Re-imagine social services with Human-centered Design

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Eviction filings in Texas cities recently skyrocketed after the dissolution of the CDC Eviction Moratorium, putting millions of Houstonians and Texans at risk of housing instability. Those of us in the nonprofit and public sectors work to improve the quality of life in our communities–so when a crisis comes to town, how do we help? How do we best assist those who are facing eviction in our area? What is going on in the minds of unemployed renters facing the potential of nonpayment on next month’s rent?

We won’t be able to answer these questions unless we ask them.

We often rely on our understanding of the community’s needs to better respond to them, but people’s circumstances change quickly– and we keep up the best we can. Determining what questions to ask our community and how to ask them is crucial to developing a deep understanding of the people we serve. For example, in order to gain insights into how the needs of our communities are changing: we might ask:

  • How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the priorities of working mothers?
  • How can financial assistance programs prioritize equity when needs outstrip available funds?
  • How are homeowners in the floodplains evaluating sustained climate threats?

To answer these questions and others, we use Human-centered Design research and thinking. Human-centered Design (HCD) is a way of thinking that places the people closest to the need or the problem at hand at the center of the solution. Elevating those affected allows us to learn from and listen to them, and enable their goals.

When we want to better understand the changing context of those we serve, we go through month-long “design research sprints” that allow us to deep dive into a specific topic and turn what we hear into insights, hypotheses, and questions. Through our Human-Centered Design practice, we:

  • Center the voices of those who are directly impacted by outcomes. They are experts based on their lived experience.
  • Design for those at the margins. A solution that addresses the needs of those at the margins will work even better for the majority.
  • Aim to sustain, heal, and empower our communities. We believe that design must be trauma-responsive. We integrate principles of trauma-responsive care into our process.
  • Value action over perfection. Our design sprints are intentionally messy — we dig deeper as we confirm our hypotheses and quickly shift directions when we don’t.
Guiding principles of our human-centered design approach. Build With Us, 2021, Connective. Illustration by Shirley Hernandez, Hanna Kim and Olivia Yao.

We leverage this framework in Build With Us, the culmination of over a year’s worth of research, fieldwork, and conversations focused on Harris County residents impacted by COVID-19. Doing this type of research and deep listening at the height of the pandemic has allowed us and our partners to elevate the voices of residents, prioritize their experience, and adjust resources in real time to respond to the growing and changing needs of community members.

This rapid response to research has lent itself to improvements and real-time adjustments across many community programs:

  • Our design research on the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund has provided program recommendations that reduce uncertainty and increase transparency for seekers of services. Within one week, we had spoken with multiple people from communities across Houston to determine what they needed most. We suggested flexibility in the application process– by opening the application for an additional day, adjusting language on the application and website to reflect transparency surrounding recipient selection, and ensuring open communication with applicants about where they were in the pipeline.
  • Our research on tenants at risk of eviction and their landlords has revealed a disconnect between how tenants communicate with landlords and how landlords desire to communicate. Based on this research, the City of Houston developed a “How To Talk To Your Landlord” informational flyer which was widely distributed across the Houston community within one week of our initial suggestion.
  • Our research on small landlords during COVID-19 has influenced the programmatic and policy recommendations of the Small Landlord Working Group within the Housing Stability Task Force. Based on our research surrounding small landlord “personas,” local partners participating in this working group have developed specific solutions, such as a grant program that was quickly deployed to assist those small landlords experiencing economic hardship and keeping their tenants housed.
  • The preliminary findings of our design research sprints have inspired our team to create a new communication method for reaching at-risk communities where they are: Connective Texts. This is a program that brings awareness to residents of available resources in their area. As of this writing, Connective Texts has over 50,000 subscribers.

Through our work, we keep people — in all their complexity and nuance — front and center. We talk to community members to understand pain points, test solutions, and challenge underlying assumptions in the social service ecosystem. We explore, understand, and address complex social problems through ideation and prototyping in our programs. We believe that human-centered design with a systems-wide, equity lens brings us closer to imagining and building a connected, empathetic, and accessible system that works for all of us, especially those who need it to work the most.

Will you join us?

Elaine Morales, Director of Partnerships & Policy at Connective
Contributors: Fahad Punjwani & Elena White

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