Our not-so-secret “Secret Sauce”

Nina Muhleisen | 1 August 2023

an onion ring being dipped into a plastic container of sauce, on yellow background

In celebration of our fifth birthday, we look back at why we were created to begin with: There's a gap in the market: the focus to improve the customer experience often competes with cost reduction and efficiency creation. But that doesn't need to be the case! These two approaches not only can, but should work together to create great customer experiences while increasing efficiency.

We turn 5 this month! That’s 5 years of solving problems with a holistic view.

5 years of supporting organisations as they strive to deliver exceptional experiences and services, enhance their efficiency, and optimise their processes.

I am so proud of what we’ve achieved and I put it down to our approach.

When I started Three6, I saw a gap in the market: With Human-Centred Design (HCD) taking off, there was a dedicated focus to improve the customer experience. However, it was often competing with improving processes, reducing cost, and making things more efficient. Two powerful methodologies with distinct advantages but were seen as a delicate balancing act. This didn’t and still doesn’t need to be the case.

There is a way to seamlessly bring together HCD and process improvement, enabling blue sky thinking, ideation and challenging of current approaches while making how we deliver more efficient and a happier place for team members. This is what I’m passionate about and what has been the focus of what we have done since Three6 began. Bringing together HCD and process improvement for greater outcomes for customer, employee, and the organisation; it just makes sense!


Let’s start from the basics: what is Human-Centred Design (HCD)?

HCD is a problem-solving approach that places your users, whether they’re customers, community, or team members, at the heart of the design process. By empathising with users, HCD seeks to understand their needs, preferences, and pain points to create solutions that cater to them. It’s all about listening, synthesising what we’ve heard, and testing, continuously, so that the final outcome, whether it’s a product or a service, perfectly aligns with expectations.

Process Improvement (PI), on the other hand, is a systematic method to identify ways to improve flow, remove inefficiencies or bottlenecks, and enhance both the employee and customer experience through simplification. The core principle of PI is to enhance processes, analyse data, identify areas for improvement, and implement changes to increase productivity and reduce waste.

At first glance, it might seem like Human-Centred Design and Process Improvement have conflicting objectives. HCD focuses on empathy and creativity, while PI centres around data analysis and optimisation. However, when these methodologies are combined, they lead to extraordinary outcomes. Here’s how:

  1. User-driven data analysis: By incorporating user feedback and observations into data analysis, the team can identify process pain points that directly impact end-users. This human-centric approach allows for more targeted and impactful improvements.
  2. Iterative process enhancements: HCD’s iterative nature complements PI’s continuous improvement philosophy. Each iteration involves testing and learning, ensuring that enhancements are not only efficient but also user-friendly.
  3. Empowered employee engagement: Integrating HCD fosters a culture of empathy, encouraging employees to take ownership of process improvements. Engaged employees are likely to embrace changes, leading to better outcomes.
  4. Visionary thinking and the details to implement: Using HCD and PI provides the time and motivation to challenge ways of working but the details to understand how we can actually make it happen.


We’ve seen these outcomes play out in two recent projects. Both organisations, of similar size, were looking to refresh their organisational strategy. Strategy creation might not be something that you think of for HCD or Process Improvement methodologies but both work really well and each provide their unique benefits. Using a HCD approach you bring in empathy and understanding the user of your organisation’s products or services. Using Process Improvement, you review the data and understand how you can improve the flow and efficiency across the organisation.

These two organisations had similar objectives but very different approaches. The first, let’s call them Company A, wanted to understand and reset their organisation. The second, Company B, wanted to update and continue to move forward.

With Company A, we started the project with a series of interviews; we interviewed the board, the executive team, we had focus groups with team members, we conducted market research, we challenged the current approach. We brought back insights and ideas and we continuously iterated, working with the leaders and the team. We incorporated the ideas we could and those ideas that were raised but weren’t applicable or aligned, we noted down to use later in our change management and roll-out approach. We continued to feed information back to the teams and we invested time in a plan and developed the ongoing process for the strategy; from a launch that was personal and played back how each individual team contributed to the strategy to the execution and measurement of the plans and if we were on track and successful.

With Company B, we were limited in who we could speak to. We were provided access to the executives, data, and the process. We were asked to iterate the strategy based on our experience and knowledge of the market. Which we did: we used what we had and improved the process, but it felt generic and that it was missing many parts. The roll-out plan was reduced, limited to a board meeting and an executive plan and was focused on the metrics. We created strategic initiative tracking processes and tools, but the engagement was lacking. We had improved the process, but it was missing the empathy and connection back to their cause and their people to really make it stick.

We delivered in both of these cases but with Company A, we know we’ve set them up for success.

Internally as well, our team loved working on Company A and continued to be challenged by Company B to get a similar outcome. So for Company B, the result was a new strategy and a streamlined strategic process that was efficient, but it lacked the human touch back to their customers and their people. Company A, on the other hand, continues to thrive and work every day as a team towards achieving their strategic goals.


My key takeaways for you:

  1. Collaboration is key: Any project bringing together HCD and PI requires open communication and collaboration. If you can co-design your future state, whether that is an experience, a strategy, a product, or a process, you’ll land in a much better place. This is because you’ve considered all aspects and involved people in the outcome.
  2. Balance metrics with empathy: While metrics are vital for process improvement, they must not overshadow the importance of empathising with end-users and really understanding the different perspectives.
  3. Involve employees: Involving employees who interact with users daily provides crucial insights into process pain points and potential improvements.
  4. Test and iterate: Continuously bring back ideas, rushing to get to the end and to implement can lead to unintended consequences. Regular testing and iteration allow for continuous refinement and optimal results.


The secret sauce to successful initiatives is not so secret. It’s all about bringing together Human-Centred Design and Process Improvement. Incorporating empathy and user insights into data-driven process optimisation enables organisations to create remarkable user experiences while maintaining efficiency.

It’s why we love what we do: we embrace collaboration, we seek to understand with empathy, we continuously learn through iteration, and we design in the details to make sure it sticks. This approach has enabled us to lead teams and organisations toward their ultimate goal: delivering exceptional strategies, products, and user experiences with streamlined processes.

Need help combining HCD and Process Improvement to unleash the power of your org? Register for our upcoming webinar here and learn it straight from Nina!