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Meet our new leaders: Sarah Martin, GM Human Insights

Meet our new leaders: Sarah Martin, GM Human Insights

Why do people do the things they do? And how can gaining rich understanding of their preferences and behaviours help leaders and organisations deliver better services, better products and better outcomes? 

These are some of the questions that drive ThinkPlace General Manager Sarah Martin and the Human Insights Team she now leads. We caught up with Sarah to get some insight of our own into what her new role means for our clients and allies (and why she’s particularly handy with a chainsaw).

Hear from the rest of our leadership team: Sarah PattersonDanny De Schutter; Dane Galpin and Sky May.

TP: You have a new job leading a new team. What does it mean to be a GM at ThinkPlace?

SM: The most exciting part of this restructure is the autonomy that each GM will have to shape their practice and to focus and specialise in specific areas. For me, it means working with a team focused on delivering deep human insights through design ethnography, user research and other types of stakeholder engagement. This level of focus is something we haven’t embedded in our structure previously.
I’m excited about the opportunity to continue refining and our tools and mastering the art of understanding human experiences and behaviours.


TP: What do you bring to the position? Why this role for you?

SM: It’s fundamental to the work we do at ThinkPlace that the things we design must meet the needs of the people for whom we are designing them. This team will be at the coalface of that understanding.

We exist to drive and improve the involvement of “end users” – or at the very least a deep understanding of their needs and context – in the design process. That’s what I love. 

I have heaps of experience engaging people to build that understanding whether it’s through in-depth research, sitting in people’s homes hearing about their lives or methods for broader stakeholder engagement.


TP: How might leaders and organisations benefit from working with your team?

SM: I have witnessed many times what impact a badly designed policy or service can have on a person’s ability to engage, to take the right action on a health issue or to access assistance.  And I have seen how giving decision-makers the opportunity to understand those experiences can really change the design of a critical policy or service for the better. 

The people who most need a say in how things are designed are often the ones least likely to get an opportunity to contribute. Right now, because of the pandemic, we need to work even harder to find innovative ways of including them. We know how to do that.


Sarah in the thick of the co-design journey

Sarah in the thick of the co-design journey


TP: What areas would you particularly like to deploy these skills in as you move forward?

SM: There are so many. There’s a need for deep, rich human insights wherever you see a complex problem and have policy or program makers trying to tackle it. But there’s one in particular that leaps to mind.

Our team is interested in tackling challenges around child protection and out of home care. Since starting work at ThinkPlace I have had two children. Seeing their complete dependence on us as their parents and how innocent they are, inspires and drives me to help ensure all Australian children are loved and cared for. 

We’ve done work previously in VIC and ACT to build an understanding of the experience of different parts of the child protection system and to innovate solutions. More recently an issue that has got our attention is that of over-reporting. To quote a piece of research by UNSW, when there is over-reporting:

"a large volume of statutory resources are spent processing lower-risk reports that lead to no benefits for lower-risk families and slow down response times for families that require a statutory response most.”

This is an issue we’re currently exploring with the ACT government and we are hoping to be able to do similar work in other jurisdictions. 


TP: Any other sectors you feel could benefit from the kind of insights your team will deliver?

SM: I am really excited to get involved in the waste management sector. Our ever-growing problem with waste is something I have been trying to address in my personal life and I am really keen to see how ThinkPlace can work with government and industry to address this on a much bigger (and impactful) scale. 

Interestingly, research shows that the majority of Australians are committed to recycling, but most of us are also making a lot of mistakes. Our Human Insights team is interested in building insights around people’s behaviours, drivers and motivations to understand how we can help people be better at recycling. We are also keen to work with businesses and industry to understand what might incentivise business to be better at waste reduction – whether that is by using more recycled materials or being better at getting their waste into the right stream.

To make meaningful interventions that work for the people who will experience them we need to carry out empathetic research that delivers useable insights - Sarah Martin, General Manager Human Insights


TP: What are the big challenges of this moment for public, private and NGO leaders you talk to?

SM: To make meaningful interventions that work for the people who will experience them we need to carry out empathetic research that delivers useable insights. So many of the ways that government and non-government orgs would previously do this have been taken away by Covid. But in their place we’ve found and created new ways of obtaining insights for our clients. In doing so we’re seeing that these new methods are in some ways better at empowering users and research participants. Allowing them to have a say in shaping their future is a powerful thing.


TP: What are the particular strengths of your team? What’s a project you’re proud of where they showed these strengths?

SM: The team are particularly amazing at sensitively and respectfully engaging with, building empathy for and identifying insights about people from many different contexts. We have engaged with people who have been long-term unemployed, veterans with mental health conditions, young people who have been in foster care, people experiencing homelessness, people with lived experience of dementia, young parents, people with lived experience of family violence, low-income Kenyans and more.

Some of the team have been involved in some transformational projects in the employment services space. The insights that came out of those projects helped build a strong understanding of the experiences of long-term unemployed people and how the system was letting them down. Others in our team have done amazing work understanding the attitudes and assumptions of women when changes to the cervical screen program in Australia were rolled out. Our insights helped inform communications products that helped shift the way people learned, interpreted and responded to the changes 

While I am particularly proud of their ability to engage with people experiencing really difficult personal situations, I must not discount their ability to engage on a much larger scale on some really high stakes topics. We have run stakeholder forums across the country around violence against women, people’s attitudes to the My Health Record, and about the regulation of medicines and medical devices.   


Sarah collaborating with fellow ThinkPlacers

Sarah collaborating with fellow ThinkPlacers


TP: Complete this sentence: Collaborating with ThinkPlace designers is different because… 

SM: We genuinely care about the challenges we’re trying to overcome. And that makes us more dedicated and more effective.


TP: Tell us three surprising things about yourself.

SM: This is hard!

  1. Maybe not surprising, but I pride myself in being able to cook a delicious meal out of next to nothing. I love the challenge of being inventive with the random things I can find in our fridge and cupboards.
  2. I am a really keen mountain biker. My husband thinks I’m not that brave, but I think for a woman in her forties who has only been riding for a few years, I ride some pretty hairy tracks!
  3. My main body of work when I studied sculpture at university was made from wood I carved with a chainsaw and welded steel.


TP: If you weren’t a ThinkPlace GM what would you love to be doing?

SM: I love working at ThinkPlace and I would say it is definitely a dream job for me. My other dream job would be working for a publishing company, illustrating book covers.


TP: Tell me about a moment when you saw first-hand the impact that great design can make on a significant problem.

SM: I had the privilege of traveling to Kenya to work on a project about the National Hospital Insurance Fund – a government run health insurance agency aimed at contributing towards universal health coverage in Kenya. We were working with the World Bank to do research to understand why the ‘informal sector’ – mostly lower-income people who are not formally employed and do not pay taxes – were not taking up or retaining their insurance. Like so many ThinkPlace projects, we were in a workshop full of government employees who had not previously had the opportunity to hear firsthand what it was really like for lower-income Kenyans trying to access health care using their insurance. We shared with them some of the many stories we had heard about people being told the treatment they needed was not available at that hospital, or the medicine they needed was sold out and they would have to pay for the care out of pocket at another hospital. 

I was amazed to see how much these people were moved to hear the stories of their fellow Kenyans. When it came to innovating solutions to the problems they had heard about, they were driven to be really innovative and push the boundaries to try and change the situation. That kind of empathy, that changes attitudes and priorities of decision makers is what I want to achieve through the work of the Human Insights team.

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