A human-centred theory of change

We’re using emotion mapping to understand what really makes a difference in social interventions

I’ve lived without a shower or hot water for the past week after moving house. It’s not been that bad — swimming one morning and washing at a friend’s the next. But it added an extra layer of planning to each day and disrupted my fairly simple morning routine, where instead of thinking about getting to work on time and what I’m going to do when I’m there, I was thinking about where I was going to leave a wet towel and whether I’d remembered to put my moisturiser in my handbag. First world problems, I know.

That small disruption in my life got me thinking about what it’s like to live with chaos and unpredictability on a daily basis. The kind of experience that many people who Good Things Foundation work with have when they’re dealing with life on a low-income, in unsuitable housing or without a home at all.

Just a take look at this emotion mapping of five learners we carried out in a recent workshop. It shows people come to an Online Centre in a state of distress, feel more positive while they’re at a centre and then experience another, small dip in mood when it comes to leaving, depending on what they’re going on to do next.

Five learners before, during and after a visit to a centre
In general, people arrive distressed and leave happier
We can pinpoint specific triggers that affect a person’s emotional state

Making decisions that come with unpredictable life circumstances is tiring. It saps mental energy that needs recharging. When that energy is low it’s hard to make decisions — especially good decisions. It’s why President Obama always ate the same thing for lunch and Steve Jobs wore the same style of clothes for 40 years.

We see the impact of this ‘decision fatigue’ on the people who come to our online centres. Often they’re dealing with multiple problems at one time and layers of unpredictability — from having their benefits sanctioned to not being able to pay the electricity meter, or learning that their partner’s asylum application has failed to wondering if their employer will give them enough hours that week to feed their children.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Behavioural Insights Team published a report that made this issue crystal clear: you’re not poor because you make bad decisions, you make bad decisions because you’re poor.

We’ve started exploring how Good Things Foundation’s Online Centres Network supports people with this decision fatigue and we’re developing a theory of change that is based in behavior, emotion and relationships. You might call it a ‘human-centred theory of change’.

We know that when people come into a centre they leave feeling better. This is partly because they’ll have taken part in some learning activity, like an English class or a course on Learn My Way. But it’s for a number of other reasons too:

Being able to have a safe space where they’re warm and it’s quiet.

Being looked in the eye and talked to as a person for the first time in week.

Being asked ‘how are you?’ and having the time to answer.

Being trusted to use an iPad without someone worrying they’ll try to steal it.

I’d argue that the most important thing our centres have to offer isn’t the internet access or a particular class. It’s the people who work and volunteer in the centre and the impact they have on the life of someone who’s looking for help. At the end of the day, centres are only as good as the space they create for relationships between staff and learners, or learners and other learners. It not just about the project or the programme — it’s about people talking to people, treating each other like human beings.