Designing tech for social good

My dissertation sought to build and evaluate a bespoke persuasive technology for social good, by streaming evidence-based parent training videos to parents of children engaged in short-term residential treatment.

Often, when children return home from similar intensive settings, parents express uncertainty in how to sustain/build upon a child’s recently initiated therapeutic gains, which can put a child’s treatment gains at risk.

To address this problem, in collaboration with a residential treatment program in the Northeastern US, I created and evaluated a bespoke online parenting intervention in a three-phase research series, grounded in the Fogg Behavior Model to activate parent engagement.

Video intervention

In total, 41 videos were created and hosted on Vimeo, each 3–7 minutes in length to increase the perception of simplicity. Prompts were sent to parents when new videos were released, directing them to the intervention, across the time that children were in treatment.

Videos featured content from the evidence-based parenting interventions Collaborative Problem Solving and Positive Behavior Support.

Phase 1 evaluated program usability, Phase 2 explored impacts of the program on parenting self-efficacy and parenting stress, and Phase 3 analyzed the follow-up impacts of the online program eight weeks after children had returned home.

Phase 1

As the online program was developed from scratch, problem discovery for this minimally viable product was essential to detect and resolve barriers to usability.

Five participants were interviewed using an in-person think-aloud usability task, whereby each participant engaged with video content. Unless requested, minimal support from the researcher was offered.

Results revealed that some parents requested and required extensive help from the researcher, and that while the intervention was designed for simplicity, parents with less technology familiarity needed extensive supports to complete the usability study. Prompts were added at the end of each video to encourage ‘next step’ behaviors.

Phase 2

Across the study period, 68 parents participated in an online survey evaluating parenting self-efficacy and parenting stress.

Mean parenting self-efficacy minimally increased while children were away, and minimally decreased when children returned home; an inverse effect was found for parenting stress.

Linear mixed models predicting change from the number of video starts (i.e., intervention dosage) revealed no significant parent-level changes. Models predicting the influence of parenting self-efficacy and parenting stress when controlling for parent age and parent single status were also non-significant.

Minimal change in mean parenting self-efficacy
Minimal change in mean parenting stress

Phase 3

Twenty parents were interviewed via phone about the extent to which they believed the online program had positively influenced their parenting.

While all parents described some benefit of the program, just 5% felt the program had helped form robust new parenting habits grounded in the online training.

In a surprising finding, visualizations of video use data revealed that videos were shared broadly among informal parenting networks.

The majority of video viewing occurred while children were in residential treatment; just 3% of videos were watched when children returned home.

Thematic quotes across parents

“I think, like most parents who bring their children to residential treatment, they’ve come to a place where they feel they can’t handle things on their own.”

“So our experience with [the online training]…we, kind of, dreaded it. And I don’t want to say we felt like we would pooh-pooh it. We were like, oh really? Rats. You know? This was going to be our time…a little bit of time with just regular life at home, and now we were going to have all this. Actually, as it evolved, we really, really, really enjoyed it.”

“… there’s a big disconnect when you’re learning how to work on all these things, but your child is somewhere else. And you’re not really sure what’s going on with him there. You know what I mean? And our coordinator, being in the Boston office, doesn’t really know what’s happening up in [New Hampshire] — even though she can read the notes — like what’s happening actually at camp, so how can you kind of pool it all together? It was just a little separate this year, the family therapy part of it.”

“I really liked the videos. I thought they were very informative, and they made a lot of sense. And they were short enough where I could break them up. It wasn’t like three-hour long sessions every week. I think it was pretty well developed just because sometimes you only have that few minutes. So to have a video broken up into like…five or 10 minutes, was really nice.”

“Well, we shared it with [CHILD NAME]’s psychologist. I just shared the first like, the first set of it. Because I’m like, this is what they’re trying to go through here. You know, this is a good thing. Because she’s like kind of our family psychologist. My daughter also goes to her. And so she’s the one — she’s kind of been in the trenches with us forever. So we shared that with her.”

Videos were loaded in the US, Mexico, Brazil, England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden and Russia
Videos were played and completed in the US, England, Spain, and the Netherlands
Within the US, videos were loaded in 37 states
Within the US, videos were played in 32 states
Size of bubble = number of daily video starts. Most videos were played when children were engaged in residential treatment (late June to mid-August). The two days with the greatest use were in the 24–48 hours after parents had just visited with their child in person (first day of Child Drop-off, and mid-summer on Visitor’s Day). Click here for larger graphic.


Parents can and will use an online video intervention in support of their child. More work must be done to respond to the important feedback provided by parents about the intergration of skills that children are learning in residential care, and the skills that parents may be learning to extend residential benefits.

Usability studies should seek to understand human behavior using a wide lens to appreciate the influences that intersecting environments can have on product use; usability is contextual.

Digital interventions for social good should be expanded based on the expressed needs of underprivileged groups to enhance the human condition.


My name is Winslow Robinson, and I design and evaluate products for social good. If you have an offer, opportunity or introduction involving human-centered design, let’s connect! You can reach me at, via LinkedIn, or through my website.

Winslow Robinson, PhD, MSSW

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Leveraging design thinking for social good.

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