Designing for Vulnerability by Natasha Ballantyne

Designing for Vulnerability by Natasha Ballantyne

This article is the full and extended version of the one that appears inside issue nine.


On any given night, 1 in 200 people across Australia are homeless. And the number of people who are homeless is growing[1]. We ended 2019 with devastating bushfires across the east coast of our country, destroying more homes than previous seasons combined. 2,400 homes were lost and 41,000 damaged[2] in NSW alone, hotels and motels were at capacity supporting emergency accommodation, and our community had to band together for those that were left without a place, to offer “a room or backyard for a caravan/tent”[3].

In times of crisis, it emphasises how people need to receive the right services, at the right time, and in the right place. So what is our role in this as designers? How can we make a difference? For me, I work with people to help design and facilitate these services in times of need. I am an experience designer, specialising in designing for vulnerability.


Experience design, from my perspective

Historically, we have defined design as the creation of products, places and communication (i.e. graphic design, information design, product and industrial design, fashion design, and interior design)[4]. As our world becomes more complex, we also need more considered design of the services that make up our lives. Services and experiences are all around us – transport, shops, entertainment, internet – they help us get to work, get our food, or keep in contact with each other[5]. Therefore our current definition of design is much broader. Design expands from a method of intellectual thinking for solving problems, through to “prototyping ingenious solutions to acute social problems like homelessness and unemployment”[6].

I started designing experiences after finishing my Bachelors in Design. I fell in love with experience design (also known as service design) while working at a small consultancy called Proto Partners. Each year our company would ask “is this the year companies are ready for us to hashtag service design?”. It was new, it was exciting, it was vague. It was the glue that held products, brands and companies together. Since then, the likes of Meld, Academy Xi and General Assembly have started to popularise experience design in our design community.

So how do we define experience design?  The idea that “design can be usefully applied outside of its conventional context”[7] has triggered a wave of activity on using design outside of its traditional discipline. Our definition of design today also includes design management (design strategy, design policy, marketing and design, design and innovation) and design theory (design process and methods, psychology and design)[8]. Experience design is about using this design theory to create services which meet customer needs and are both easy and desirable to use.

Being a designer at PwC, solving important problems

My current role at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is a Design Lead for our Digital practice, where I work across service design, customer experience and communication design. Prior to PwC I spent a few years in the industry working for smaller consultancies of up to fifteen people. Being the powerhouse which is PwC (we have over 275,000 employees[9] worldwide!), I have had the amazing opportunity with this large firm to extend my role as a designer, and work with people who have different skillsets to tackle some of the most important problems facing Australians today.

Since 2019, PwC Australia has dedicated over 25,000 staff hours[10] towards tackling homelessness, as one of the big social impact issues which we are prioritising as a firm. ‘The Constellation’ is one example of a project where PwC is contributing to solving homelessness across sectors of non-profit, private sector, and government, with the mission to “end it in a generation”.  As a designer I bring a very different set of skills to this project, working alongside web developers, data analysts, business strategists, policy makers, building experts, psychologists and outreach workers just to name a few. Whilst each of us may share a common goal or mission on a project, the onus lies with designers to make sure the voice of the customer is heard, and incorporated, into everything we do.

“To design a great service, it is important to have customers in mind”[11] — only then can we explore what solutions can be designed and developed. – UK Design Council

A few years ago I would have described experience design consulting as the new kid on the block, but we now drive all of our engagements at PwC with a combination of business, experience and technology. Through this focus, I have had the opportunity to contribute as a designer in other areas of social impact. I’ve found my place where I can be creative, while using my business mindset and making a difference in what I do.

Some examples of memorable projects I have done include:

  • Creating physical and digital services for veterans — focusing on the transition experience from the Australian Defence Force to civilian life,
  • Defining QLD transport services for people with a disability — from the trip planner
    through to the on-board transport experience,
  • Designing digital services to support financial hardship — from financial management to welfare claims,
  • Highlighting the journeys of people becoming and exiting homelessness — to detect and predict remarkable actions for act and prevent strategies,
  • Developing a health care triaging platform — for pre-operative patients, doctors and specialists

So, what’s it like as a corporate experience designer? Everything is amplified. PwC are one of the big consulting firms that has incredible influence to do good, at scale, something that small or medium design agencies don’t have the resources for. That’s what drew me to this role and makes me proud to be a part of my firm.

PwC has come a long way from a company with an accounting background. As of 2019, we had over 65,000 people[12] worldwide in advisory (almost 25% of all the staff). While there are still some “old-school” opinions and approaches (due to a lack of understanding in design), something which may not exist as strongly in agency, we are experiencing a seismic shift in design maturity — and we are increasingly working better together as “right brain” (creative) thinkers and “left brain” (analytical) thinkers[13]. As a designer, I’ve come to love solving big, hairy, complex problems like homelessness using a combination of strategy and design thinking — when we band together across disciplines we can make the biggest difference.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

As designers, the onus lies with us to create the most effective solutions that meet our customer needs. Are we designing to make a difference? Are we sharing the collective voice of the customers? Are we advocating for design and putting design into everything we do?

Designing to make a difference, through vulnerability design and storytelling

“Across Australia, homelessness has grown by 14% in the past five years and it’s not just those sleeping in public spaces, much of it is disguised as couch surfing or renters living in fear of not being able to maintain their tenancy.”[14] – PwC Australia

When we think of homelessness we often think of rough sleepers – people who don’t have a roof over their heads, people with cardboard signs asking for money on the streets, people who have no income, people who have no family, no support network. But in actuality the definition is much broader. Homelessness includes people who are couch surfing, in overcrowded or inappropriate accommodation, in boarding houses, and also sleeping on the streets[15].

We carry many myths and stereotypes about people with vulnerabilities like homelessness and financial hardship, and how they have come to their situation. A variety of factors can contribute to homelessness, and coping with mental illness, chronic health conditions or addictions can make it even more difficult to maintain independent housing on top of the affordable housing crisis. While addiction is both a cause and a result of homelessness, research suggests only 26% of people who are homeless abuse drugs[16] other than alcohol. Not all people who experience homelessness are addicts.

Misinformation on homelessness can be problematic, as it further contributes to the stigmatisation of a population which is already marginalised.[17]

In my projects, a lot of what I do is observing and listening to people, so I can understand their stories and backgrounds. This helps me remove any assumptions or bias, to understand where I can design products and services with the biggest impact. In the context of homelessness, I communicate their stories, and their journeys to help bust some of the myths and generalisations. For example, did you know that 16.5% of people who are homeless actually have a full-time job, and nearly half (45.6%)[18] either have casual / part-time employment, or are looking for work? Through social media and the internet, like the “Humans of New York” series, we are coming to understand more about their stories and challenges, and building empathy with their situation. Something like being unemployed, becomes difficult to overcome when a person doesn’t have access to a computer, no permanent address, can’t shower regularly, and are balancing difficulties like chronic health or mental illness. For example, over 60% of people who are homeless, are estimated to have a chronic health condition.

“It is important for those who have never experienced homelessness before to understand that every homeless individual faces a different and complex set of circumstances. Education in issues related to homelessness will hopefully result in sensitive and compassionate conversations and solutions to homelessness.” – Homeless Hub

For me, I have set criteria on what projects I dedicate my skills to based on the notion of will this make a difference — either having large scale impact to Australian citizens and/or focusing on those vulnerable cohorts which need our help most. This helps me define my place in helping society, and the best use of my role as a designer. My one non-negotiable going into a design project has and always will be that I need to talk to the people and hear their stories; staff and customers. “Humans live in a storm of stories. Nothing else holds and keeps human attention than stories.”[19] Without this knowledge, I would be designing blind.

Case study: Retaining life insurance and income protection customers

As the lead design researcher on a project for an insurance company, I was tasked with designing service improvements that would reduce the number of policy cancellations for income protection and life insurance.

Step one: Uncovering customer motivations

At the very start of the project I conducted research with customers, to understand the motivation behind why they would make a policy purchase (I wanted to capture the full story, rather than starting with why they cancel). We found that customers who made a more spontaneous purchase on the back of a traumatic event, like sickness, accident or death, were more likely to cancel as they became uncertain of the policies’ importance. This research into “why” led to changes in the call centre script to prompt their reason for purchase today — and in turn helped inform more personalised agent responses, alongside the design of one and two-month digital check-ins to ensure customers were comfortable with their purchase.

Step two: Understanding the full journey

Following this, I uncovered that the biggest pain point customers had with their insurance was a lack of confidence that their policy could be redeemed quickly and easily. As a designer, this was a moment of reflection as initially we had only focused on designing an experience for customers while they were exploring policies, and their first three months after the purchase. We needed to shift our design focus to include redemption.

Step three: Building trust

The insurance company was streamlining claims at the time of sign up to increase sales volume. The impact of this however, was that when customers submitted a claim, and when they were at their most vulnerable, only then were they subjected for a full medical, and may get rejected.

These stories helped form snapshots of the customer experience[20] and brought people closer to the design process to ensure we were building something that customers needed and wanted.

Leveraging these customer stories, we added more comprehensive medical history questions into the application form, and mandated a full medical for certain conditions. The outcome; the company reestablished trust with its customers, and experienced a 20% reduction in policies that were previously cancelled in the first three months.

Embedding vulnerability design into everything we do, and designing for failure

So how do we design for vulnerability in a situation where not all our customers are vulnerable? Take the example of a bank. Vulnerability can impact anyone, at any time — whether that be just juggling expenses, being out of work, prolonged illness or injury, the loss of a loved one, family violence, or natural disaster. We need to have good design in place so the system works, but we also need to design for when the system breaks, or even when we break as people.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 23 Australians will experience deep and persistent vulnerability in their lifetimes. However, the reality is that closer to one in six of us will experience some form of vulnerability in our lifetime.[21]

Vulnerability is not always evident, and it’s not always who we think it is. For me personally, I recently went through my own experience of vulnerability due to a sudden change in personal circumstances, and a service breaking down at a time I needed it most.

My story: The impact of not designing for failure

I’ll start with the happy ending — I’ve found my place as a teacher and a designer in my professional life, and in my personal life I’ve owned my house for almost three years now, I have a beautiful flatmate called Clara, and also live with her Staffy dog Onyx. But eighteen months ago my situation looked very different. I recall going into the bank for a loan with a record of my finances and monthly expenses and being pushed out the door because I was “almost bankrupt” (later identified as a system error).

I had separated suddenly from my de facto partner and needed to pay him a sum of money. I was emotional. I was embarrassed. It was touch and go over a number of months whether I could keep the place I had saved to buy over a number of years, penny pinched to get a deposit, and poured my heart and soul into. It rocked my world not only financially, but emotionally.

After making the tough decision to get a loan and being turned away — I was shattered. I didn’t understand, I’d paid all my bills… what happened? My mortgage provider informed me that over 1000 customers from my bank were affected by a broken API. That API meant despite payments going in… that information hadn’t been transferred to Equifax, the credit reporting company, and in my circumstance, they flagged me as eight months overdue on my mortgage.

Despite quickly identifying the mistake, it took two months to resolve — the service design was seriously broken, they hadn’t accounted for the experience when something went wrong. I was completely vulnerable, I almost missed my legal payout date, which would have had major ramifications.

As designers, we have the power to design these systems, these services and these experiences, to meet people’s needs and make it easy. Whether we are designing for times of delight or times of crisis, we need to design for good, and are uniquely placed to make a difference.

Imagine if…

I could go through an accelerated credit correction process for people with pending loans?
I got a notification to confirm my payments were overdue and I could have corrected it straight away?

I was proactively asked if I needed financial support when I registered splitting with my partner?

We have a social responsibility as large corporations to help people in times of need. Sometimes it’s not just about designing something that customers see or interact with, but having services or support that is so seamless that customers they don’t need to think about it when something doesn’t go according to plan. In a recent role working for a telecommunications company, I had the opportunity to leverage my personal experience and contribute to the design for the “vulnerable customer” journey.

Case study: Designing the Financial hardship journey

Step one: Uncovering customer cohorts

My design team was tasked with understanding people who missed their bill payments for a telecommunications company. There were three clear segments; (1) people who forgot to pay, (2) people who can’t pay until pay day, and (3) people who have real problems.

Step two: Designing an autonomous solution

Our first solution was automatically extending the payment cycle for the first missed bill payment, and added the outstanding payment to the customer’s next bill without them having to ask us.

Step three: Making it easy for our customers

Next, we designed the digital experience for requesting a second payment extension – ensuring that it was easy to find in the hierarchy of pages, and created a digital experience so simple they didn’t have to call us (unless of course this was their preference).

Third, we identified how we could provide or direct customers to additional services such as payment plans and financial support to help people break out of the cycle. The result was a significant increase in people using our support for financial hardship.

When we design for vulnerability the most important principle is easy access, and no wrong door (they can contact a company through any channel i.e. phone, in-store or digital). Often in all service design, we just need to start with the brilliant basics, and for vulnerability design, we need to do the ordinary extraordinary well, so that our services are easy and desirable to use.

Working with The Constellation, and using design to eliminate homelessness

Designing for people who have experienced vulnerabilities like homelessness, financial hardship, family breakdown, disabilities, and mental health, carries so much extra weight compared to designing for the general populace, as its not just about design creating a good or bad service experience, but potentially affecting life outcomes.

Service design is about uplifting the support that currently exists, but also understanding the opportunity for new products and services. In homelessness services, many of the solutions focus on crisis support — for people trying to escape the cycle of homelessness, this is inadequate. Stories of homelessness, incarceration, under-employment and persistent poverty have consistently pointed to an urgent need for new approaches to bridge Australia’s wealth divide[22]. We need to shift our focus to the systemic factors, to design better prevention pathways for people in homelessness, and accelerate their pathways (or journeys) out of homelessness so they can break the cycle.

In The Constellation project, my personal role has been defining the mandate for involving people with lived experience of homelessness, including First Nations, across two important projects:

  • creating “a pipeline of more homes”, and
  • our next focus area, “better journeys”

On the surface, a simple service solution for homelessness was designing access to more homes. However, gaining a greater understanding of customer needs identified additional services needed to be provided in parallel, to support better homelessness outcomes. While working on The Constellation, I had the opportunity to explore what holistic servicing might look like on a smaller project for the Australian federal government. I designed an AI assistant and a service repository, similar to Ask Izzy[23], to help people search for local services that were relevant to them — going back to the principle of providing the right services, at the right time, and in the right place. For people who are homeless something like a smart phone can help provide access to basic resources, such as food, accommodation and clothing, but also medical treatment, social support, job services, and provide education opportunities to up-skill the digital, financial and English literacy of people.

There’s a common misconception about people who are homeless carrying smart phones, but for 80% of people who are homeless[24] they are a “lifeline”, and a way to quickly reach people before outreach workers can get to them.

To help feed the customer stories from this work back into The Constellation, I worked with a team to create some empathy tools like customer personas (customer profiles with supporting videos and posters), and journeys (a visual map of customer stories and actions leading into homelessness and their experience while homeless). I also created services maps on the available homelessness services across Australia, to form a baseline of what’s working, and what’s missing.

How will we know that The Constellation project is successful? When our project no longer needs to exist. By designing for prevention, we are giving ourselves permission to design ourselves out of a job, as we will ultimately reduce the number of people who end up homeless. My role as a designer on The Constellation to date has been key in shaping not only an understanding of why homelessness is important to tackle, but informing a point of view on what is causing the cycle, and where we could identify solutions to ease it.

With the recent natural disasters of fires and severe flooding, the time is now, for us to better support customers with vulnerability, and rethink our service delivery. In this upcoming phase of work, design will be at the centre, used to visualise the customer stories and their pathways into homelessness, and prototype a digital and nondigital experience for customers to seek help before they reach crisis point.

We’re currently asking for people to join our team at The Constellation, and support our next area of focus around designing better journeys. The next phase of work will use design to lead customer research and participation, and create holistic support services, including easier access to physical homes. If you’re interested you can go to: https://theconstellationproject.com.au/better-journeys/

To conclude

We are all seeking to impact social challenges such as homelessness. But how do we do that in an innovative way using design? How can we get smarter at developing services and interventions that create transformation?[25] Think about how you can design to make a difference, and apply design more broadly than your context today. What’s the smallest thing that will make the biggest difference? That’s where we can start shaping our tomorrow, our future, our place as designers.

If you’re interested in designing for vulnerability, or want to know more about service design — please reach out.


There are a number of texts and ideas referred to in this article. You can find them here.

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