Using human-centred design research to understand disaster events

Keith Diamond, Associate Director of Experience Design at Symplicit, a design consultancy specialising in human-centred design and strategy to create positive impact, worked with the TCP programs team on the Disaster Planning and Recovery Collaborative Research Project. Keith joins us on the Blog Spot to share how the human-centred design approach can be applied to understand disaster events.

10 min read

Using human-centred design research to understand disaster events

About Symplicit

Symplicit is a design consultancy specialising in innovation and human-centred design. They help bridge the gap between clients, users and their experience with products, services and their environment. Through their design methodology they are able to address challenges on all scales, from developing new products and services to transforming the ways organisations do business.

Keith, thanks for joining us on the Blog Spot. Can you start by explaining what typical human-centred design is? 

Human-Centred Design (HCD) is an approach to identifying problems and implementing solutions that places the needs and behaviours of people at its core. By using this approach, organisations can ensure that their products and services generate beneficial impact for the people they intend to serve.

HCD places value on exploring how customers behave and what causes them pain to inform the decision-making process of what solutions should be developed. Once a solution or strategy for improvement has been chosen, it is tested with the customer as it is developed, forming a continuous cycle of learning and service improvement around the customer.

So, how can the human-centred design approach be used to understand disaster events? 

This is best explained through the Disaster Planning and Recovery Collaborative Research Project that used a Human-Centred Design approach to understand the experiences of the individuals and small to medium size enterprises who were negatively impacted by the North Queensland Monsoon disaster in Townsville in February 2019. 

Where we’d typically look at a single service or product, in this project we had to develop a whole of community story that considered how people and businesses were impacted by the disaster.

Where we’d typically look at a single service or product, in this project we had to develop a whole of community story that considered how people and businesses were impacted by the disaster. We spent a week in Townsville, gathering stories and learning all we could from the communities there. By mapping their stories and experiences visually, we were able to identify opportunities to provide real cross-sector, people-centred improvements for our partners. Our outcomes can show how to support communities in activities like disaster prevention, long-term recovery and community resilience.

View and download Disaster Planning and Recovery Collaborative Research Project Residential and Business Journey Maps

Although the primary goal of the research project was to improve community resilience in natural disaster scenarios, some of our insights could be relevant and adapted to other crises, like this current pandemic.

A case study for Human-Centred Design to understand disaster events - Disaster Planning and Recovery Collaborative Research Project

The outputs developed by Symplicit and Thriving Communities Partnership are available through the Disaster Planning and Recovery Collaborative Research Project Report including journey maps that address challenges associated with natural disaster resilience. In this Blog, I will introduce just a few of the key learnings so that organisations can start to reflect on 5 major areas integral to both a natural disaster and a pandemic: Communications, Mental Health, Finances, and Small to Medium Business Enterprise. Each section is appended with associated opportunities to encourage actionable impact.

With lack of conflicting or inconsistent information, people make choices that affect their safety. They may also miss opportunities to access needed support. Official communication can get missed in the daily flood of unofficial information we all encounter. Digital exclusion is also still a real barrier, especially so during times of hardship.

Opportunities: Unified and inclusive communication strategies will help organisations and communities connect. Exploring multiple communication channels to proactively engage with customers experiencing vulnerability or who may be socially isolated can improve effectiveness of assistance programs.

Mental Health
The experience of a disaster is overwhelming and often traumatic. Personal and family safety takes immediate priority, and it is easy to be inundated with tasks and decisions necessary to regain stability and a sense of normality. Often emotional wellbeing is overlooked, and the true emotional impact on all family members is not realised until much later. Service providers, who are likely to be also experiencing an overwhelming situation, can contribute to emotional trauma, if their interactions with customers are perceived as insensitive or indifferent.

Opportunities: Providing trauma-informed workplace training can support frontline workers and first responders. Looking for opportunities to partner with psychological support services can create strong referral pathways and increase community awareness of available programs.

Personal Finances
During disasters people face rapidly changing financial situations as they deal with the aftermath of the event and take steps towards recovery. Financial matters can be time consuming to resolve. Inflexible processes and policies can create barriers to financial relief and unforeseen financial burdens can impact a person’s ability to afford essential services like energy bills and schooling for children. The documentation for accessing relief is often complex, inaccessible or unclear. In the immediate days after a crisis people lack the time or capacity to digest this information and therefore may find it difficult to make an informed financial decision. Temporary financial relief (i.e. billing and repayment pauses and reductions in rent) following a disaster is welcome, however when these expenses resume some people may not be in a position to accommodate the change, contributing to additional financial stress.

Opportunities: Services that are flexible in how they provide support contribute to better community outcomes than those that adhere to rigid processes and policies. Collaboration between insurance providers, financial institutions and government can make financial programs and assistance more accessible.

Small to medium business enterprise
The recovery and operation of local business after a natural disaster is instrumental to the resilience of a community. Small businesses not only support the local economy, but provide goods, services and support required for community recovery. If a business’ revenue stream is disrupted, it may impact on their ability to purchase new stock, pay supplier invoices and pay their staff wages, which then have flow on impacts to the economy. Many small businesses noted the true financial impact of the disaster event wasn’t felt until long after (generally 9-12 months post) as they adjusted to the ‘new normal’ post disaster. Some business owners reflected that they avoided asking for assistance, because they may have been in denial or felt shame about the fact that they needed it following the crisis. Supporting small businesses might take the form of creating more accessible policy documents, creating opportunities for knowledge sharing and offering post-crisis financial and emotional counselling.

Each crisis has a unique context
These are only some of the insights we created by looking at a natural disaster recovery with a human-centred lens. It’s so important to recognise that pandemics and natural disasters have their own unique contexts, each with their own associated human experiences and challenges. This blog's aim is to briefly introduce some of the similarities shared between the two crises and to suggest some ways to think about our response to the current crisis. By no means is the comparison exhaustive, nor should it be assumed that there are not significant differences.

It’s also important to call out that we are still in the early days of impact for the pandemic. The situation can grow and evolve rapidly, and long-term effects cannot be understood at this point in time.

In these times of change and adversity it is extremely important to recognise that organisations have a responsibility to design with impact. It starts with understanding the human-experience and extends to cross-sector collaboration. As climate change becomes a larger threat and new health crises emerge, the impacts and challenges will become interconnected. More than ever, a collaborative people-centred approach is key to tackling the complex problems our society faces. By bringing to life the everyday narrative of people and communities, we can begin to navigate the complex, identify and co-create opportunities, and work towards a more resilient, connected and inclusive ecosystem in our age of adversity.

What can we learn from people’s experience one year on from the North Queensland Monsoon to help us respond better to the needs of our communities during COVID-19?

A pandemic is a health crisis and a flood is an environmental crisis, but comparing stories from our recent Human-Centred Design research project with Thriving Communities Partnership in North Queensland to the storied unfolding in the current COVID-19 global crisis reveals a shared human experience worth recognising.

The similarities between the complex and confusing individual journey people experience in crises show how we can adapt and identify strategies to improve services and cross-organisation collaboration. If we can do this well, we can support our communities as they face adversity and empower them to thrive in the future.

To investigate how Human-Centred Design can help your organisation deliver impact and align your business closer to the heart of your customer, reach out to Symplicit.

If you would like to become involved with the current Disaster Planning and Recovery Research Project reach out to Thriving Communities Partnership.

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