Liz Hlipala speaks with Jarrard O’Brien, Executive Director Human Centred Design, to flesh out more on his role and how he approaches the challenge of taking on a new role.

You have been appointed to the Executive Director Human Centred Design. What is Human Centred Design?

Essentially human-centred design is about designing with people throughout the entire design process, from identifying opportunities, generating and testing ideas, and measuring the impact or success. You might be designing systems/processes/products/experiences etc. and human-centred design thinking ensures that people are at the heart of the process. It uses anthropological and other methods like ethnography, observation, participant observation, and journey mapping to understand people and culture, and to ask questions about why things are the way they are, or people behave the way they do? Often human-centred design teams talk about having empathy for people but that is just the start. It is also about working with people to challenge biases and norms, and to develop, with them, sustainable solutions to problems that really matter.

Tell us a little about your career and how it prepared you for roles such as this.

I am an accidental human-centred designer! I have worked in health for the last 20 years, starting in corporate governance roles like risk and complaints management. After years of responding to the things that go wrong in health I wanted to refocus on doing more of what works well for people. This led me into the world of patient experience which was just emerging as a health discipline and now is a major focus for healthcare providers. I trained as an anthropologist because I wanted to build my skill and confidence in engaging with different communities, but also to provide some rigour and theory to my work. All of this led me into roles that were about helping people to be heard and to shape their local health services – which is human-centred design.

What do you bring to the table that is relevant for the Commission on Excellence and Innovation, SA?

I bring experience in engaging with staff, patients and the community, and bringing those experiences together to help understand what matters to people, what is working well, and where there are opportunities to improve. In my previous organisation I was also involved with setting up the Institute for Innovation and Improvement so am able to bring that experience to the Commission as we build our team and our strategic direction. I have a lot of experience working on organisational culture so I am really keen that our team starts as we mean to go on in terms of working proactively to build and maintain a positive and supportive culture. We want the Commission to be an amazing place to work, and an organisation that makes a meaningful contribution to the health sector in South Australia.

When you start a role like this in a new organisation, how do you go about establishing key relationships, bona fides and credibility?

Spend time with people! I think the key things to build trust and credibility are to listen to people, be genuine, and do what you say you will do. People value your input if it is well thought out, supported by evidence, and if you are working alongside them to help promote good work or resolve issues. Giving people your time is really important, and being new is an excellent opportunity to do just that because you generally have more flexible time in those first few months. I’ve had one on one meetings with all staff in the Commission to get to know them, and have met lots of people outside the organisation in my first weeks to discuss how the Commission can best work with them. Really key is getting out of the office and meeting people where they are. For example, the rest of the executive team and I have been travelling to all the country Local Health Networks to introduce the Commission and talk to them about how we can best support better outcomes and experience in their areas. Being with people and showing that you understand their reality is fundamental in maintaining the relevance of the Commission and the relationships that will allow us to support excellence and innovation in health.

What do you hope to achieve in the first 12 months?

In my first twelve months I hope to help the sector understand the principles of human-centred design and what design thinking can bring to health. That will be through offering practical training opportunities in human centred design methods, as well giving strategic advice and support. Having worked for a long time in healthcare providers, I am acutely aware of the reality of change fatigue, and the pressures staff are under so in my first year I would expect to get around to as many organisations as possible, talking to frontline staff as well as leadership teams, and understand how the Commission can best engage with and support them. I also want to make connections with key partners like the design schools at local universities, and other agencies that are keen to work with us on human-centred design initiatives. There are some key projects that I am already getting involved in such as a state-wide campaign to understand health experiences of people living with disabilities. I would definitely expect to be able to show some tangible outcomes within twelve months as well as having laid the foundations for some longer-term strategies and projects. Importantly though, within this first year I want to make sure that we really bring the Commission team together to co-create an excellent working environment and culture. That will include undertaking some detailed strategic planning – getting really clear about our vision, direction, principles for working, and the key areas of focus in the short, medium and long term. We will be continuing to build our team this year so it is a good opportunity to look at the diverse skills we already have, where we can enhance that collective skillset and what leadership and other development opportunities we can create for the team.

What are the core elements of your values or belief system that made this role attractive to you?

There are a few things that are fundamental to me and this role is really an opportunity to bring these to the fore:

  • Empathy and compassion – health is all about people, whether that is individual patients, the health and wellbeing of families and communities, or the people that work in the health sector. We can only do well if we really understand people’s experiences, cultures, behaviours etc. and in order to do that we need to empathise with people, really listen to them, and do what we can to improve their health outcomes and experiences. My current role is about exactly that.
  • Sharing and collaboration – sharing of resources, knowledge, power and control. Human-centred design in my context is about respecting people’s different perspectives and ideas, giving people equal voice and opportunity to influence the design of their healthcare system. It is especially important to bring staff and patients together to collaborate. Historically Western health systems have been authoritarian but I firmly believe that if you give the community the opportunity and tools to redesign healthcare they will design a system that best works for them. Equally, healthcare staff need to be involved in that process, they have the clinical and systemic knowledge to design a system which enables them to do their best work.
  • Creativity and innovation – I like having, and providing, the opportunity to think outside the box, to challenge the ‘way things are done around here’ and get excited about what is possible. There are always constraints but for me it is important to start with the dream and then look at what realistic steps we can take now to move towards it.