Emma van Niekerk

I lead teams to create delightful, powerful and useful products.

Director of Design (Growth) at Intercom, San Francisco


A look at the the agile manifesto reminds us that, at it’s core, it is about accountability and responsibility.

“The value is placed on individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change.”

Shifting our attention to the Lean Design manifesto, we discover an emphasis on solving user problems, working collaboratively and early customer validation. We are advised to be selective with your design tools, carefully track performance and make speedy adjustments to ensure success.

In practice, these lofty ideals are too often reduced to processes and tools: scrum, kanban, user stories, backlogs, burndown charts, extreme-programming, test-driven development and many more.

I will share with you approaches to practice user-centered design in agile and lean environments without getting enslaved by the dogma.


The thing Emma loves most about being a designer is that underneath all the technology, pixels and colors, her job is fundamentally about understanding people. And people are very, very interesting, whether they are accountants, doctors or teenagers, it’s fascinating to study their behaviors and mental models. Research is the foundation of her goal-directed design practice.

Emma holds a BA Information Design (University of Pretoria) & an MDes Interaction Design (Carnegie Mellon University.) She made her move to the U.S. after winning the SABS Design Achiever’s Award for her design that made ATMs accessible to illiterate banking customers. She cut her teeth in the corporate world in the Office Design Group at Microsoft. Following that, she spent 5 years honing her craft as a designer and consultant at Cooper, producing solutions for large, complex data sets, particularly in the medical and financial domains.

In 2011 she co-founded Urbantag, a mobile app for saving and remembering places. The startup was acquired by Tagged two years later, inspiring her to take a break and ride a motorcycle from San Francisco to Ushuaia. Now she’s back in Silicon Valley, designing products to delight users.

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