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Human-Centered Design Improves Service Delivery for Human Services

Anthro-Tech, a Human-Cen­tered Design (HCD) con­sul­tan­cy, suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed a four-year HCD project ini­ti­at­ed by the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices’ Admin­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies (ACF).

Three people reviewing a clipboard on a sofa

Using Human-Centered Design to Inform Social Service Programs in Government Agencies

In 2018, ACF’s Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) launched the Human-Centered Design for Human Services (HCD4HS) project to explore the potential of HCD in addressing complex problems faced by public sector human services agencies. These agencies manage programs related to healthy relationships, child welfare, economic mobility, and early childhood care.

Father and son in a boat high-fiving with the OPRE logo overlayed

HCD involves designing solutions based on the needs of end users or service recipients, making it an ideal fit for promoting effective, efficient, and compassionate service delivery in human services. Moreover, it directly aligns with ACF's mission of addressing complex problems, though limited previous research existed to support its recommendation for HCD approaches in their programs.

The HCD4HS project aimed to train human service organizations in HCD, apply it to real problems, evaluate its effectiveness, assess organizations' capacity for independent HCD application, and identify the necessary requirements for successful implementation.

The “Wicked” Social Service Issues HCD Can Solve For

Human service agencies often encounter “wicked challenges” to efficient service delivery due to lack of funding, lack of buy-in from leadership, staffing constraints, and changing regulatory requirements. To solve for these problems, an innovative, creative, and impactful approach needs to be taken. That’s where HCD comes in.

Human-centered design process diagram showing 5 steps: research & discover, synthesize & ideate, conceptualize & prototype, test & iterate, implement & refine
Two people in front of a large HCD process diagram
Taylor Collins, Director of UX Design at Anthro-Tech shows her colleague a poster on HCD.

Alongside Child Trends and MEF Associates, Anthro-Tech and its partners collaborated to:

  1. Establish a shared definition of what Human-Centered Design is in the context of human services.
  2. Review how HCD is currently being applied in human services organizations.
  3. Train three pilot teams in Human-Centered Design so they can use this approach to find and design a solution to a problem relevant to their organization's mission in human services.
  4. Evaluate how effective HCD is as a problem-solving approach for the pilot human services organizations and identify critical factors for sustaining HCD practices within the organization after our training and coaching support concludes.

Three Human Service Agencies Piloted the HCD Process to Solve for Different Challenges

Anthro-Tech’s expert team offered HCD training and coaching to three human service agencies. Each agency formed a pilot team comprised of staff with diverse skills and expertise from across the organization. These pilot teams applied Human-Centered Design mindsets and techniques to their respective work, receiving weekly coaching sessions and access to resources and templates from Anthro-Tech. Each pilot team focused on solving a unique problem crucial to their mission:

The County of Santa Clara Social Services Agency

County of Santa Clara Social Services Agency logo

The County of Santa Clara observed a downward trend in employee engagement in their annual employee survey. They sought to identify specific pain points and new ideas to improve engagement for staff on the front lines of helping people in crisis in the County. They found that there were several issues contributing to reduced engagement among staff.

To decide which problems to address first, they included the staff in the decision-making process. They asked their staff to identify the changes that would have the most positive impact on them and the families they serve. Using the Human-Centered Design approach, they decided to focus on creating a system where social workers could express their ideas to the leadership about improving services. This way, the staff could be involved in finding solutions to the challenges they encounter while serving the community.

Denver Human Services

Denver Human Services logoDenver Human Services set out to address the “cliff effect” impacting people who end up in financial hardship because they increased their income resulting in them losing their eligibility for cash benefits. This negative consequence for achieving a better financial situation left families in worse shape and in more need than previously and was counter-productive to the goals and intention of the social services agency, and the support they are dedicated to offering. 

As we did our research and discovery, we came across other efforts to solve the same problem, but none included end users as a part of the process to try to solve it. None of those solutions included feedback loops – so maybe involving users in the process of design will help us make movement towards the solution.

Using HCD, the pilot team discovered the importance of customizable transition resources and counseling to aid families in adapting to their changed financial situation and potential support options.

Washington State Division of Child Support

Washington State Department of Social & Health ServicesWashington State Division of Child Support sought to improve the monthly child support order modification process for families to ensure child support payments reflected the most up-to-date circumstances of the family. In this study, they hoped to increase the percentage of these end users – parents who requested a modification – who successfully complete the application for a modification. Through HCD, they discovered that the main obstacle to successful change was the complexity of the required forms for parents. The pilot team made recommendations for simplifying the forms using plain language. They also collaborated with parents to co-design video trainings, helping parents feel more confident in using the current forms.

Empowering experience for us. Showed us that we need to be engaging our customers more. They’re far more collaborative than we previously thought.

To assist the pilot teams, Anthro-Tech’s expert HCD consultants conducted activities such as:

A two-day HCD Primer to train pilot teams in the HCD process and key activities, and to develop a customized project roadmap for each team to begin their work together in a more human-centered way.

Weekly coaching to build internal capacity and help pilot teams apply HCD processes and strategies. Anthro-Tech also provided templates and resources for common HCD activities like user interviews, usability testing, creative brainstorming workshops, and more.

Design Thinking Workshops to review each pilot team’s user research, define the problem to solve, brainstorm solutions, and prototype and usability test the solutions with end users.

Key Findings

  • The HCD4HS project resulted in a report that documented key findings about how HCD can be applied in human services organizations.
  • A shared definition of HCD concluded that HCD is a process and a mindset to iteratively addressing complex challenges by facilitating the design of solutions with those who will ultimately use the solution.
  • Documented insights about how other human service organizations are already effectively applying HCD techniques with support from expert training and publicly available resources.
  • The pilot teams demonstrated that they could adopt the HCD mindset and practices.
From early in the evaluation, pilot team members demonstrated an HCD mindset, including empathy for end users, openness to different opinions and perspectives, and new ways of identifying challenges, and brainstorming.

There are several elements that are helpful to implement HCD successfully in an organization, such as:

  • access to HCD expertise and tools
  • alignment of the work with the culture and priorities of the organization
  • collaborative and respectful dynamics
  • having diverse perspectives on the design team
  • leadership support
  • strategic engagement of stakeholders
  • strong project management
  • technology resources

Many elements must be present for HCD to be a sustainable approach to problem solving. However, these helpful elements can also be seen as barriers. For example, without leadership buy-in or an executive champion, the HCD approach can fall to the wayside regardless of the team’s enthusiasm for this effective approach.

Leadership needs to set the tone and demonstrate the commitment. They also need to know what’s going on so they can address barriers that we can’t… This is essential to any systems change – you need leadership buy-in ownership or else you’ll be working in a house of cards – everything could come crumbling down fast.

The findings were positive. HCD can help inform not only digital products such as websites but can be used to improve the quality and effectiveness of social programs, policies, organizational services, and cultures. As a result of the HCD4HS project, there is now researched and documented evidence that HCD can help promote innovation within human services and has the potential to make human service delivery more effective, efficient, and compassionate.

Further Reading