Human-centered design: a case study from the for purpose sector

Nearly a year ago, in March 2020, the world as we knew it stopped. Our flagship program had to be paused as teachers, students and parents experienced home-schooling en masse. Coincidentally, our board had signed off, the month prior, on a design thinking project that would enable us to develop a scalable and sustainable business model for The Helmsman Project. 

This case study provides an overview of the collaborative process our team undertook with partner schools over the last 12 months, and reflections on the hurdles and support we experienced as we embarked on this human-centered design project.


Our years of experience and research had shown that our approach was successful; young people flourished in their education and personal lives as a result of their participation in our flagship program. So we had been wanting to impact many, many more youth across the country. But our high impact, intensive intervention was set up to achieve depth rather than breadth. In March 2020, with business as usual on hold due to COVID-19, we could use the ‘opportunity’ to explore new horizons with the intention to add some breadth to our depth. 

Our first priority was not to create a program that would suit our desires, but one that would address our beneficiaries’ challenges and needs. Placing them at the heart of the process, we began our journey through a design thinking project.

The design thinking process

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation, anchored in understanding customers’ needs through a discovery phase (‘discover’), and defining the challenge to be addressed (‘define’). It involves short iterative cycles where possible solutions are tested, evaluated, refined, re-tested, re-evaluated, further refined and so on (‘develop’ and ‘deliver’). 

The design thinking process

Our journey


From March to May 2020, Jessica Ross, design research expert and board director of The Helmsman Project, and myself, Kim Larochelle CEO, began a series of interviews with teachers and principals of public, catholic and independent schools in Western Sydney, metro and regional NSW. Our intention was to interview teachers and principals from 16 high schools, but with schools grappling with the new reality of distance learning, we managed to compile insights from 10.

The interview questions were designed to help us deepen our understanding of the general environment and day-to-day teachers and principals operate in, as well as the needs and challenges they face in supporting their students. We recorded the interviews so we could refer back to them, and used a Miro board to articulate each insight on a virtual post-it note. This cloud-based board became a fantastic collaborative tool and reference as we progressed through the ‘define’ phase of our project. 


As a result of the insights gained through the discovery process, our team conducted a brainstorming session to further sharpen our understanding of the problem we were trying to solve. We crystalised this problem as being:

All student outcomes are dependent on them meeting a certain threshold of wellbeing. But the vast majority of teacher/school time and resources go into addressing the curriculum. Most schools and teachers find that despite the requirement to address student wellbeing, they are ill equipped in terms of time and resources to do so. This leaves wellbeing 'outsourced' to third party providers and divided between overloaded career, transition or wellbeing coordinators who treat individuals on a case by case basis.

Our brainstorm involved five parts:

  • 1. What will it take to reach our vision? (... of a world where young people realise their potential)
  • 2. What is a ‘typical’ teacher (by the pseudonym ‘Robin’) seeing, saying, doing, feeling and hearing? (this process is referred to as an ‘empathy map’ and is based on insights from the discovery phase)
  • 3. Classification of what ‘Robin’ wants (i.e. identification of core themes) → ‘how might we’ address Robin’s needs? → grouping of ‘how might we’ post-its in themes and opportunities 
  • 4. Positioning of each opportunity in a four quadrant model to identify best fit against ‘addresses market needs’, ‘is impactful’, ‘is realistic/doable’, ‘is scalable’
  • 5. Identification of three possible solutions

We then went through the same process using students at the centre of it.

The resulting three potential concepts, along with some competitor analysis, were presented to our board in early June. A favourite concept was chosen to progress into the second part of the design thinking process: develop & deliver.

Develop & Deliver

In preparation for our concept presentation to schools, we tapped into our sketching skills and prepared visual concept cards outlining the key features and benefits of the proposed service. We presented these to three partner schools.

Having received positive feedback, we began evolving the idea and identifying a series of assumptions on which the concept was based, and ways in which these assumptions could be tested.

The next phase, which ran over two school terms, was to conduct an iterative cycle as we prototyped parts of the concept and piloted them in small chunks with partner schools. After each test, feedback was gained from students and teachers, which served to further refine the concept and the next pilot. This co-creative process ensured that what we were designing, including the student evaluation form itself, was adapted to schools’ needs.

We also held brainstorms with schools to get their thoughts on what was great about the concept, what wasn’t so great, what might be missing and what else might we do. 

Reflecting on our journey so far

What has challenged us:

  • - COVID-19: The pandemic added a level of difficulty to our project, from not being able to reach some schools and teachers, to not knowing if and when we would be allowed in schools to pilot our concept. Like everyone grappling with the events that were unfolding, we had to take it one day at a time.
  • - Little resources: The whole design thinking process is very intensive. Our small but mighty team put in some incredible efforts to progress to where we are today.
  • - Remaining impartial: At any point in time in the human-centered design process, the concept one is working on may be proven ineffective or undesirable. As such, it’s important not to be attached to our ideas… but it can be so hard to do! We’ve had many conversations as a team where one person was adamant the direction taken was still the right one, whilst another could see change was needed. Having a culture of open-mindedness and great communication gave us a solid foundation to progress.
  • - Slowing down: We have a team of creatives. We love to think ideas up. To dream. So if we’re presented with a blank canvas, we want to get the paint and brush out immediately and start creating. But in a design thinking process, this step comes much later and by that time, the canvas isn’t blank anymore, but filled with strokes from customers. So we had to keep our brakes on and not start developing (biased) ideas before we had gained a real understanding of the pain points experienced by schools.

What has worked for us:

  • - Mentoring: I personally had limited experience with the design thinking process (and this experience was as a participant, not the leader of it). It was extremely helpful to be able to be mentored through the process by an expert in this methodology. She provided me with guidance, ideas, insights and support with board briefings.
  • - Communication: I was somewhat familiar with the design thinking process, but it was completely new to the rest of my team. As the project forced us to work towards an unknown outcome, it was very important that I provided to my team as much clarity as I could about the process and progress.
  • - Partnerships: Having great school partners to co-create and deliver pilots with was absolutely essential to our success. We were asking schools to get involved in something that would require time, which is never a small ask, and especially not in the midst of a pandemic!
  • - Learning from failure: True to our core, we took every opportunity to learn and improve our approach. Before school holidays, we delivered a second last pilot which did not go according to plans. We failed. Rather than treat it as the exception and forget about it, or abandon the concept completely, we sought to understand why it had failed. We had an open conversation with the school and took that feedback on board to change elements of the program. Failure is so important… when we learn to welcome it as a teacher, it becomes an integral part of our success.
  • - Flexibility: Our plan was for an iterative cycle (i.e. develop/pilot/feedback/refine/repeat) with a very ambitious timeline. We soon realised we were not a corporate giant with limitless resources and our customers were equally short of time and resources. So we realigned our expectations and adapted as we progressed based on our capacity and that of our school partners.

Although the key components of our program are completed and launched, this design thinking journey is far from being over for us. We will use each program delivered as a learning experience and an improvement springboard. We will also continue to seek to co-create with partner schools other elements of programs. Because what we do isn’t for The Helmsman Project. We’re here for young people. They all have potential. All they need is the opportunities and support to help them realise it.

Kim Larochelle

Kim joined The Helmsman Project as a volunteer when it first started delivering programs in 2013. In January 2014, she became one of the organisation's first two employees and is now CEO. She has had the privilege, along with the team, to witness and support The Helmsman Project's growth.

Send us your comments