Design(ing) for Service: Foster Care

Process documentation for our final project in Molly Steenson’s Design for Service class. Group: Angela Ng, Gabriel Mitchell, Allison Huang. Now focusing on housing transitions.

02.18 Choosing a Topic

We formed our project group around the theme of humanitarian aid: a topic so broad that it was hard to choose a place to begin. We started by writing some potential areas of focus on a whiteboard and marking the ones we were most interested in, listing possible resources and contact points for research by each one. Eventually, we settled on foster care and adoption as a topic to do more research on.

02.19 Initial Research

We sat down to do more research and narrow the scope of our project. Through some discussion about what we already understood about foster care and adoption (whether true or false), we decided to focus on the foster care system in the United States as our main problem space. As we continued our secondary research online, we posted problems, questions, and processes on a whiteboard. We then decided to split up the research by three main stakeholders: government/institutions (Gabe), kids (Angela), and parents (Allison).

02.23 Early Stakeholder Mapping & Continuing Research

Using the online research we each were doing on our stakeholders, we began to map out the relationships between the three main stakeholders. We also brought in other parties that are affected by or are involved in the foster care system. Doing this exercise helped us visualize what each of us were learning so we could all be up-to-date.

03.01 Early Journey Mapping

In our next class session, we were able to start creating a journey map of sorts, writing down representational stories for each of our stakeholders so we could begin to understand where the stories intersect. As is perhaps indicative of the many one-sided stories available about the foster care system, the foster kid’s story is somewhat dark while the foster parents’ story is very idealistic. Mapping these experiences helped us understand what holes in our research currently exist and what questions we want to answer when we talk to research participants. We also were able to come up with some “how might we…” questions that could be jumping-off points for our service proposal. These include “how might we give kids a voice?”, “how might we provide better counseling?”, “how might we streamline the process and minimize wait time?”, etc.

03.03 Outreach for Research

At this point in our project, it’s essential that we get some firsthand stories about the foster care system and some contacts that we can run our ideas and assumptions by. We are pursuing contacts through The Children’s Institute and Three Rivers Adoption Council here in Pittsburgh as well as through online message boards. Per Molly’s suggestion, we’ve also put together a Google form to collect stories anonymously and get contacts for future conversations.

03.15 Business Model Canvas & Next Steps

In class today, Catherine and Hannah conducted a workshop on the business model canvas: a template used in business innovation that we as service designers can use to work out opportunities, find problems, and keep exploring the space we’re focusing on. Because we still haven’t had conversations with people directly connected to the foster care system, we were hesitant to nail down a single direction. However, we were able to use some of the “how might we” questions from our journey mapping exercise to begin. These included 1) how might we get more people to become foster parents?; 2) how might we connect foster parents to each other?; 3) how might we give foster kids a voice?; 4) how might we help foster kids after they age out of the system?; and 5) how might we remove stigma around foster kids?

Since we are not situated in this class to influence policy or reach past privacy issues that come up with children currently in the system, we decided to focus more on the foster parents for this exercise. We are wondering what kind of systems are in place for foster parent support and how effective they are; this seems like an interesting area to place our service. We discussed ideas of mentorship and “foster grandparents” as structures for connecting new foster families to those who are more experienced and/or don’t have foster kids themselves. One question Molly proposed that we ask is “what does our service provide that isn’t already available?” We would like to ask people with current relationships to the foster care system what their experiences with support have been like.

Business canvas model and whiteboarding in class

We got a lot of responses and potential contacts through our Google form and other methods of outreach over spring break and are excited to get input from them! We will send out emails or call those who are willing to speak with us; we’re also creating a list of questions to ask them specifically about their experiences. These questions also get at the “how might we” questions that we explored in a bit more depth with the business canvas model, but we’d still like to test our assumptions in those questions against their personal experiences.


We used our next class session to continue fleshing out the business model canvas we had already started, but we weren’t really happy with the direction our proposed service was taking. Angela got some great information from one of our research contacts who told us that many foster parent support services already exist. He even told us about Treetops, an intergenerational community in Massachusetts made up of foster and adoptive families alongside elderly people who are qualified to act as babysitters in return for free housing. While we could keep pursuing this support-system service idea, it would build on already-existing services with similar value propositions.

Molly suggested that we do some more brainstorming for different types of value propositions and exchanges. We came up with some new ideas, many of which focused on the transition periods that foster kids go through over and over again.

Fleshed-out business model canvas and speed-dating ideas

03.21 Shift in Project Focus

Because it’s been really difficult for us to find people we can prototype with, we met with Catherine (our TA) today to discuss our current ideas and where we could shift to be able to prototype our service over the remaining five weeks. After tossing around ideas that were tangentially related to the foster care system (for example, looking at housing issues since many foster kids who are aging out become homeless or broadening to transitions in general rather than focusing on transitions in the foster care system), we decided to go back to one of our initial “how might we” questions: how might we get more people to foster?

A service that begins to answer that question might include an online platform for sharing stories, creating a wider network of foster parents and potential foster parents, social media, awareness campaigns, events, and more. Thinking about our campus in particular for prototyping, we are pulling from our experiences working with student organizations and interacting with other clubs to brainstorm ideas for engagement campaigns we can try out. One idea we left with was to chalk lanes on one of the main paths on campus as an unintrusive way to get people’s attention: they could choose a lane to walk in and we could present facts along the way. There is much iteration and prototyping to be done as we make to learn, for example experimenting with chalking vs. interactive installations at tables vs. posters vs. other types of engaging our audience — but this definitely seems to be a more manageable project for us, allowing us to leverage the work we’ve already done while pivoting to a service proposition that can actually be prototyped within the scope of this course.

03.22 Proposals & Back-Up Plan

We met up tonight to discuss proposals around our question of “how might we get more people to foster” and create a back-up plan in case we don’t get responses from our contacts before Friday (a deadline we set for ourselves).

We charted out the “wants” and what each major stakeholder can provide in order to map out some potential value exchanges. We came up with three proposals for value exchange: a middle man/proxy for telling stories, a trial period for potential foster parents, and a help line.

1. The Middle Man / The Proxy: Conflict Kitchen hosts conversations via a service called “The Foreigner”. The general idea is that there is a middle man to just listen to both parties and speak what one side says, without interjecting his/her own thoughts. Instead of Skype, you have a personal touch for very intricate and personal stories that you might not get from online forums like Yahoo Answers. You have a conversation with someone you wouldn’t have had access to before. What’s interesting about The Foreigner is that it also has a huge sense of anonymity along with it — many times, Conflict Kitchen changed both sex and race of the actor or middle man so people would be inclined to talk. Our idea is to have a mediator/middle man. People are often uncomfortable with sharing their story but feel better sharing it anonymously — but maybe they don’t want it shared with the whole Internet or a large group of people, but instead just one person on a one on one basis. And then afterwards, if the person feels comfortable, she can have the mediator say her contact information. Our proposal is to find people who have a story and have advice to share, and connect them with people who might want to foster or are fostering and have questions. It’s a support system for those who want to be anonymous on another level. But instead of just a support group, you can also reach across countries, states, religions, etc. For example, someone struggling as a LGBTQ foster parent can have a personal conversation with someone who is a LGBTQ foster parent in a different state, but instead of over email, there is a personal proxy who fosters the conversation and makes you feel less alone. We also talked about Duolingo and how it was mutually beneficial to translate the language and to double check to make sure the translation is correct. We think a mutually beneficial component in this is to, instead of actors like Conflict Kitchen, use social workers in training to be the mediators. They can’t talk or give their own feedback, but can observe, take in, listen to all these stories, and gain a whole another experience before they are fully trained.

2. Foster Care Trial Period: For people who are considering fostering, there seems to be a fairly large gap between the information that’s readily available and the dive into registration and training. Becoming a foster parent is a huge commitment without much of a visible onboarding process before actually signing up. We are proposing a way for someone who’s considering becoming a foster parent to get a “trial period” and be connected to a current foster family. After the foster family spends time with the potential foster parent and creates a trusting relationship with him/her, the potential foster parent would be able to provide babysitting services so that the current foster parents could go on a date. There also might be opportunities for a potential foster parent to bring along a friend who is more cursorily interested in finding out more to meet the family, creating a more personal connection to the foster care system.

3. “Help line” for Foster parents: This proposal would connect a large-scale network of people who have either been foster parents in the past, currently foster parents or even ex-foster children who sign up to provide real time stories/experiences/guidance for foster parents who have questions. This service would be mostly web-based, where users with foster backgrounds can sign up to provide support for people with similar stories. The service will have users fill out an initial survey that will help inform the service to make the “best match” for individual cases. The connections could be hosted via phone, FaceTime, or face to face. This proposal would provide an “in between” counseling service for foster parents in need of advice.