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Making Space for the Humanity Behind Human-centered Design

Stories. Our Common Humanity. 

I love stories. It’s the part of my job as a design researcher that I love the most: the opportunity to talk to people, sometimes all over the world, about random things. You talk to them and their stories inspire some product, but the people themselves, they stick with you. You wonder about them years later. You talk about them and share the lessons they taught you about life.

Not everyone memorable is heroic. Some people are just sweet and common, and human. I remember talking to new parents who said of their baby, “We just want an average kid. Healthy and average.” They had just returned home with their baby after several stressful months in the NICU. At times average is all you can hope for when struggle is what you know.

There was the woman I met in Stockholm who emigrated from China. She was learning Swedish, studying to be a concert violinist, navigating a whole new world, and was blind. She had her sheet music printed in braille and had to memorize the piece entirely before performing. She dreamed of playing in an orchestra, but couldn’t, because to do that, you need to watch the conductor. She experimented with a tactile suit so she could feel the tempo. She taught me about the ways we collaborate, the senses we rely on, and how hard she worked at everyday life. She wasn’t super-human. She just had to work 1000% harder than most people.

These people stay with me. They change me and they continue to grow my love for this world. As the design director at Hopelab, the stories we gather in our design research deeply inform product development—and are just the start of our co-creation efforts. We know that in order for a product to make sense to young people, they need to be at the table, designing with us. The beauty, pain, and deep understanding that comes from the sharing of these stories is what builds empathy and connection between people—between designer and engineer, end-user and marketer. All of us are connected through the power of storytelling. 

These people stay with me. They change me and they continue to grow my love for this world.

In and out of the lab 

Hopelab exists to improve the health and happiness of teens and young adults. Built into that mission statement is a concern for them, a love for them. And if we are to work with young people, we need to know them, sit down with them to talk, and invite them to build with us. When Hitesh from Berkeley writes about the loneliness he experienced in his first year of college, we take the time to listen, we validate that experience and repeat that story for others to hear. It is a common experience that connects us. 

These important stories, combined with an in-depth understanding of the clinical research behind the issues at hand (in the case of Hitesh and other Gen Z students like him, that loneliness has a profound impact on mental health), allow us to create products that are desirable and impactful. 

We’re honored that Nod, our app for college students created to build satisfying social connections, has been recognized by Fast Company as an honoree in the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards. Each year Fast Company highlights the best new apps and games in various categories. Nod received recognition as a finalist in both the Social Good and Apps & Games categories. Equally satisfying is recognition from the Design Management Institute (DMI) for a first-place design value award for our Goal Mama product. DMI recognizes teams for delivering significant value through design. We are proud to be among names like Dell, GE Healthcare, HP, and PepsiCo; the honor is truly stunning. 

More than 100 students contributed their stories, wisdom, and creativity to shape Nod into a tool that truly resonates with Gen Z students. The same can be said for the Goal Mama product, which was designed with the young moms and nurses of Nurse-Family Partnership. This is the power of stories, design, research, and co-creation coming together to shape products that can make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people. As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes our lives, higher education leaders face challenges meeting the demand for student mental health resources and services, and telehealth becomes even more the norm in our everyday healthcare systems. We need products like Nod and Goal Mama now more than ever. 

This work is personal for us. Whether it be reducing loneliness for college-aged youth, improving the mental health and resilience of queer teens, or increasing the resilience of young first-time mothers, we are motivated each and every day to embody those issues at our core, to create good products, and to be trusted by the people we serve. 

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