Useful Blog

The view from my Havana accommodation

The view from my Havana accommodation

My first 24 hours in Cuba were filled with lessons that set me up for the rest of my travels. It was baptism by fire and I was completely overwhelmed. But I caught on quickly and figured out not just how to survive but how to have the best time possible in Cuba.

Allow me to talk you through the lessons from my first 24 hours.

My first authentic Cuban taster came at the airport. While in line to go through immigration, there was a blackout. The entire airport lost power for about five minutes. Eventually the lights flickered on, the computers fired back up and no one blinked an eye. The only crumb of acknowledgment came from a mystery voice in the darkness that said “Si, this is Cuba”.

On the way to my accommodation (which deserves a blog post all of its own) my taxi driver, Joel, stopped near the Malecon to buy me a snack. The food cart merchant asked me “Where are you from?” and when he found out I was Australian, he listing everything he knew about the country “Sydney! Kangaroo! Skippy! Olivia Newton John! Crocodile Dundee!”. Popular culture in Cuba is about 30 years behind. I heard some brilliant Australian references but in my entire trip, the most recent one I heard was “Sydney 2000 Olympics”.

While much of my trip was left open, there were a few things I had spent the last 6 months meticulously planning. One of those was my first salsa lesson in Havana. On my first morning I ask my casa host, Gabriel, if everything is ready for me to meet my dance professor. He replied, “Oh she decided she can’t teach today. And she takes Friday, Saturday, Sunday off, I’m sorry.”
“Can you help me find another teacher? I can pay more!” I asked.
“Maybe?” Gabriel considered the idea for a moment. “I can try.”

Si, this is Cuba. You’ve got to with the flow, because there really isn’t another choice.

But, instead of attending my planned salsa lesson, I spent my first day wandering around the city alone. Streets in Havana are narrow and lined with crumbling pastel terraces with people pouring out of them. Locals sit on the steps and balconies and talk from afar. As much as I tried to fit in, I knew I always stood out in Cuba. It also meant that I would constantly have men talk to me or about me as I walked around the city. It was never aggressive, but always a little suggestive. I asked someone about this once while sharing a park bench and he explained through a thick Spanish accent, “If we see a beautiful woman, it’s our duty to point it out. What if she doesn’t know?” I came to ignore the constant air-kisses and cat-calls and to remember that Cuban men fall in love too easily.

Later when I was back at my casa and deciding what to do that evening, my taxi driver Joel from the airport unexpectedly arrived on my step with a translator. The translator explained that he wanted to get to know me better and asked if he could take me out for a drink. So I went. The three of us drank beers at a dirt-floored, open-air bar with chickens running about our feet. It was a bizarre evening, but I had a great time. The lesson here, an important one for anyone visiting Cuba, was to go with the flow. Say ‘yes’ and see where it takes you. I was so glad I had drinks with this pair, although the “I love you” I received at the end of the night as we bid goodbye was a little full on. Si. This is Cuba.

Tanned, sweaty and operating on pure adrenaline, last Friday I jumped off the bus on Hunter Street with my suitcase having come straight from the airport, and stumbled into the Village.

“8s! Welcome home! How was Cuba?”

You might find it odd that my first stop straight off the plane was into work, but The Village of Useful isn’t exactly your typical working environment and my recent trip to Cuba proves it.

In case you haven’t heard the story, allow me to explain how my recent adventure in Cuba came to be.

At the end of 2014, after my first year as a full-time Village employee, Adam and Andy explained that they wanted to thank me for such a good year and give me a bonus. Adam put a large cardboard box on the table and said, “we’d like to offer you either the money, or, you can have what’s in the box.”

Of course I chose the box!

Inside was wooden plaque with plastic letters spelling out ‘Grow and Tell’.

“Oh? Thank you…I think?” For a second I thought I should have taken the cash.

“Congratulations on being awarded the first Grow and Tell. It’s a bonus to help you grow. A grownus.

10958954_10205923467906222_795626688_o“We are giving you an extra week of holiday and some money to go anywhere in the world that you want to, so that you can have a learning experience and grow. Then you can come back and tell the world what you’ve learnt. The only condition is that you need to pitch your trip ideas to us and sell us the idea.”

I’d never heard of anything quite so amazing.

In January, I pitched two potential Grow and Tell ideas to a panel consisting of Villagers, clients and friends. The first idea was to attend the Sarajevo Film Festival in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the second was the learn to salsa dance in Cuba. Film festivals and dancing are my two favourite things and I would have been ecstatic to have the chance to do either.

After questions, heated discussion between the panelists and ultimately a vote, it was decided that I would be heading off to Cuba. Hurrah!

And so I set out to travel Cuba solo for 18 days. It was incredible, sweaty, intimidating, eye-opening, life-changing.

I’m absolutely bursting with stories to share and so I’ll be posting a blog post every week where I talk about some of the things I saw, experienced and learnt.

Still to this day, the most amazing part about my whole trip is the fact that it was a gift from my employer. My ‘grownus’ has ultimately been a way to show me that I can live and work in modest Newcastle, but still have insane worldwide adventures.

My Big Tomorrow by The Village of Useful and Newism for the University of Newcastle won Silver at the global 2015 User Experience Awards. The User Experience Awards event was held in New York City on 16 November 2015 and is “dedicated exclusively to showcasing the best in UX”. The Awards recognise the best in user experience design worldwide.

There were ten global User Experience Award winners in 2015, including My Big Tomorrow. The two minute film below was screened at the event to show our UX approach for the project and share some results from the first 100 days. Other 2015 winners include Google (bronze) and a favourite of ours, Hackaball (gold). Hackaball was created by London-based agency Made by Many to teach children the principles of computer programming through play.

The website is another great collaboration between The Village of Useful and Newism. Thank you to the project team and everyone who helped us create My Big Tomorrow – everything from the initial research, strategy and concept to the launch event one year later.

My Big Tomorrow is a special project for us, it’s been hugely satisfying to work on and we’re excited to have this work recognised globally as one of the world’s best user experience designs.

This global User Experience Award follows My Big Tomorrow also winning one of nine 2015 Australian Web Awards this month.

We created the My Big Tomorrow website with our partners Newism for the University of Newcastle. The purpose of My Big Tomorrow is to help young Australians realise bigger life choices. While it’s an initiative of the University of Newcastle it’s for kids Australia-wide.

On Friday 6 November My Big Tomorrow won the 2015 Australian Web Award for Education. This award recognises My Big Tomorrow as one of the nine best Australian websites of the year. Over 100,000 websites are created in Australia each year and we’re stoked to be in the top nine. We’re also proud it’s for such an amazing mission.

The project was driven from the client side by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) team at the University. The team’s mission is to improve the equity of higher education. Helping so many kids at a national scale makes this project a special one for us. It’s been hugely satisfying and early results show how much My Big Tomorrow is already helping to move the needle.

The website is another great collaboration between The Village of Useful and Newism. Thank you to the project team and everyone who helped us create My Big Tomorrow – everything from the initial research, strategy and concept to the launch event one year later.

My Big Tomorrow is also a finalist in the global 2015 User Experience Awards and 2015 Interaction Awards. We made this two minute film for the UX Awards – announced 16 November in New York City – to show our UX approach and share some results from the first 100 days.

Update: My Big Tomorrow also won Silver in the global 2015 User Experience Awards (NYC).


One chilly early morning in August, two Novocastrian women boarded a plane bound for Melbourne.

Emma Levine and I had the pleasure of being gifted ‘the stuff of dreams’ by The Village as a ‘thank you’ for our work.

We were headed on an all-expenses-paid trip for two to TEDxMelbourne to hear storytellers, luminaries, artists and adventurists share tales of inspiration and invention and their dreams and hopes for the future.

The Melbourne Convention Centre came into view as we crossed the Yarra River on foot on a drizzly Friday, and we headed straight for the steaming coffee stand inside, which was being operated by a trio of bearded hipsters.

As the bell sounded marking the beginning of TEDxMelbourne, we jostled into the amphitheatre, coffees in hand, to hear speakers share their stories of courage, conviction, self-reflection, of knowledge and of innovation.

Changemakers like Marcus Veerman inspired the crowd as he told his story of discovering an unlikely remedy for a country struggling under the consequences of poverty.

Veerman is CEO and Founder of Playground Ideas, an organisation that helps build playgrounds using local tools, materials and skills in the community.

Veerman was warmed to witness the behaviour of children in impoverished communities in Papua New Guinea change when given the simple opportunity of playfulness.

He didn’t expect what came next. School attendance levels in these communities grew. Focus intensified. Test scores soared.

Playground Ideas has now helped build playgrounds for over 450,000 children around the world, increasing the levels of happiness and education of impoverished children worldwide.

Conversely, the crowd was also moved by a tale of childhood sadness as Lisa McInnes-Smith told her story of a crippled self-worth after realising her disability made her different.

McInnes-Smith was born with a rare disorder that left one of her eyes completely blind and almost entirely shut.

She told of her mother’s no-nonsense attitude that made her see it was her focus, not her disability, that needed to change.

The amphitheatre of Melbourne Convention Centre fell into silence after McInnes-Smith announced simply, “The most important words you’ll ever hear in your life are the words you say to yourself about yourself.”

“What do you need to hear?”

Thomas King was just 12 years old when he discovered his own personal gripe. Palm oil.

He was undeterred by his age and driven by the unwavering belief that he would be satisfied if he could educate just one person about the mass deforestry and primate death caused by this all-too-common ingredient.

His website,, has educated over half a million consumers annually from more than 200 countries about the impacts of unsustainable palm oil development in South-East Asia over the past seven years.

While navigating his teenage years, Thomas went on to hold positions within organisations such as Oaktree, the Jane Goodall Institute Australia and the youth division of the United Nations as a campaigner in environmental preservation, animal protection and poverty eradication.

After last year being named Victorian Young Australian of the Year and VCE Leader of the Year, Thomas is now 19 years old and works as a youth campaigner at Animals Australia.

He left us with the final thought that ‘no matter who you are or what your age, everybody has the ability to create a profound impact.’

No message rang more true as we walked out of TEDxMelbourne inspired and thoughtful, as the sky burnt a dreamlike orange on the Melbourne skyline in front of us.

The village has just completed a brand television commercial for our awesome client, Inspirations Paint.

The commercial continues the single-minded focus that Inspirations Paint has for their customers paint projects. The ad features Loungy, a suffering lounge room paint project. Fortunately, the family takes Loungy to an Inspirations Paint store just in time to bring him back to good health.

Now that Loungy has recovered, the family sit back and enjoy their schmick paint project only to find that now Kitchy needs their attention.

The ad was shot by director, Scott Otto Anderson and features a music composition by Guy Gross.


We prototype and test websites (and apps and everything else) to help move our clients’ commercial needle. Prototyping and testing unearths valuable insights, helps shape the most useful outcome possible and dramatically increases the likelihood of commercial success.

We’ve seen revenue increases of over 50% after a website redesign (from a large base), website ROI payback periods of less than 6 months, and big swings in customer conversion and retention. In every case, the tested prototype is pivotal in achieving the outcome with a finely tuned user experience (UX).

A prototype is a simulation of a real website or app. It’s usually black, grey and white, and it lives in a web browser and is clickable (or tappable) and interactive. During testing, customers can use a prototype to complete the most important customer journeys, and in doing so, revenue roadblocks or usability issues can be identified with the right interviewing and moderation. Testing can take place remotely or in-person; in-person is always more revealing. We typically test quite detailed prototypes in-person with a carefully recruited set of participants, then we iterate the prototype, then we test again with another specific group. We’re happy to share more about how we go about recruitment and who we involve in testing, and why. We’ve written before about how we go about digital customer experience design and how prototyping fits in.

This isn’t crowdsourcing and it’s not about customers coming up with design ideas. It’s about designing a user experience and using real customers to validate it, removing roadblocks and usability issues along the way.

Brands find every dollar spent on UX drives between $2 and $100 in return (source: Fast Company). It’s not for everyone and it certainly adds time and expense, though it’s consistently an excellent investment. Econsultancy’s ‘User Experience Survey Report‘ found 95% of brands surveyed considered user experience a good investment. For example, Bank of America increased online banking yield 45% with UX.

If you’re up for investing in UX and moving the needle, we’d love to chat. If you’d like to understand more about UX this workshop at Harvard Innovation Lab is a good start.

Awesome Newcastle


A few months ago we decided to create Awesome Newcastle, a local chapter of the global Awesome Foundation. We’re about being useful and moving the needle and it just felt right. Last night Awesome Newcastle awarded its first no-strings-attached $1,000 grant.

Here’s what we’ve been up to. We called for board member applications and assembled an accomplished board who couldn’t wait to give up their own time and money every month. We have nine regular board members and keep a guest position open every month. Then we registered Awesome Newcastle as a chapter of the global Awesome Foundation. The Awesome Foundation was created in 2009 and has provided over $1.5m in grants via over 100 global chapters.

We launched the Awesome Newcastle website and began accepting applications from artists, creators, ideas people and leaders of Newcastle. We started blogging the amazing stories coming from Awesome Foundation chapters worldwide and connecting with global funded projects and board members on Twitter, Facebook and private Google Groups. Then we narrowed the Awesome Newcastle applications down to three finalists for the first funding round. Three finalists presented to the board last night. We discussed the ideas and voted to determine the winner, then handed over $1,000 cash. Each of the 10 board members (including Villagers) pay the cash from their own pockets, and I can’t think of a better way to spend $100.

There are no strings attached and Awesome Newcastle takes nothing in return (just good vibes). This is about paying it forward and helping make awesome happen.

Everyone in the Village works on Awesome Newcastle and helps it grow. We now have a forward-thinking board, we’re receiving applications from people making an impact, we have the satisfaction of paying it forward every month, and as an agency we get to nurture and grow the foundation along the way.

Thank you to the board members, applicants and supporters. Awesome Newcastle’s had an awesome start. We can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Subaru’s been building cars in zero landfill plants for a decade. In 2004, Subaru became the first automotive assembly plant in North America designated as zero landfill. A zero landfill plant means 100% of manufacturing waste is either recycled or turned into electricity. This means that since May 2004, Subaru’s manufacturing plants have not sent any waste to landfills.

In a monumental mission of environmental stewardship, Subaru recently announced it is sharing its knowledge of zero landfill practices with the National Park Service to reduce landfill waste from national parks across the United States. Subaru’s team will test zero landfill practices in three iconic national parks – Yosemite, Grand Teton and Denali – working toward an end goal of zero landfill from all national parks.

In 2013, the National Park Service managed more than 100 million pounds of waste nationally. Much of this waste was generated in the parks by its 273.6 million visitors. That amount of waste would normally require 20 million household garbage bags, which if laid end-to-end would stretch from New York City to Los Angeles and back again. Twice.

Who We Are Is What We Leave Behind‘ is a new series by Subaru documenting the enormous and incredibly worthy initiative. Subaru’s environmental microsite is also recording the journey and chronicles the automaker’s environmental achievements since 2003.

Volkswagen Netherlands aired a TV ad in April this year, in which VW owners had big expectations for their other possessions. The ad featured a mother who couldn’t understand why baby strollers don’t have automatic braking.

After VW posted the ad on Facebook, the most liked comment suggested that VW build such a stroller. A stroller that could miraculously brake automatically, just like in the ad.

And so VW did. In this film, what began as a joke in a TV ad becomes a real-world prototype in a matter of months. While they were at it, the automaker’s engineers took the opportunity to improve on the idea. They made the stroller smarter, such that it not only brakes automatically but also keeps a distance automatically. This was made possible by including the adaptive cruise control sensor from the current model VW Golf.

As expected, the film’s had a warm reception on VW Netherland’s Facebook page and we’d expect the brand’s saliency, consideration and awareness has also seen a positive bump.