Distilling Complexity

At the beginning of the quarter, our design team, Ana, Allison and I, undertook a partnership with a local non-profit committed to ending and preventing homelessness here in Austin. Through our engagement with this organization, we hoped to understand how staff organizes around identifying and working towards the goals of their program participants.

With this focus in mind, we undertook a cyclical process of looking and making. Our ‘looking’ began with contextual inquiry and interviews. In observing emotion and behavior of program managers, case managers, and administrative staff, we provoked conversation where research participants were the masters of their experiences. This approach created space for genuine interactions where authentic data could be captured.

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Chris Pacione, Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy

Moving towards ‘making,’ we externalized interview transcripts into tangible bits of data or “utterances.” After making data tangible, we studied for patterns across utterances. This allowed us to create themes, expressing common attitudes, behaviors, and emotions.

This blog post arrives at service slices, a new making and forming method. Service slices are diagrammatic models that promote a stronger understanding of data by encouraging us to interact with it in a new way. It is simply one method of making to make sense.

The immediate purpose of service slices is to map out our transcribed interviews to help us identify relationships to power, policy, influence, emotion, artifact, behavior, environment, and information exchange.


At the same time, as we began to overlap those transcriptions, patterns emerged and connections we’d identified earlier were made more or less concrete.


 Those patterns helped us clarify the goals we would have for how to slope into a simple distillation of this complexity:

  • To demonstrate the complexity of an individual’s experience within the constraints of a system.
  • To humanize those individuals whose stories give shape to our work.
  • To demonstrate the barriers that impact a person’s journey in seeking services.
  • To demonstrate how and where the service provider has impact on a person’s journey.

This assignment pushed us to visually synthesize data. We found ourselves making, drawing together – – artifacts, pyramids, environments – to help articulate how we understood the patterns emerging from the more complex diagram. Ana, a graphic designer by trade, found her stride in understanding the complexity when she could distill into a presentation format – a skillset Allison and I continue to develop.

 Where we had, in the past, stayed up until 3, 4 in the morning the nights prior to client and class presentation, we found ourselves producing much sooner, understanding our angle, how we wanted people to feel, how we wanted to distill complexity to develop understanding and empathy.

Making artifacts earlier provided the opportunity to seek feedback, from both Jon and our peers. We found that as our team made sense of the complex information exhibited in our artifacts, they become increasingly challenging to articulate to others. What felt less complex to us was still a lot of information to digest in one sitting. Their insights helped us better understand and refine. 

Before we present several slides from our class presentation, we need to preface with a realization that a critical perspective that had been missing from our research was that of prospective program participants themselves. We took ourselves back into the field to continue looking and, through our conversations with individuals experiencing homelessness and seeking services, we heard about the unique barriers each person faces.

The aim of these diagrams is to convey the complexity of barriers these individuals face – unique to their circumstances, and unique to how they are able to navigate available services. While we attempt to distill complexity, we also recognize this system is not linear nor is it homogeneous. It is unique to each person who navigates it.

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Stefano spoke with us about his frustration with the Coordinated Entry/Assessment process. Agencies that receive federal funding are required to use Continuum of Care protocol which determines best practices for taking in new clients. Clients are put onto a waitlist with a score from VISPIDAT – a vulnerability index which takes into consideration an individual’s health, their age, how long they’ve been without a fixed home, what trauma they’ve experienced. There is a lack of transparency around the index – for both the public in knowing what factors are included as well as for individuals on the list, who need to return to physical locations for updates on where they are. 

Each new person added to the list may bump another person further down, as has been the case for Stefano. A friend of his checked the list only to find she had moved from 200 down to 400. The waiting process reinforces his view that he is not considered vulnerable enough. Stefano described himself as the face of “the middle class homeless,” not young enough, not sick enough.

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The standard best practice was implemented to alleviate the issue that only those persons who were best able to self-advocate would receive aid; leaving those persons experiencing chronic homelessness, often with underlying health barriers, in the wind. We see this as Horst Rittel might, where “every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” Stefano is left in limbo, stuck in a holding pattern.

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Several participants from within the organization have expressed similar concern for the barriers that exist and we are left wondering, how do service providers create or reinforce barriers? How do service providers exist within or maintain those barriers? And how do they mitigate or remove those barriers?

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Our research focus, incredibly simplistic at the outset, continues to expand and narrow, shift and return and reinvigorate. Each wicked problem presents another set of wicked problems. We wonder how are we the people to attempt to address this? We also feel empowered by this process, empowered by the potential for design having an impact. We’re reminded of Pilloton – working locally, and we’re reminded of Norman – working for incremental, gradual change. It helps us contextualize our ‘power’ and reframe that we are privileged to have this access, to hold the trust of our clients as well as our trust in the process and with each other. We look forward to continuing to share this journey with you and invite you to reach out with your insights and feedback.