Exploring insights into Melis Senova’s new book, 'This Human' and the stories that informed it

The world needs people who care, who are deeply concerned about the state of things and want to do something about it. If we are to head out there into the world and re-wire the systems that contribute to the challenges facing humanity, we need to be Olympic Grade athletes at what we do. These challenges are tricky, they take commitment, resilience and determination. To get there we need to commit to doing the work ourselves. In Melis’ recent book, she focuses on the individual human—THIS HUMAN—because if you can become a master, then we have another powerful creator amongst us, working towards creating a world of abundance and equality. Huddler Caitlyn interviews Melis on her journey in creating the book.

Caitlyn: What is the essence of This Human?

Melis: The essence of this book is to support the human being who’s actually doing the designing for other people. The reason I wrote a book that’s focused on that human is because while the methodologies and tools of design are important, what’s really important—and not talked about—is how to be as you bring an idea into reality in a way that’s actually meaningful and has a positive impact. 

What inspired you to write the book? Was there a particular trigger moment?

I feel like I’ve been writing this book for years. It was only last year that I actually started bringing it into reality, in that I sat down and actually started typing what I wanted to share. 
I’ve been practicing human-centred design for two decades now and I’ve done it in lots of different contexts: defence, manufacturing environments, Telco, and of course, starting Huddle in 2009. 

All the material out there to support human-centred design is about the frameworks and the processes and the methods. It isn’t about how to be the human who’s doing the designing. 

There’s something unique about people who gravitate toward human-centred design, which is they are generally empathic people, who actually care a lot about what happens and want to make a change. In situations where your work butts-up against the current system or paradigm, it can be tricky to be that person where you have the incumbent leadership style, or you have the incumbent laws, or whatever, that are blocking the path. 

I wanted to write a book that captured what I’d learned, being that person for twenty years, and the practice that I have around how I deal with those sorts of situations.

It’s quite a practical book, isn’t it? There’s theory and philosophy, and there are practical exercises to work through too.

Yes. I tried to make it as practical as the topic allows it to be. For example, the first chapter talks about insight, and how our own world-views, as designers, can get in the way of our sense-making. We need to understand what our world-views are, what our belief system is, and what our conscious and unconscious biases tend to be, so that we’re not designing from our own realities. Instead, we’re designing from the realities of the people that we’re there to design for. 

The book includes exercises to expose what your beliefs are and what your biases might be. 

Part of it is really just being mindful. I’ve sometimes spoken about This Human in the context of mindful design, in that it’s about the practice of being present and aware around what you’re bringing to the table when you’re doing your work. 

I haven’t yet found a book out there that tackles those topics. They probably exist in different genres, like psychology. But I haven’t written this from a psychologist’s perspective—I’ve written it from the perspective of a human-centred designer. They’re abstract concepts and I’ve tried to make those concepts as practical as possible.

Your diverse experience and expertise has produced a unique perspective for the book. For example, referencing your learnings as a glider pilot, you point out sometimes you just have to learn to fly the plane while you’re already up there flying. Can you tell us more about that and what that means?

You’ve probably heard designers say, “Design sometimes feels like building the plane while you’re flying it,” because of its emergent nature.

You can’t learn how to fly a plane on the ground.  You just can’t. You can read all the books, and you can go through all the processes. You can know how to do the flight checks. You can learn about meteorology. You can learn how to read the terrain. You can do all of that stuff, but you can’t actually learn how to fly it on the ground. You can’t actually get your license doing that. 

You need to fly it to learn how to fly it as you’re flying it. In the air.

A part of what informs me is sometimes, the only thing you can do is to act. And you don’t know whether or not the thing that you’re about to do is going to work or not. But sometimes, especially in situations where you can’t see the pathway through, it’s so ambiguous and complex that you actually can’t sit there and think your way out of it. You just need to act and then see what happens.

That is the most terrifying thing in business, because there’s always so much at stake. I feel like that’s also the thing we all need to become really good at, because that is the condition within which we need to learn how to operate—because things are complex, and things are ambiguous, and things are moving really quickly. 

I’m really grateful for being able to make that connection between the experience of learning how to fly and also running a business and helping other people become more conscious when they’re running their businesses, because sometimes, that is the only option: to just act.

What is your biggest hope that people will take from reading and interacting with This Human?

My biggest hope is that people can use this book to be able to be more impactful and more effective in the work that they’re doing; to establish a practice that actually helps them be, not only better at it, but do it more easily. 

I feel that when you get good at the self-leadership practices in this book, the work actually becomes easier. You get to navigate the complexity in a more peaceful, mindful way. You start intuiting things that might be happening and be able to proactively act. Your creativity and your imagination becomes more powerful than the doubted, quiet little voice on your shoulder. It becomes a really, really important collaborator in your imagination and your creativity. 

That’s my wish: that anyone who reads this, whether you’re in human-centred design or you’re a teacher or you’re a parent—and like I said in the preface, or a nation leader—it helps you become more mindful, more effective, doing that type of work.

To find out more and order your copy of This Human, go to this-human.com.

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