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Who are your humans? A Q&A with Marijke (Mj) Preston, Davanti’s Design & Experience Practice Lead

11th February 2021

Author Marijke Preston

For Marijke and her team, it all comes down to one question: Who are your humans?

We talk to her about her role, her mission in life and what she’s reading and thinking about right now.

Marijke PrestonTell us about your role.

I lead Davanti’s Design and Experience practice.

As an industry, I think we’re terrible at how we describe ourselves – our terminology is all over the show, and design, in particular, can mean so many things. The way I describe my team, is that we are human-centered Design practitioners. Human-centred design is designing products or services that meet the needs of the people who will use them.

Organisations talk about being user or customer-centric, but we like to think about humans as the focus. In any work we do, we’re focused on whoever your humans are – whether that’s the end-user of a product, the people inside your business, or the team that has to produce or maintain whatever it is you’re creating. At the end of the day, technology doesn’t build or architect itself, humans do, so focusing on all your humans as well as the technology is critical.

As a practice, we have a range of tools, methodologies and processes that we follow, but really what it all comes down to is understanding the problem that we’re trying to solve in the first place.

Once we’ve understood the problem, we piece together the right combination of methods, unique to that client and to their particular problem. For instance, in some pieces of work, running design sprints is absolutely the right way to accelerate a project and unearth a whole range of concepts; whereas if you’re at the end of a piece of development and really trying to refine something, then usability testing is the right thing to do. Or, if you’re earlier on in a piece of work and you’re uncertain about exactly what it is that this thing needs to do for your humans, then we’d look at doing some design research, which is more of a qualitative research approach, like contextual inquiry, or one-on-one interviews.

Within our team we have people whose skills span the spectrum, ranging from figuring out the business problem, understanding the stakeholders, creating concepts, engaging with customers, and designing programs of continuous customer engagement. We bring together the right people with the right skills across this spectrum based on what the client needs.


How does your team help Davanti’s customers get closer to their customers?

We’re always the people in the room that are either putting our hands up to represent the customer, or saying, We need to go and actually talk to your customer, or asking, Have you talked to your customer?

While this can often be seen as an activity that can take time that a project doesn’t have, we have learned time and time again that slowing down to understand the real needs ultimately means we can speed up because we have clarity and certainty, and can run with less risk. Essentially, we are evidence-based designers and prefer not to work from assumption. Assumption is incredibly risky; evidence is critical.


Tell us about your journey with Davanti.

I joined Davanti three and a half years ago, just as I was coming off maternity leave. Viv Baartman brought me on. She had been my manager at my previous role, and at that stage in my life the thing that was most important to me in my career was working for someone – and a company – that would be genuinely supportive of my needs as a working mother, and I knew Viv would be (and was) that person.

At that point, I didn’t have a lot of experience strictly in the Human-Centered Design or UX space. My background is as a trained graphic designer. I have an honours degree in visual communication design, specialising in typography (it turns out my Dutch blood was good for typographical nuance!).

In my last year of study, I realised that (probably due to my Dutch-ness) I was much better at organising a project than at the creative aspects of a project itself. Also, in my university holidays, I spent time working in agencies around town, first as a receptionist at Designworks. I was adamant I wanted to be a designer until I found out that designers sit in front of their computers with headphones on all day – and that it’s the client service people who have the face-to-face conversations, and I was really attracted to human interaction than screen interaction.

At that point, I decided I wanted to be an account manager, and so that’s what I did. Here I discovered that my real love was branding, because, for me, a solid brand is a large and complex system. I started to lead large client projects and big programmes of work, helping organisations roll out their rebrands.

After working on a number of large-scale rebrands, I felt that I needed to develop my skills in digital, so moved to the web design agency, Heyday, where I managed large accounts, focusing on how a brand came to life across digital channels and from there I came to Davanti. The rest is history.


Tell us a bit about your mission in life. What gets you out of bed in the morning.

What gets me out of bed is my four-year-old daughter coming down the hallway saying, Mama, can I watch TV? And after that, it’s definitely coffee.

I came to Davanti for the people and I’m still here because of the people – because of the way that they’ve looked after me and the responsibility I’ve been given. We have a really cool bunch of people, and that’s the thing that matters most for me. It’s definitely what I lean into and it’s probably why I’ve ended up managing large clients, which is essentially all about building a long-term relationship – you have to get to know the people, understand their organisations, how they work and what they want to achieve. You can’t just go in and say, This is how you should do it, this is how we’re going do it and this is why you’re going to do it. Every organisation is a collection of humans, so naturally no two are the same.

I often describe the type of role that I play with clients like this… You’ve got your salespeople, who go on all the dates and do the wining and dining. Once they “put a ring on it”, that’s when I come in. I’m the long-term relationship builder.

That’s the bit I find the most rewarding. Riding the highs and lows with our clients. It’s when clients achieve something big and are really appreciative of how you’ve helped them get there. You can deal with anything if you have those moments and strong, respectful relationships.

It’s the same with Davanti. I love watching our team having a great time together. Either working alongside each other during the day or at the Christmas party at the end of the year – seeing their joy makes all the hard work worth it.

So that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning – the people. Come to think of it, it’s probably why I’m in Human-Centred Design!


Looking to the year ahead, what’s the one thing you’re thinking about and focusing on that will help Davanti’s customers get closer to their customers?

I’m really intrigued by the lasting impacts of COVID, both economically and as a society. Although in New Zealand we haven’t felt the impacts of COVID to the same degree as the rest of the world, it will have a lasting impact for us all. We can all make assumptions about what comes next and what we need to do about it, but as evidence-based practitioners, what we really need to do is go and find out. There will be fundamental behavioral and psychological shifts that, for us as organisations, will have a long-term impact on how we operate and the way we do things.

The work I love doing the most is when we go hunting for ‘black holes’, which means researching in the spaces that we know the least about, rather than validating areas where we have more certainty. The black holes are where the real gold can be found.

I think it’s naive of us to simply look at New Zealand and our experience. It’s had a big impact on us, but it’s going to have a bigger impact on the global economy, and we’d be remiss to not pay attention to that.

That’s what I’m thinking about – How do we help organisations understand – and respond to – the needs of their humans in the face of this?


What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Obama’s A Promised Land. I’m really enjoying it, although it’s physically mammoth!

This time last year I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming, so it’s a really nice companion piece. I’m enjoying hearing two sides of a relationship on one journey. I also love the way they both write – it’s very easy and conversational. Obama gives so much context and is incredibly thoughtful (I’m 150 pages in and he hasn’t even become President yet). If I can learn an ounce of calmness off him, I’d be stoked!


Where do you find inspiration?

My go-to source of inspiration is podcasts – and they help my brain switch off at night. Last year I found the Future Women Leadership series very practically useful from a work perspective. I have a few other regulars – like Freakonomics, 99% Invisible and a new one called No Stupid Questions, which is an offshoot of Freakonomics and looks at the behavioural and economic side of everyday topics and questions.


Do you have a favourite quote or mantra to live by?

I think a lot about where I should dedicate my energy, because we only have so much of it. Who are the people, and what are the things, that are going to give it back or grow it? I find that question a useful guiding light – In this frantic world, where am I best to put my energy right now, and who is going to grow it with me?


When you’re not busy thinking about Human-Centered Design and helping Davanti’s customers get closer to their humans, how do you spend your time?

With my family. I spend Mondays at home with my daughter. I really enjoy having that day together. She has started calling it the me and mummy day.

Then there’s our fluffy dog Rocco, and my husband, David, who also works in a very similar field – so we do tend to talk a lot about the type of work that we do and bounce ideas off each other. We are terrible people to take to a restaurant because we end up critiquing the typography on the menu.

We’re pretty active. My husband does triathlons, and Ironman. He got me into it too and before having my daughter when I was full of time and enthusiasm, I did sprint distance triathlon. In the winter I love playing and coaching netball. It helps me get out of my own head and think about a completely different group of people and context. But I also find it useful from a work perspective – piecing together a group of people to work as a team, thinking about the different positions and the complementary skills needed. I often think of work in terms of a netball court, and how to create a complementary team of players.

When I’m not on the move, baking is my active relaxation. I love baking because it’s creative, and I love sharing and watching it bring others joy.


Marijke and Harper

Marijke and Harper