Photo by Alyssa Schukar for The Urban Institute

How Can Human-Centered Design Uncover Policy Solutions?

Data@Urban
Jan 14 · 7 min read

After 50 years of impactful research touching a wide range of social and economic issues, the Urban Institute used this milestone anniversary to look ahead to new priorities and bodies of work. To increase our impact, we realized we need to do a better job of including the voices and leadership of the people we study. We have found ways to gather feedback from communities on research findings, and we host community-based discussions to help form research agendas. But we also need a way to meaningfully engage stakeholders in formulating solutions.

To address this gap, Urban hosted our first-ever design challenge in 2019 and incorporated the process of “design thinking” into the Foundations for the Future of Housing conference. Design thinking is a creative process for problem solving that emphasizes improving the end user’s experience, based on a core belief that the customer holds key insights to informing solutions. Historically rooted in science, design, and engineering, this process is becoming more widespread throughout the business, technology, and public sectors.

Why host a design challenge?

Urban’s Research to Action Lab engages on-the-ground changemakers to understand their needs and connect them with policy solutions. Research to Action Lab staff planned the conference in collaboration with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to highlight progress at the close of the foundation’s housing investments, acknowledge the work that remains, and find solutions for improving resident outcomes. Halfway through planning the conference, we realized we needed a big and bold offering to accomplish these goals.

We explained to our funder and external advisory committee that design thinking might help participants shift from a typical, top-down policy approach to focus on understanding resident experiences. We also wanted to arm participants with practical, hands-on skills from sectors outside of housing they could implement back home. A design challenge could also teach participants about the process of design thinking in an interactive way. MacArthur and our advisors agreed and were excited about our approach.

Getting the audience on board

Out of 350 housing providers and their partners attending the conference, 100 opted in to the design challenge. During conference registration, participants could indicate their interest for one of three optional design challenge tracks organized around solving a housing-related problem:

  • How might we increase resident stability?
  • How might we foster resident well-being?
  • How might we advance racial equity?

Because we decided to add the design challenge just five months before the conference, one of our biggest challenges was preparing and formulating teams. About two-thirds of registered participants brought their own teams, and for other interested attendees, we formed teams based on their preferred track, organization, and geographic area.

We also invested time before and during the conference educating participants about the design thinking process and how the fast pace and unique approach might feel unusual. We spent a lot of time emphasizing the organic, iterative nature of the process up front. Through two webinars and extensive email outreach, we explained the key tenets of design thinking, outlined recommendations for how to form a team and choose a challenge question, and provided optional prework to learn more about residents’ perspectives. We also spent a significant amount of time emailing with team captains to confirm their team members and tracks.

Taking participants through the process

The design thinking process generally follows the steps of defining a problem through empathy and observation, gathering inspiration, ideating potential solutions, prototyping and testing new ideas, gathering feedback, and iterating. We aimed to cover as much of the process as possible at the event.

Each of the conference breakout tracks had five slots of 90 minutes over three days. The first two sessions laid the groundwork by defining the problem, reviewing what we know about what works, and gathering inspiration from untested but innovative approaches.

A design challenge team finalizes their resident journey maps before pitching to the selection committee. Alyssa Schukar for Urban Institute.
A design challenge team creates a poster representing their idea before pitching to the selection committee. Alyssa Schukar for Urban Institute.

Teams spent the afternoon of the second day in a three-hour design lab. Teams learned about journey mapping, a tool that illustrates one resident’s experience and their challenges related to housing. Based on the journey maps, each team chose a moment they wanted to design around. The rest of the time was spent brainstorming a wide range of ideas and, finally, narrowing to one new idea.

A design challenge team brainstorms new ideas for improving resident stability. Katrina Ballard for Urban Institute.

The brainstorming process involved listing stakeholders that might be involved in a solution — such as local government, hospitals, schools, and residents themselves — as a table heading. The far-left column listed potential levers of change, such as new programs, technology, or communications. Then, teams came up with as many ideas as possible at the intersection of different stakeholders and levers of change, while facilitators encouraged them to ignore resource constraints.

After brainstorming a wide range of ideas, teams chose their top five and charted them on a matrix with feasibility represented on the y axis and desirability on the x axis. Participants placed each idea at an estimated intersection of the idea’s viability and interest from residents. Finally, the teams choose their top idea.

A member of a design challenge team presents their new idea to the selection committee at the Foundations for the Future of Housing conference on October 30, 2019. Alyssa Schukar for Urban Institute.

On the last day, each team pitched their idea to a selection committee made up of Urban Institute senior researchers, members of Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), conference advisors, and residents from Full Circle Communities, Inc. A winning team from each track received $5,000 from FHO and technical assistance from Urban to continue working on their idea.

Reflections and recommendations for using design thinking

The design challenge helped us achieve our goals of making sessions interactive and offering practical tools, and it was a great exercise for participants who wanted to learn more about design thinking. In a closing survey, participants rated the design labs’ audience engagement and participation 4.7 out of 5, higher than the 4.5 average for other breakout sessions.

The design challenge fostered new ideas for improving resident outcomes, but carrying out a true design thinking process during a single, conference-style event is not feasible. We didn’t have time or the right stakeholders in the room to complete the prototyping and testing steps in the process. With additional follow-up events, teams could return to their communities to test their ideas and reconvene after to keep iterating based on feedback. Ideally, a design challenge would take place in the community, along with a wide range of stakeholders who touch the problem statement.

Based on feedback, we’ve documented the following lessons for future design challenges:

· Use a question like “how might the housing field advance racial equity?” to narrow in on a design challenge theme and focus the teams’ work.

· Use facilitators trained in the design thinking process to participate in designing the session, along with cofacilitators who are experts in the content area.

· Use a workbook for all participants to use throughout the design lab. This was most helpful when facilitators referred to pages in the workbook as they were introducing new activities.

· Be adaptable to ensure the process meets participants’ unique needs and the constraints of the space.

If we were to run another design challenge, here’s what we would do differently:

· Use standalone workshops rather than a conference format. We recommend breaking the process into several one-day events with time to iterate between sessions. In comments, many participants said they wanted more time. Design thinking involves prototyping and testing ideas in the community, but these phases were not feasible during a conference. We encouraged participants to complete these steps back home.

· Require prework, like observing the problem firsthand, engaging with end users, and experiencing the existing service. We recommend teams conduct some qualitative research before beginning the process, such as interviews, focus groups, or surveys.

· Assign individuals to existing teams and require teams to bring people they are serving. We want to focus the teams’ work, elevate their effectiveness, and increase the likelihood the teams will take subsequent action. In the racial equity track, teams composed of individuals — those who didn’t sign up in a group — ended up splitting to join other community-based teams. Remember, flexibility is key in design thinking!

To learn more, check out these resources:

· IDEO U: IDEO U’s online school offers courses, certificates, and free resources, including The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

· The Collective Action Toolkit: The Collective Action Toolkit from frog is a free, downloadable workbook for using human-centered design to affect change.

· Stanford’s d.school: Stanford University’s d.school offers a curated collection of resources from its classes and workshops.

-Katrina Ballard

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