Resilience and human centricity in design teams

by Hannah Hughes - User Researcher
| minute read

How might we use a human-centred design approach to creating a thriving workplace, one where employees feel valued and supported?

In my team we practice human-centred design (HCD) every day in our project work. We are all driven by a desire for our design to meet the needs of the people it will impact. This outward-looking focus on delivering solutions with great user experiences, means that it can be easy to overlook the fact that our team is also a design - a complex system that also needs to be treated with a human-centred approach.

The rate of burnout and attrition is on the rise in our industry. HCD professionals can feel exhausted by the demand to understand a problem space and deliver a successful solution in record time. HCD teams are constantly unsettled by the relatively high turnover of colleagues. This is a complex issue that does not have a single solution. It requires adequate time and resources, as well as a human-centred mindset, in order for it to be properly addressed.

So how can we build resilience in our design team?

By no means do we have all the answers. We’re very much on a journey of discovery to find the right interventions to remedy this problem. To discuss what practices and processes we have put in place to create an employee-centred workplace, I’ve picked out three key principles in human-centred design:

  • Deep empathy,
  • Understanding people and their context, and
  • Systems thinking

Deep empathy

HCD practitioners practice deep empathy by working to truly understand a problem from the user’s perspective, before designing a solution that will impact them.

HCD practitioner personality type

The type of people who are drawn to a career in human-centred design tend to be people who are curious empaths. They love learning new things and care about making a positive impact. This is why when I joined Sopra Steria as a User Researcher, I felt so at home and like I’d found my tribe. The flip side of this deep empathy is we are susceptible to burnout.  

In my first year as a User Researcher, I have sought guidance from more senior colleagues on how to set realistic goals and healthy boundaries to avoid crashing and burning. The biggest mind shift for me has come from driving for progress over perfection, and reminding myself that everyone in the team is responsible for the success of a project, not just me.

Human connection

To perform at our best and deliver great work we need to have a sense of social safety in our place of work, and to feel connected to the people we work with. When workload is high and deadlines loom, it can be easy to dismiss taking time to connect with colleagues as non-essential. With a remote/hybrid work arrangement there is also a lack of the informal ‘water-cooler’ moments that would naturally occur in an office. These circumstances can lead to a loss of human connection and sharing of ideas, resulting in people feeling isolated, uninspired and at risk of burnout.   

Our team has a few interventions in place to tackle this issue and help build the resilience we need to perform:

  • All hands meetings: This weekly meeting kicks off the week and brings together all practice teams. Important announcements are made but there is also time to share wins, celebrate colleagues and show-and-tell project work.
  • Monthly hub day: Both the Edinburgh and London offices have a nominated hub day so colleagues can schedule office face to face time to connect with the Experience team in-person.
  • Team events: We have run these both virtually and in-person and they have such a positive impact on how the team feels in the weeks and months after. Activities have included developing a team charter, guided meditation and drawing yourself as a sandwich!

Social onboarding

Creating a great onboarding experience has been a priority for the team in the last year. We’ve introduced a less formal process that focuses on making new starters feel connected with the team. New starters are assigned a buddy from within the team who regularly checks in with them and helps them get to grips with their new place of work. The lead from each practice also sets aside time with each new starter to introduce themselves and help them to understand the different disciplines in the team and how they work together.

Understanding people and their context

HCD practitioners don’t see a user in isolation. They work to understand them in the context of their environment and other factors that influence their experience. We take that analysis of context and apply it to our own team.

Manual of Me (MoM)

Everyone in our team creates and maintains a Manual of Me – an MoM. An MoM is like a user manual for a team member. A tool which enables people to gain a quick and easy understanding of each other’s individual needs and preferences. This means that when we start working on a project with someone new, we already have a solid understanding of that person, the conditions they like to work in and the things they struggle with.

High trust culture

Culture plays a significant role in building resilience in our design team. We’ve worked hard to nurture a a culture of trust. Firstly, we can each set our own work schedule in a way that best fits our circumstances. Our performance is evaluated on delivering good work on time rather than rigidly clocking in at 9 and out at 5. In my team this autonomy supports people to bring their whole selves to work. They can schedule in time during their day to do self-care activities, go for a run, pop to their favourite coffee shop or tackle that mountain of washing. There is no shame in needing to take breaks like these. We’ve all felt the positive shift in energy in a meeting when everyone has had that time to reset.



We are always looking at how we can improve the wellbeing of our team and identify ways to make everyone feel happy and healthy in the place that they work. We conduct regular surveys to gather feedback on how the team is doing, with the aim of uncovering unmet needs. This feedback is then used to develop helpful and meaningful interventions that can meet these needs. Using the same iterative approach that we apply as HCD practitioners, we prototype these interventions, and then test and refine them.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is the understanding that everything as made up of interconnected elements that interact and influence one another. When building resilience in teams, it’s critical to take a holistic view of those elements that could have an impact on team members.  

Role models

It goes without saying that one of the most influential elements in the team-system is its leaders. When I joined the Experience Team, I welcomed how openly mental health was talked about by colleagues in leadership roles, and was pleased at how they set an example when it came to prioritising their mental wellbeing. This messaging from the top is so important to fostering a positive mental health culture, one where team members can feel safe to speak up when they are struggling and get the support they need.

Shared learning

Having a culture of shared learning is not only important to delivering successful client projects, it’s also vital to creating an environment where employees feel supported and inspired. Knowledge sharing means that colleagues can benefit from one another’s expertise, be more effective in their work and deliver a quality of output that is consistent with the team ethos.

As a team we knowledge share through weekly All Hands calls as well as Project Playback sessions. We build resilience in the team by using standard processes for documenting our projects so that others can easily access information that might be relevant to them, and prevent duplication.

In summary

Building resilience in HCD teams is vital for the successful delivery of client projects. It’s also critical for ensuring the long-term wellbeing and retention of team members. By adopting the same human-centred design approach we deploy on client projects, within our own team, we aim to build a culture of trust and collaboration, and a low attrition rate.

We’ve seen great results from our work so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can continue to improve our own human centred design. 



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