Why gardeners make great human-centered designers

service design May 28, 2019

As well as being a human-centered designer, I’m also a mad keen gardener. I'm lucky enough to live on a hobby farm on the edge of my city where I have a huge veggie patch and an orchard, where we grow all kinds of things. My family is pretty self sustainable. Most of our fruit and veg comes from our garden and my kids really have a strong connection with the origin of their food, which is a really important value in our family.

Experience designers (especially service designers and design strategists) and gardeners share a common interest in studying systems and how they interconnect. As an example, behind my veggie garden I am really really lucky to have an old dead tree in one of our paddocks and inside that tree is a beehive. I've never actually seen it up close as it’s way up at the top of the branches, but I know it's there because for a long time I have watched all the bees buzzing in and out of this hollow in the trunk.

My garden is so successful that when people visit and they see all this amazing fruit and veg growing they think I must have an incredible green thumb. Actually, I don’t. It's all down to that beehive. Every morning when I have a cup of tea in my garden it is alive with the sound of hundreds of bees hard at work pollinating all the flowers in my veggie patch, which then grow into tomatoes, zucchinis, watermelon, aubergine, cucumber, apples, lemons etc. Those bees do an amazing job. Without that system of bees I wouldn’t be able to pull nearly as much food out of the garden as I do.

Think about all the systems that need to be in place to keep my garden so healthy and productive. Our planet’s precious climate system needs to be balanced to ensure that the plants can grow in the right temperature ranges at the right time, and get enough water to grow. Then there’s a whole system in the soil, known as the soil web. This is a beautiful symbiotic exchange between tiny insects, microscopic fungi and the plant roots, and without it nothing would be able to grow. If one system is unbalanced it makes it harder for the whole ecosystem to work, and we saw that happening this summer when we had the hottest Aussie summer on record with precious little rain.

Gardeners like me understand how different systems interconnect and impact upon each other, and I see this replicated in my work as a human-centred designer. A business organisation has a lot in common with my garden. You have many interconnecting systems that create an overarching ecosystem. One of the first things a service designer needs to consider is the scope of the design work. If I’m focusing on how I can get a great harvest next summer, should I be writing to politicians about climate change? Important, yes, but perhaps that would cut the scope too large to be effective for my piece of work.

The same goes within an organisation. Think about the scope that you're dealing with and  make sure that you don't cut the scope of your work too wide, otherwise you are going to minimise the kind of impact you can have on your system.

The other thing to consider is where systems interconnect with each other. Look at the junction points within a system to help you find the stakeholders you need to codesign with. Junction points between systems often represent the friction points within the system of a business, so take the time to think carefully about your stakeholder engagement plan here. If you think of my garden, I am a stakeholder, but so are the worms, butterflies and the Queen Bee in that hive. If I did something to impact the hive without considering her needs, she’d just pack up her colony and swarm out of there, leaving me without a critical part of my system!

On the other hand, junction points can also represent the greatest moments of leverage in an experience design. They are the hardest parts to get right, so there’s a good chance that your competitors are weak here too. Focusing on strengthening those junction points can be a powerful way to create a true moment of delight in your customer experience.

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