Seven things we learnt at Canvas

Scary statistics, human connections and virtual sandwiches.

Three weeks ago, the Deliveroo Content, Research and Design team woke up bright and early. So early that only some of us managed to be on time for our train.

So why the early start? Canvas of course! Held each year in Birmingham, Canvas Conference is a great chance to hear from innovative companies and find out what others are doing to tackle challenges, both big and small, in the world of product design.

So what did we learn?

1. One in four of us will die needlessly

A terrifying thing to hear, especially at 9.30 in the morning. It’s also the thing that Thriva are aiming to change with their preventative healthcare. But exactly how do you convince people to bleed into a tube before they get to enjoy the benefits of your product?

The answer, according to Hamish Grierson, CEO and co-founder, is to try and find ways to make this unappealing part less of a barrier. That’s why they’re exploring new avenues. For example, a patch that draws blood from your skin over a short amount of time would mean people never actually having to see blood — ideal for the more squeamish amongst us.

Thriva’s growth highlights a new wave of thinking. Instead of solving a problem that has already occurred, they’re looking to prevent problems before they even happen.

The also do a great job of making the whole blood-collection part as pleasant as possible, with slick packaging and a social media element — because everything’s a little less weird if all your friends are doing it.

Sending blood in the post has never looked so stylish.

2. Don’t assume anything. Ever.

Hamish also mentioned that when they first started out, they made two assumptions: that users would want to make a one off payment each time they wanted to check their health data, and that Thriva’s users would fall into two clear categories, those who want to look good naked and those who want to live a long and healthy life.

Both of these assumptions were debunked within a matter of months. Users started asking for a subscription so they could track their health over time, instead of just having a one-off wake-up call, and Hamish and his co-founders also quickly found out that their user base wasn’t as straight forward as they first assumed. Yes there are people who want to live forever and those that want to look smoking hot in their underwear, but there are also those that simply want to live normally. People who enjoy occasional exercise and a more than occasional glass of wine.

The reasons people want to take control of their health are broad and complex, but all users said they wanted easy access to their data regardless. With this in mind, Thriva has shifted focus toward clear presentation and easy understanding, allowing users to do what they want with their data.

Sometimes you don’t need to dictate how a feature is used, but just simply make it usable.

Live for the now, live forever or live normally… Or maybe all three?

3. We’re stronger together

Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research, spoke about how valuable it is to get as many people as possible involved in the design and creation process. For her, it’s so valuable that she created a platform specifically for it. OpenIDEO is where thousands of people can contribute and develop ideas and since its conception, amazing things have happened.

One such thing started as a simple challenge from Unilever, “How do we improve sanitation health in third world countries?” Users jumped on the idea, and their development led to a team of designers creating the chemical toilet. These were then introduced to villages, which led to another question, how to make this system self-sufficient? The solution was to train local people to service and install the toilets, creating an ecosystem run entirely by the local community.

This idea of access applies to all areas of Hainyan’s work, from making physical coding modules to teach children with visual impairments how to code, to the revolutionary Emma. This small watch-like device counteracts the tremors experienced by Parkinson’s suffers and allows a user to write and draw.

Watching the sheer delight when people experienced these creations showed the value of user-led design, and we were all feeling pretty emotional by the end of the presentation.

4. It’s possible to make learning fun

We were all interested in hearing how Duolingo had managed to take gamification, turn it into a positive experience and do what our teachers were never quite able to — make learning fun.

Zan Gilani, Product Manager, started off with some pretty impressive stats. Duolingo’s 200 million users and 25 languages have led to billions of data points that give real insight into their users behaviour.

They were able to see that a lot of users start off using the app and practicing their chosen language for a few hours on the first day. Then a a bit less the next day, and then even less the day after, until eventually they simply stop coming back. It’s common knowledge that self-motivated study is hard, so the challenge that Duolingo faced was how to make learning as much a part of someone’s everyday life as brushing their teeth.

The answer lies in creating an achievable, measurable goal that you can only reach by putting the time in and using the app day after day.

The idea of streaks was borrowed from the gaming industry and given an educational revamp, with users able to maintain their streak by coming back and studying every day. This, coupled with some highly persuasive, well-timed push notifications, has transformed the behaviour of Duolingo users.

Thanks motivational owl!

5. We’re all just humans, standing in front of the internet, asking for a connection

It might seem that it’s only a matter of time before we live in a world run by robots, but the challenge for quite a few companies at Canvas was how to create a human connection, even in a digital world.

For Buzzfeed’s Jane Kelly, creating this human connection is all about making sure you’re trying to move the right metrics. Focussing on clicks and conversion is commonly held as the main way to measure success, but do you really know if that’s what people want? Or if they’re even enjoying your product?

You need to optimise for longevity and revisits to make sure you’re creating that connection that we all crave.

This personalisation and human feel also came through in the presentation by Sarah Milton, Head of Product at All 4. As All 4 moved away from being ‘the place to watch a show that you missed last night’ to ‘the place to watch original content’, it faced the challenge of trying to surface the right content for each individual user. People’s tastes in television shows vary widely, and users don’t just want to see things they’ve already watched — they want to know what they should be watching too (with the exception of Hollyoaks fans apparently, who want to watch Hollyoaks and nothing else).

This challenge was tackled through user research, big data and a lack of assumption. They formed groups of users that could be mapped into nine segments, from the Sloane Rangers who love Made In Chelsea over to the Voyeurs (read: Naked Attraction fans).

It’s an ongoing piece of work, but it’s a strong foundation to build a truly personalised experience that offers users what they know and love, while also gently pushing them to try new things — with some users more willing to try new things than others (I’m talking about you, the Voyeurs out there).

Where do you belong?

6. You need to give the people what they want

A real stumbling block for big companies is to think they know best what their users want, and then not maintaining those loops that allow users to give valuable feedback.

Hugo Cornejo, Head of Design at Monzo, spoke about how much they value feedback from their users and that taking on board what people are asking for is a very good way to make your product a success. Take the card freeze idea. A user suggested creating something that would allow him to freeze his card when he’s out drinking so he doesn’t start buying shots for everyone he meets, and because of this, the freeze and defrost card feature was born.

Customer support is also Monzo’s not-so-secret secret sauce, opening up a feedback loop that users trust and enjoy. Knowing that when something goes wrong, someone from Monzo is going to be on the other end of that chat trying to sort it for you is paramount to Monzo’s success.

We also got a shout out for our collaboration with Monzo on our split the bill feature — thanks Hugo!

7. Everyone looks ridiculous while eating a virtual sandwich

For anyone not familiar with the sandwich-eating minigame, in the game ‘1–2-Switch’, for the Nintendo Switch, it’s a great way to pass the time on the journey home. The real question is, can anyone beat 9 and a half?

Hard to tell who’s the true winner in this game, Saff and his score of 9 and a half, or everyone who got to watch?


So that’s it, another year of Canvas is done. It was an amazing and inspiring day of talks, so a huge thank you to all of the speakers and the Canvas team. You can follow Canvas on Twitter and see full videos of all the talks here.

You can find us on Twitter too at Deliveroo Design, and we’re also hiring — so if you fancy joining the team and being part of next year’s Deliveroo Canvas crew, get in touch!