discovery phase, where we’re learning all we can about what people are experiencing in a given government system. Then we design and work to generate ideas together with people who are impacted. Once we’ve designed a solution, then we work to integrate that solution within the government system. Finally, we transition and support the government to continue running that program on an ongoing basis.

Those four phases give us some structure, and we know that each of those phases typically has a defined timeline and a defined endpoint where we need to get arrive. In the discovery phase, we know we need to end with a clear perspective on what the needs and opportunities are out in the world, because that’s an important ingredient for us to design together.

Throughout that process, we’re constantly evolving and shifting our approach based on what we hear. One really good example is with our work with the City of Edmonton, where we came in with a pre-conception that access to banking supports might be really important, particularly for people who are housing insecure. This issue shows up in a lot of different scenarios, so it was an idea that we already had when we started the process. Almost immediately, as we started to engage people at homeless shelters, drop-in centres, and at different city programs, we found that in Edmonton, many people who are housing insecure still have access to banking. Then we knew that we needed to focus our solutions on something else.

This is a good example of what the flexibility and poetry that I’m talking about is. Because if we came in with this idea that we were going to do access to banking services and we were going to work with the city to do that, we would’ve had to totally readjust and adapt as soon as we found out that actually there’s not a big need in the community, or worse still, if we ignored that that wasn’t a big need in the community.

Ultimately, what this first good idea is about is you don’t know what you’re going to discover in the process. In fact, that’s why you’re going through the process. And so, if that’s true, then you also need to create space in how you structure your process and your approach to adapt, to respond, and to create more room for poetry.

All right, Nandita, I think it’s over to you for our next one.

2. Use design tools as a scaffold, not a checklist

Nandita Bijur: To continue adding to what Galen was saying, in your travels you may have come across a lot of tools that we typically use in design, such as personas, journey maps, or service blueprints. We often find folks who are interested in trying human-centred design in their own work use a lot of these tools as must-dos, instead of as tools in a toolkit that can be deployed when needed. We’ve learned that the design process consists of us, as designers, constantly responding to a series of questions that emerge. How do we make sure everyone is on the same page? How can we get a full understanding of what barriers people are facing in this process? How do we make sure that the people that we’re engaging feel safe and supported while participating in our interviews or our design sessions?

So it’s how you answer these questions, and the tools that you decide to use, that build a scaffold for your project. That scaffold is for you as you’re navigating this process, but it’s also for the people who are engaging in your process, whether that’s clients, residents who use these services, or its staff. What we found is that the scaffold helps build trust in the process. It helps build trust in you as the designer, as the person leading this process of designing a program, or redesigning a program, or making improvements to existing services. It also builds trust in the organization that’s heading this process or change.

The scaffold does this is by allowing you to deploy the right tools, for the right purpose, based on what you hear by speaking to your target users. One example we can share is from one of our projects with a municipality where we were working with a team to build their internal capacity, and help them identify opportunities to strengthen existing services, or existing financial empowerment services, that they were already delivering to their community. In interviews and our co-design sessions, what we observed about this team was that they were often handling clients individually and on their own. There seemed to be a need on the team for building alignment, building a shared understanding, of how their individual work contributed to their team and department’s outcomes.

When we first started our work, that wasn’t on our radar at all, that developing team alignment would be so important to accomplishing all that we wanted. This was a pivot point for us, where we had to go through a process of deciding which tool we should be using in our next steps, after our co-design session, once we were ready to identify opportunities and help the municipality see their work in a different perspective. What we did, and what we found to work really well, was to start with that as a problem statement, instead of starting with the specific tool that we had in mind.

We considered service blueprints, which weren’t quite right, because they help us visualize more of the process and the backend logistics, rather than the outcomes. We also considered an ecosystem map, which would have helped visualize all of the supporting services or all the possible partnerships and opportunities for partnerships, which also wasn’t quite right, because that’s not what the team needed.

We also considered a journey map which, again, didn’t quite fit the bill, because it focused more on the client experience, rather than how the team worked. What we landed on was an opportunity map, where we could ground the opportunities that the team had worked on identifying through this process, within the existing services that they were already offering. This kind of map helped them all visualize together how their individual work contributed to the outcomes or the priorities they had co-developed, and to see how their future work might fit into those outcomes as well.

We found that the map was something tangible for them to look at and make together, and it helped them build a common understanding of why they do this work. When it gets tough and they’re dealing with clients who are in crisis situations, they often don’t have resources to point them to. So it was really important to emphasize a collective why. So, as you are designing or redesigning a program and looking for a process to follow, we would suggest starting with the challenge instead of the tool itself. As Galen was saying in our first idea, maybe don’t go into a project with a defined idea of what you want to get out of it. I know we’ve come across some projects where there are defined outputs like, “In this project, we will create a journey map.” That may not be the map or the visual tool that’s best suited for your project. So that level of flexibility that’s required starts from the beginning.

The second tip or suggestion here is be clear about why you’re using a certain tool and communicate that intention to the people you’re engaging. What we’ve learned is that design tools help you form a scaffold, but it’s really your communication that connects those dots and fills in the gaps to actually build your initiative. That’s where it can be most helpful.

3. Start and end with people’s experiences

I am sure this is surprising for no one, that core tenet of human-centred design is to build around real people’s experiences from the very beginning, and keep that central throughout, keep it a central pillar, bring it to the forefront whenever you can. What we you want to highlight here is that it’s not enough to just centre on people in general, but you really have to centre on the right people. You have to centre on the people who face the most barriers or risks in this experience.

We’ve learned that in order to design something that’s easy for everyone to access and to use, you have to emphasize or start with the people who face multi-layered barriers, who you know are going to make a difference in that journey. Take a look at who is impacted disproportionately in your process and start with that experience. The key that we found to keeping these experiences at the centre throughout is to build a shared understanding of them. For us, this has often meant setting the context at the beginning of design sessions, and making sure that we’re sharing the story or the key challenges that people experience. As we’re designing, we ensure those challenges, experiences, and stories are at the centre of the ideas that being developed or brainstormed.

It is vital that not just the program designer or the program lead listens and understands these challenges. Once you’ve designed your program, it’s the frontline staff who are delivering the service, and the senior management who will be driving or making program decisions. If you leave a designed program with no connection to why it was designed a certain way, it is vulnerable to losing the essence of the experience. We use this a lot in our own work. When we were co-designing with the City of Edmonton, we very intentionally invited a cross-section of people who were impacted or connected to the target program. This included city program staff, frontline service centre staff who delivered in-person services, and residents and clients who used the program.

Creating a shared space where all of these stakeholders were in the same room, or call in this case, is really important. The key intention was for them to have an opportunity to listen to and understand each other’s experiences. The act of building together was also an act of sharing each other’s perspectives, and building the kind of empathy that you probably wouldn’t get from reading a report or reading an insights deck. Internally, this helped build momentum at the City to continue this initiative. And externally, it builds a lot of understanding on the residents’ part about the structural barriers that frontline staff are up against as well. This collective growth and understanding while going through the process is really important for everyone.

To summarize, as you get into this work, if you’re worried about how to centre people’s experiences throughout your process, we found bringing a critical lens to our work is, and remains, very important. This means challenging the assumptions that you, the people around you, or even organizationally, we might have about who is impacted, why, and how they’re impacted, and what our program or service can do to improve that experience.

Give yourself time and permission to identify who should be consulted and to build trust. A lot of this process depends on people authentically engaging in your work, in the scaffolding or in the process that you build. In order to do that, they need to trust you. They also need to trust that the process will actually lead somewhere that they want be.

Also, dedicate time for alignment. I feel that alignment comes up in every conversation and every project we take on, because a common understanding of the needs and opportunities in a project makes a world of a difference throughout the process, and in the sustainability of your program after the design development process is done.

4. Focus on the “whys” when creating together, not the “whats”

Galen MacLusky: As has probably become pretty clear through what Nandita shared, there’s a lot of emphasis within a human-centred design process on bringing people together to create together. There are so many benefits to shared understanding. Nandita’s done a great job of underscoring why that’s important.

If you’re like us and most people we work with, it can also be kind of scary to bring a whole bunch of different people, people from outside your organization, inside your organization, partners and funders together to build together. That’s what our fourth idea is about. Focus on the whys when building together not the whats.

There are two really common pitfalls that our clients worry about when we talk about a co-design process. First, they worry that they will have to build exactly what people tell them to. The perception is that in a few hours, or even a day, we’re going to come up with ideas and we have to move forward with whatever is discussed.

Another pitfall is maybe the reverse of that, which the fear that people will be upset if we don’t pick the ideas that they suggest. This is tricky for a lot of organizations because we want to maintain good relationships with the people we engage, and we want to show that their suggestions, ideas, and perspectives have meaning and impact. You will hear diverse and divergent perspectives from your participants, so it’s not actually going to be possible to do everything everyone has suggested to you across the process.

We’ve been designing an online tool for people living with disabilities to navigate the benefit system, and to access disability income supports. One of the polarizing issues that came up was deciding what words we should be using to describe the people who should be using this type of site. Should it be people living with disabilities? Should it be people with diverse abilities? We heard some very different perspectives on this topic and very polarized, very strong preferences in both directions.

It might seem like choosing one term would mean that we’re going to let one group down, and that we have to somehow decide who is right or whose perspective we’re going to favour. But I actually think our fourth good idea is about looking for the broader “whys” behind ideas, because those are often much more important and much more useful than the immediate ideas people are presenting you with. In this case, yes, we heard two quite different and, in some ways, opposing preferences and suggestions for language. But the common theme that is came out of both of these was wanting it to be recognized, understood, and reflected that our target audience faces greater challenges and barriers to accessing different types of supports. That was the perspective of those who favoured the term “people with disabilities.” They wanted it to be recognized that there were challenges out there that they needed support with.

On the flip side, the other theme that emerged was that they also want to be treated as equals. They didn’t want to be treated as inferior. They want to be respected and supported throughout the process. Those two concepts could be incorporated into all aspects of how we design the experience of this website. So, yes, there is a decision to be made about the language that we use, and we’ve tried to pick a very specific and distinct example, but actually what’s more important is what these ideas are telling us about the context of what people are saying, and what we need to keep in mind as we’re designing an experience. Finding ways to help people feel respected and supported, while acknowledging that they may face barriers and challenges, that is absolutely possible. It’s not an either or situation. Looking at the “whys” behind things also allows us to see commonalities, and gives us a much better place to start incorporating ideas into design.

There are a couple of expectations that I think are really important to set for yourself, as well as for any participants you’re bringing into a collaborative design session. Number one, being clear that building together is an exploration, not a commitment. That’s a lot of pressure to put onto a three-hour session together, believing that we’re going to design a government service in that timeframe. It’s very difficult to do, it’s an unrealistic expectation to set. What I think is a better expectation is to build together, to learn from each other, and to explore ideas that we can continue to refine going forward.

Building ideas together helps you explore themes, commonalities, desires, and frustrations together. You’ll often find that when people connect with each other in these kinds of sessions, it becomes very clear that you’re not going to be able to do everything that everyone would like. Being clear and upfront about goals, and creating space for people to meet and connect, creates a much broader shared understanding of each other, and can create support for different ideas moving forward. Number one, be explicit upfront about what you hope to achieve in a collaborative design session, and number two, communicate back to people how you integrated their perspectives, because it may not be, “You asked for this program, we delivered this program. End of story.” But it can be something like, “We heard these different perspectives, and here’s how that informed how we move forward.” That, I think, is a message that can resonate with people, and can help to diffuse some anxiety that you, or people in your organization, might feel about this process of bringing people together and asking them to guide you, which can be a scary one.

5. Use boundaries and constraints as creative springboards

The last good idea we want to share is about using boundaries and constraints as creative springboards. We spend a lot of time thinking about creativity, and how to create space for creativity to emerge. One of the things that becomes clear is that a world without constraints is actually very challenging. This is often called the tyranny of the blank canvas, when you don’t know where to start, you have so many different possibilities, it can be really hard to move forward. Constraints can often focus us in negative ways. We can get fixated on all the problems, all the things that stand in the ways of us achieving our objectives. What we would encourage you to do is to find productive and positive ways to work with constraints to actually help bolster creativity and bolster thinking about ideas.

As an example, one of the government systems we’re working with, is a small department that had extremely limited staff time. They primarily engaged one on one with clients. They had a very limited budget, and they also were operating within a much bigger system that presented a lot of barriers for the clients they were working with. There are a lot of constraints, and many of them may sound familiar to you. It can be really easy to decide not to do anything because of the litany of constraints. In our process, what we try and do is turn constraints into opportunities by engaging positively with them. In this particular case, we have limited staff time. We can’t do lots of new things because we’re spending so much time one-on-one with clients, and we don’t want to lose that.

That’s a fantastic starting point. That’s a fantastic set of constraints. This resulted in us exploring with the team what we might do within the boundaries. We started to ask questions like, “How might we amplify some of our existing staffing resources? We have limited staffing, but what can we do to have a bigger impact?” That also started lots of conversations about how we can facilitate community members to support each other, which I don’t think we would’ve gotten to if we had a ton of staff available, with lots of vital time. We wouldn’t have had a conversation about how we can support the community to support itself.

Because they’re doing lots and lots of one-on-one work, another question we faced was how to start weaving financial empowerment into other conversations that we were already having? This provoked some really creative lines of thinking, and discussion about what might be possible. It was very energizing for the team, who had been facing so many different constraints, to start to explore possibilities within them.

What we’ve tried to demonstrate here is that everyone faces lots of constraints, and it can be easy for those to be a damper on thinking about possibilities, because we get so fixated on what we can’t do. If you make constraints a creative springboard, we encourage you to ask, “What can we do with that constraint, within that constraint, or to get around that constraint?” You may have noticed that I used the words “how might we?” a few times. Those are kind of the magic words, if you will, for thinking through possibilities. So that’s another half idea that you can take away as well.

We think that constraints present a good opportunity to build into possibilities. So we can translate sentences like, “We can’t do that,” into sentences like, “I could see approvals being a barrier to implementation. How might we overcome that? Or how might we deal with that approval process?” So translating a “no” into a possibility is a core part of working with constraints.

The last thing I’ll share, is that it is critical to recognize the assets that you already have, and often constraints can be assets, if just viewed from a different lens. With the team we were working with, one of their constraints was that they had so much time one-on-one time with clients, they didn’t feel that they also had time for other initiatives. But it was also an asset is that they had so much time one-on-one with clients, they just had to figure out what else they could also do with that existing time? So that’s the fifth idea we wanted to leave you with, was that constraints as part of this process can actually be creative springboards if approached from the right direction.

So that’s a lot of ideas that we’ve chucked at you. Hopefully, there’s some time to digest and ask questions, but Nandita will wrap things up and hopefully bring some order to the chaos we’ve just introduced.

Nandita Bijur: Yes, lots of chaos all the time, and that’s how human-centred design works, but with a little bit of structure. So really what we hope we’ve left you with is at least the understanding or the mindset that more than anything, human-centred design is a set of prompts or questions to ask yourself. It’s not necessarily a prescribed process like a rigid list that gets followed, but really it’s a lens that you can apply to any situation, program, or context by using some of the tools, mindsets and methodologies that we’ve shared. We’ve also provided resources to contextualize and customize your own approach, to fit your own needs.

We want to highlight some of the questions that we think are the most important, or that come up a lot in our work, and probably also with yours. Are you centring on people with lived experience? I think this is human-centred design, and you will come across that a lot. If you are, do they feel safe to share their stories and be authentic in the space and the engagement that you’ve created? And then, are you being transparent about what your intentions are, what your limitations are, what your expectations are? Because that’s a really big part of building trust and building a scaffolding that holds projects together. And then, are you creating space for new and divergent ideas to emerge? That’s a huge part of human-centred design. That’s why we love it so much, and we love the work that we do so much, is all that excitement and that energy that , builds when you’re bringing people together and they’re brainstorming new ideas and new ways to do things. So, are you creating space for that to happen?

Are you testing your ideas as you go? I think we touched on it a little bit, but there’s a lot more in the resources where testing, building, putting ideas out into the world is the best way to learn if they work or not. So start early and do it often. We hope that our five ideas can help you navigate these questions and create your own processes. We’ve learned that the more we do this work, and the more we talk to people who also do this work, the more we learn about how to do it better. We hope that you can join us in this adventure, and share your own stories and strategies with us as you experiment new ways to do it. Thank you.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you. Thank you, Nandita, thank you, Galen. Your math is off, there are way more than five good ideas in there. And you just kept piling them on, Nandita, which was just great. Some reiteration, and I liked how you came back to the human in human-centred design at the end, and that’s where our first couple of questions are coming in already. I remind the audience to use the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen if you have questions. The first two questions actually came up while good idea number three was being talked about in terms of centring people. The first question is actually for a little bit of a reiteration. I think it’s actually asking for the elevator pitch or the value proposition. This may be obvious, but can you articulate more about why is it vital to centre the people who experience the greatest barriers and risks? What does that yield?

Nandita Bijur: Yes, that’s a great question, and I feel like I can talk about that for ages. I mean, in design, there’s a principle or an idea that gets passed around often, which is to design for extremes. People on the margins are the people who face layer upon layer of barriers, and are facing accumulation or are facing all of those barriers, and other people along the journey are facing maybe a single one in isolation. So if you’re starting with the people on the extremes, you’re really hearing about a wider range of challenges and understanding in a much deeper way than if you weren’t.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Right. This addresses a bit of how you manage the process, because you’re working with people at risk or who may be vulnerable in one way or another. How does your approach provide immediate support to the people who are sharing their experiences? So things like trauma, compensation for their time, socializing around a good culturally sensitive meal, what it might be, is this integrated in the support for frontline stuff? How do you bring that in? Who’s going to take it?

Galen MacLusky: Nandita, did you want that one as a follow through? You can jump in then and let me know, I’m sure there are lots of things you can share on that one. I heard compensation come up. Absolutely, I think, should be considered in every, every single engagement you hold. I think core is that it demonstrates that you actually value people’s perspectives and also recognizes that lived experience is a form of expertise that should be compensated for when people are sharing it. I think really often it’s expected that people will just give you their time based on goodwill. But I think it’s really important to value people’s experiences in that way.

Trauma is a really important part of much of the work that we do, because as you can imagine, lots and lots of stories come up that might be triggering. If you dive into trauma-informed practice, there are much better formalized and deeper sets of structures than I’m going to be able to cover in our remaining time. I think it’s vital that your participants understand that they have the opportunity to participate, or not, in whatever degree or capacity they want. In an interview, I would let them know that if I ask a question that they don’t feel like responding to, they can just skip the question. In a group design session you should let participants know to take breaks whenever they need to, and that no questions will be asked about why. There’s no limitations on that. In the past when we’ve worked with social workers in the process, we’ve actually made space for participants to meet with social workers after the session as well to debrief or if there’s any issues or challenges that came up that we can actually immediately work with them on. That’s another really good way to provide supports for people.

Elizabeth, I feel like there was another part to that question, but I’m not sure if I got to all of them.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I think so. I mean, it’s about being mindful in designing the process based on who you’re working with.

Galen MacLusky: Exactly.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And so, if social workers may be needed because there’s a risk of trauma or retraumatizing, I think the idea is to use culturally-sensitive practices, food, or things that might make people at ease and engage them in the process.

Galen MacLusky: Absolutely. One specific thing you can also consider is exploring when people need to be in mixed groups, and when is there an important opportunity for people to be in like groups with each other. We talked about bringing staff and participants together, but we often try to create space for people who have similar types of experiences to debrief with each other and work together, because that can also be a really important form of support, as opposed to, say, being the only two people with a particular lived experience at a table of executives and managers, which can be a challenging experience for anyone.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Yes, those power dynamics are always a really important thing to be aware of, to navigate, and to interrupt.

Nandita Bijur: I would just like to add one thing to the piece about being trauma-informed. I think a huge strategy, and I think something that gets missed often in our work, is adding or ensuring that you have time to do secondary research. There is a lot of amazing research that’s been done about the barriers and challenges people face in different systems. If there’s an opportunity to not retraumatize folks by asking the same questions, there’s your answer. I think starting with secondary research can help identify gaps in knowledge, so you’re not asking those same questions over again, and you can still create a safe space for the individual or the group that you’re working with.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Or work with a key informant to help flag, navigate, and that type of thing. Great. Thank you. There’s a question regarding idea number five, which was boundaries and constraints as a springboard. I kind of heard it as “necessity is the mother of invention” or the power of positive thinking. The question is for the example referenced with idea number five, what were the outcomes or short term and long term changes that the staff who were part of the discussion experienced, and where they sustained?

Galen MacLusky: Exciting. Okay, so that specific example is one that’s ongoing. So in terms of long-term outcomes, that’s something we’re going to continue supporting the staff team through, although I have other examples I can point to. We very recently had a debrief and project close with them, and all the staff highlighted how helpful it was to be able to think about the challenges they were facing in a different way, and to approach them from a lens of positivity. I think it was a pretty universal piece of feedback that they gave us, that it was a very different way for them to engage. They were excited, then, in the months to come to continue applying that lens to the other challenges they were facing. So I think that in the short term, a specific outcome was transitioning from a place of challenge and scarcity, to a place of possibility.

In other situations as well as to long term outcomes, I think that’s definitely something that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. There are concepts around social change like “snap back” – that we have a tendency to default back to our existing structures and processes. I think if you’re looking to support a group or an organization around a longer-term change, that’s where a longer-term engagement is important. So something we’re going to be doing with that group on an ongoing basis is checking in, seeing how things are going, and seeing if they need support, or if it feels like they’re getting stuck again, then there’s an opportunity for us to continue to provide these kinds of supports in this additional lens.

Elizabeth McIsaac: This question is asking for your advice, “How would you advise guiding a team to think about the design in terms of the organization and project as opposed to personal preferences?” Like how do you help them get there, to focus there?

Galen MacLusky: Good question. Nandita, I don’t know if you have anything off the cuff, I can jump in. If I’m reading the question correctly, it seems a bit like it’s getting beyond individual team members’ personal preferences and seeing the organization and project. I think the fundamental thing I would point to is that engaging others in the process, and hearing the perspectives of people in the world who your work is impacting, is probably the surest way to start to dispel some of those notions, because what matters is not what individual team members want. What matters is what matters to the people that we hope to impact or support. So that’s a critical way to redirect a team. If you find you get mired in this quagmire of one idea versus another person’s idea, a really good way to redirect is to ask, “Well, what needs did we see? What opportunities did we hear from the people we were engaging with?”

If you’re really stuck because you heard lots of ideas, that’s a good place to start prototyping and actually sharing concepts back with the community as a way to engage, because they will tell you what works for them and what doesn’t, if you create the space to listen and hear. I think that’s my main tip for that question, starting from a place of what matters, is what matters to the people that we hope to be supporting, or we hope to impact. Let’s turn to them around to understand what we should care about in order to move forward.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Those are really good fundamentals in open communication and keeping the channels open to co-create and create those conditions. It’s 1:59. I have more questions, but I’m going to stop here because we told it was going to go to two o’clock. That was just terrific, packed with really great ideas, wonderful suggestions. At the beginning of this I was going to say my question is, “Is this something you that you shouldn’t try at home,” but I’m looking behind you Galen, and I see sticky notes all over your wall, and I think that’s at home. So maybe we just have to start with the sticky notes and see where it takes us. Thank you both so much. That was just tremendously insightful and there were lots of good ideas for us to walk away, go back to our desks and think, “How can I apply this? Maybe I can do this at home.” So thank you both very much. Terrific.

Nandita Bijur

Senior Officer, Program Delivery and Integration

Nandita (she/her) is a senior officer at Prosper Canada, working with municipal and community partners to integrate financial empowerment into existing services. As a service designer who has worked with frontline organizations and governments, she is most energized by learning how to make complex systems accessible and understandable.

Galen MacLusky

Manager, Program Delivery and Integration

Galen is responsible for managing Prosper Canada’s Technology-Enabled Financial Empowerment projects, including the Benefits wayfinder. Galen is passionate about working with community organizations to help build and scale new ideas that deepen their impact. The foundations of his work are approaches that help organizations engage with those who are impacted by their services and test new programs and services with minimal investment. He has ten years of experience as a service designer in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, as well as a Master’s Degree in Engineering, Design, and Innovation from Northwestern University.