How placing empathy and humanity at the centre of design can revolutionise our lives

By Flora Harpley Green

After almost 10 years working in media and advertising, Berlin Liew (TCFS 2007) took a chance and followed the advice of a mentor – she changed careers and moved into the fast-paced and innovative industry of user experience (UX) and human-centred design, and hasn’t looked back.

Berlin Liew

‘At its most core form, design is problem solving, and human-centric design places the emphasis on people, and creating online and physical spaces that function for the largest number of people from as many different people as possible,’ explains Berlin Liew, a senior product designer at Xero, co-organiser of ‘Ladies that UX’ in Melbourne, and designer-in-residence at Academy Xi.

The focus on diversity in her industry is what Berlin is passionate about – mostly, because we need more of it.

‘A lot of online spaces are not accessible,’ she says. ‘For example, many websites do not have the option for people to use screen readers.’

Because of this, Berlin believes that it’s important to design for all people, and to be aware of people with specialist needs and those who are outside of the cultural majority.

‘For example, 90% of people will fill out one form on the internet per week, and for many people their names do not fit within the standardised form.’ Some forms will only allow for a person to have one last name, while others assume every person will have a first and a last name, which is not always the case. In these instances, ‘you are forced to retrofit your identity to fit in a digital form’. Though usually innocent mistakes, Berlin stresses that simple design oversights like this can cause real harm to users. 

‘You start with the person,’ says Berlin, explaining her approach to human-centred design. ‘You want to involve them in your research, you want to learn from them, get them to test out solutions, and have a say. Your job is to ensure that in that boardroom with all the people talking about profits and [asking] how are you going to make it, you want to make sure you represent the person that is actually going to use the product.’

In short, always remember who your customers are.

‘One of the key ways to do this is by simply watching people go about their day in the space you want to re-design and asking them questions,’ says Berlin. ‘For example, you might have assumed that an aged-care worker would have access to their phones, but perhaps when you watch them, you realise that they often can only access them during their lunch break.’

A lot of research goes into good design. Berlin gives the example of Meld Studios, a service design company that redesigned the State Library of Victoria. ‘The first part of their research was simply sitting in the library and watching how people used the space, where they went, what they used, what they didn’t use and then, when they didn’t understand why people acted in a particularly way, they simply asked them.’

On a personal level, Berlin’s next mission is to bring UX design into primary and secondary schools. ‘We haven’t changed the system in years, it still only suits the user who can sit down and study.’

Many people have children who they know will not do well within the school system. On this, Berlin asks, ‘Why is that statement okay as a society? The school system should work for a greater number of children. It is often not the student’s fault if they do not fit into the traditional school system, it is the system’s fault.’

So, let’s all work to fix the system.

By Flora Harpley Green

10 Jun 2022
Category: People