Pocket Hotline Pitch – AC4D Q3 Recap

The impetus for Pocket Hotline lies deep within the research Chap and I conducted at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). After 8+ weeks of observing, interviewing, listening and testing, we learned that there were a few breakdowns in the ARCH client service system. One particular breakdown centered around the front desk. It was always busy, no- swamped. Homeless clients were repeatedly asking the front desk staff the same group of questions over and over. As staff were repeatedly answering these questions and the phone kept interrupting the conversation with similar repeated questions. The staff was spending its time doing the same rote tasks while preventing themselves from accomplishing the tasks in which they were highly trained.
“Getting that information when you are the only one sitting at the desk and there are five people yelling at you is tough.”

The evolution of Nudge

Nudge is a communication service to connect case managers and families experiencing homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings. We believe that strategically increasing the amount of low-key communication will enable case managers to serve clients better, enable clients to reach out for help, save time on both ends, and increase the support available to families. This increased support will help families stay on-track as they move toward achieving their goals.

My biggest takeaway from the quarter:

Research is no excuse to delay designing.Design is no excuse to stop researching.

Ryan and I have been through multiple, overlapping research/synthesis/prototype cycles during the process of Nudge. Part of this was due to logistics: since the beginning of the quarter, we have been wanting to partner with a local organization who works with families experiencing homelessness, but our ability to meet with one only came through during the last week of the quarter. After procrastinating for a few weeks at the beginning of the quarter waiting on interviews that kept getting rescheduled, we plunged in and started designing in the spirit of rapid prototyping. After all, we did have all of our knowledge from the class’s 8 weeks of research, my previous conversations with teen moms in shelter, and Ryan’s discussions with people in AA to inform our best guesses. We had gotten to a point where we had a framework for a theory of change—help people strengthen support networks to increase success and prevent return to homelessness. So we stopped talking, and we started making.

And we kept talking to people. We were doing many steps in the design process simultaneously: research, synthesis, design, development. During the process, I felt like we were getting sidetracked, and I questioned whether we should still be doing “research” and scheduling interviews. For instance, we couldn’t talk to any families, so we talked to some people at ARCH and in transitional housing. This confused us for awhile because these clients—who have experienced chronic homelessness, addiction, and intensive case management—have very different needs than families who are temporarily homeless. But we wouldn’t have figured that out without having done those interviews. Each time, we came out with more “clay” to work with. True, we needed more time to synthesize those experiences, but the culminating insights were valuable. And when things started clicked during the last week of the quarter, and I was finally able to fit our Nudge product into a compelling story framework that made sense with our research and the needs of the people we’ve been talking to, it felt pretty magical.

Each time we did anything—whether that was an interview, moving forward with our coded prototype, or drafting our story—it felt like we could get deeper and more specific. At one point or another, our project has evolved through the following themes: co-design, safety nets, asset protection, stress release, support systems, mood-tracking, and communication. Our focus has now landed on the specific need of “communication of case managers and families experiencing temporary homelessness in-between face-to-face meetings.”

It reconfirms for me the value of rapid prototyping—even if it’s oftentimes difficult to just start. Also, the quick cycles of research/synthesize/prototype feel akin to agile software development. Lastly, it reminds me that the design process is messy, individual, and unique to the needs of each project and project team…I’m starting to embrace that messiness and have to keep reminding myself that there is no right “answer” to where we should be in the process. The only wrong answer is to do nothing.

Up next for us:

  • Talk to and co-design with families
  • Pilot Nudge with case managers and clients (or some other group: high school teacher and students maybe?)
  • Answer lots of really hard questions as we try to wrap a business model around Nudge
  • Talk to people in the mobile space or who have worked on mobile projects. Please email us if you have any suggestions.

Strategies for improving the quality of care for the homeless

Students at Austin Center for Design have spent the last eight weeks working to better understand the systemic view of homelessness in Austin – a problem that’s visibly present to those of us who work and live downtown, and a problem that seems to be intractable. Our students have worked with stakeholders at Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to understand some of the issues they face, and they’ve immersed themselves in the culture of homelessness in order to better empathize with those affected. On Saturday, December 18th, the students presented their work-in-progress (primarily design research and synthesis) to the Director of Development and Communications at Frontsteps, Mitchell Gibbs, and to Dawn Perkins, the Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator. The response was excellent – Mitchell described that the students had effectively shifted his perspective on the topic, and had opened his eye to a new way of understanding. Students will continue to work through design over the next sixteen weeks, with the intention of creating working software, service, and product solutions to help mitigate the issues they’ve uncovered.

Students have spent time sleeping on the street, volunteering at the computer lab, volunteering at soup kitchens as well as conducting interviews. Many of the interviews involved participatory activities as well as questions and answers. Students have met with case managers, organizing staff at Front Steps and other organizations, individuals on the street, clients of the organizations, and funding directors to gain understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Below is a brief summary of the students’ findings; you can read more in the attached documents (see below).


Our research changed our perception of homelessness. The project became about the individuals we spoke to and their stories. Through our conversations we realized that society’s perception of homelessness is wrong. The perception of many is formed by the image of the “man on the street with a sign and a cup”, but that describes a very small portion of the population. In fact, many of the homeless – the “clients” – are women and children or adults that recently lost their jobs. Our research uncovered other perception issues surrounding organizations addressing homelessness; we’ve separated these into four categories. While these are specific recommendations for ARCH, there are obviously generalities that can be applied by other organizations, in other cities, that are focusing on the same topic and dealing with many of the same issues.

1. Treat donors like advocates. Currently, the majority of the funding for Front Steps is from the city of Austin. This funding is restricted, dependent on the political climate, and often attached to specific programming. Nearly all grants, in fact, are attached to specific projects, and nearly all forcibly reject funding for administrative tasks and activities. Encouraging individual donors will help diversify funding for Front Steps in the future, and will allow for a more fluid use of funds as appropriate within the organization. To shift towards a more individual-focus for donations, it’s critical to treat donors like advocates, and to arrive at this, the following strategies can be used.

  • Share the stories of your clients with the community. Provide opportunities for individuals to connect to the people rather than the problem. There are a number of vivid and impressive success stories that occur at ARCH and through the various case management activities, but these successes are often lost in the larger view of the “intractable problem.” Celebrate the successes, and share them proactively.
  • Develop internal programs to educate staff and the board about funding, with a specific emphasis on empathy and relationship. Help them understand it is not about asking for money. Track supporters first, donors second, and provide opportunities for your donors to share their stories and become advocates.

2. Make space for planning. Embrace the constraint of a limited staff, and give yourself the runway to take a broader view of the work you are doing. Instead of reacting to your clients’ most urgent needs in the heat of the moment, anticipate and proactively plan to help them meet their more important and long-term goals. By taking time to reflect, you’ll be able to build on what is already working. Creating breathing space for your staff to get out of crisis mode will shift the tone of your organization. Make time to plan like an architect. Build blueprints based around your mission and your client experiences. Become proactive, rather than reactive by considering the following tactics:

  • Find space and time in the work week for planning and collaboration among staff members. Design opportunities for staff to share success and frustrations with each other in order to improve the overall approach.
  • Dedicate team members or specific times for “fire fighting,” so not all staff members have to man the front lines every day.
  • Plan for common client challenges. Design strategies to address client needs before challenges turn into crises, and before clients have to ask for a solution. Create a culture of action, where individuals are empowered to try things that may be outside of the confines of a specific set of policies or procedures .

3. Support understanding through rigorous data collection. Clients want to be understood. Collecting data can be challenging, but it is an important part of providing great service, as the more data and understanding you have about your clients the easier it is to develop appropriate programs (not to mention fund them!) Standardizing procedures for data collection and focusing on the clients will improve Front Steps’ overall understanding of the clients.

  • Standardize procedures and implement consistency in your communication amongst the staff and to the clients. This will help make the procedures easier to understand.
  • Collect the client information in a tiered fashion, thereby breaking the data gathering into chunks. Expedite registration by providing access to registration forms online and printed forms at ARCH that can be filled out before they meet with staff.
  • Develop systems that facilitate easy sharing of data between agencies. Link the IDs clients are using between the agencies, so they do not have to repeat the in-take process.

4. Empower clients to help one another. Clients have a lot to offer and want to help. Providing opportunities that incorporate fun and collaboration will give them new opportunities to explore and discover their strengths. Focusing on strengths and building their confidence will improve their self-perception. Clients are your biggest advocates; think about how you can create an environment that unlocks clients’ skills and their potential by trying the following tactics:

  • Design programs that focus on the clients’ skills and passions in addition to their needs.
  • Create opportunities for the clients to collaborate and help others based on their skills and knowledge.
  • Design opportunities that incorporate the ideals of play and fun for the clients to explore new interests in a safe environment and build social skills.

Download more information

You can download the final report provided to ARCH, and a series of printable posters with these main ideas, below:

Getting back on your feet again

This is not just a story about little ducklings. This is not just a test of your empathy and heartstrings—or of your sense of humor. This is a story about how people can lose their way, and how they can find it again.

After doing a lot of research, especially when you’re in synthesis mode, everything starts to relate to your research. But what made me do a double-take with this video was the fact that we heard young moms (who are temporarily homeless) say: “I hope to soon be on my feet again.” I watched the video again and realized it illustrates a lot of the themes we’ve been seeing in our research about women experiencing homelessness.

The story that makes sense of the research

We’re all trying to navigate this big wide-open possibility space that is life.

Life is great. You have a goal. You’re part of some kind of community.

Some kind of crisis knocks you off your feet. You’re disoriented.

You find yourself away from your support system. Or isolated—physically and/or emotionally.

You’re still struggling, and a friend or family member finds you. Maybe you don’t want to get help, or don’t want to go to the shelter for “directionless duckies,” but your friend/advocate pushes you to just apply. They hold your hand during the first step of the process.

You see that there are other people who are in your same situation to connect with. You start to help each other form a new family. When you see a new person in the same situation, you tell them, “I know how you feel. I was scared, too.”

You’re still a little off-balance. You can’t do things on your own yet, but you know you’ll be able to in the future. For a time, you need some strong directional leadership or authority in your life, leading you in the right direction. You see a map of where you are going because you’re following in others’ footsteps, and you regain your confidence and your bearing.

The research behind the story

Kat and I talked to some women at a local shelter for young moms. We were impressed by the space, their strong bonds, and their drive. Our talks focused less on homelessness and more on their goals and what they were doing in their lives. In fact, we both felt uncomfortable using the word “homelessness” when explaining our research because we didn’t want to imply that they were “homeless” or that they lived in a “shelter.” We realized afterward it was because they don’t perceive themselves as homeless, even though they technically are under the federal definitions. We think this is a strength of the program.

“It’s scary at first. I know exactly what you’re going through. When I first came, I was scared. I just didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been in this situation, and I never expected to be in this situation. And then it got better when I started to talk to everybody, and them saying to me it’s going to be all right, telling me about the housing and the GED classes…[There’s support] because there’s people to talk to when you’re down. I’m making friends. When I was living out there with the youngest two’s dad, I just stayed home. I never did nothin’.” ~Miranda, 23, who hopes to soon be on her feet again.

These were some of the themes we observed:

  • Each needed an advocate to help them find or apply to the shelter.
  • For each, there was a barrier in their perception of what a “shelter” or “homeless” was in their minds. Once they saw the place, met the people, stayed a bit, they quickly saw that this place was nothing like what they had imagined.
  • There was some kind of isolation in many people’s past, and getting out of that was key.
  • Support from a group of peers going through similar life situations has long-lasting impact. Some of the moms who have moved out and exited the program often come back to visit or hang out.
  • Having a goal, and a roadmap, and constant checks to keep them on track helps people to navigate the larger picture.
  • They were all motivated, and they all had (or found) their drive once they were in the program. Oftentimes, their babies, their kids were a huge part of that motivation. Their youth didn’t hurt either.

Design Research Toolkit

She carries this black bag with her at all times. Day in and day out, everywhere she goes. But what does it hold? School books and art supplies? Secrets and lady things? Blueprints and wireframes? A change of clothes and a wig for quick getaways?

Do not be fooled!

One unassuming bag can contain a treasure trove of data capture for our keen young designer.

As they say:Always be prepared.

[Cue theme music.]

Importance of client experience

This week’s take away from our project was the importance of client experience. When we synthesized our data, we found that almost everyone we talked to emphasized the importance of client experience on some level. Further, it was interesting to note that people who were associated with administrative activities cared about external perceptions (community awareness) while the people who were line workers didn’t care about it much. On the contrary, the opinions were reversed when thinking about quality control.

Matrix showing synthesis results

One question I keep asking myself is on the importance of client experience. Why is it important for these people? Is it because it makes their lives easier or is it because they carry empathy with what their clients undergo? If a design solution makes client experience easier but does not the lives of the employees, does the weight of this perception change in the above matrix? Don’t know..but will find out.

Following the Money

When choosing the focus for our design research, Julia and I were torn between a client service like transitional housing or looking behind the scenes at the less sexy but ever important process of raising money for the organization.  Ultimately, focusing on fundraising seemed further out of our comfort zones as designers (which, after all, is what school is all about), so we dove into the difficult and often uncomfortable world of asking people for money.

When it comes to funding, the biggest challenge at Front Steps is well-known to them and will probably be quickly obvious to you:

Front Steps Current Funding Distribution

It doesn’t take much to understand the dangers of having a single source of funding dominate your revenue.  The problem is even more difficult when that source is the city:

Problems with City Funding

Restricted: Designated for ARCH and existing programs, making innovation difficult.Precarious: Dependent on political climate and funding priorities of the city.Dominates revenue: Unlikely as it is, it would be devastating to Front Steps if the funding were cut.

As I mentioned, Front Steps is well-aware of the issue and has recently hired a great new director of development to help them address the problem.  We spoke with him after he’d only been on the job for a couple of weeks and we were impressed by the firm grasp he had on the organization and his creative ideas for securing new funding.  He also had a clear opinion on what a healthy funding distribution would look like [more after the jump]:

Continue reading Following the Money

Challenges of design research on wicked problems

I’ve noticed that some of the same challenges of design research are more pronounced when doing design research about wicked problems or for the social sector.

  • You often need an additional pre-research phase up-front to get your “head in the game.” Last quarter, we researched recycling and my group focused on farmer’s markets; since I’ve been to farmer’s markets before and felt comfortable at them, I already had past experiences in that space and could wrap my head around the “problem.” When we started our research project with ARCH about homelessness, I needed those first couple of weeks to get into the space—physical, metaphorical, and psycho-mental-emotional—before I even start to wrap my head around our research plan. We should have just all spent a full day at ARCH observing and talking to people, bootcamp-style or experience-audit-style, much earlier on…to force us to dive in.
  • You have to be much more careful about ethics. Any time you’re working with at-risk populations, you have to take more care with consent, compensation, and what you end up doing with the data that you gather. When you’re shadowing a case manager and her client meeting rather than an office worker using software, confidentiality becomes much more of an issue. On a purely logistical level, this also means you just end up with a lot less video and photography, too, because you’ll find yourself in more situations where it seems inappropriate to be recording things.
  • Contacting people and scheduling interviews is more difficult. On the one hand, we have bureaucracies and tangled systems and super busy people to schedule interviews with. On the other hand, with some of our populations and the large organizations that serve them, we’re having to get our research approved ahead of time. On yet another hand, we’re talking to people who often don’t have addresses or phone numbers; they may be transient or only temporarily in Austin. Participatory homework assignments, cultural probes, or even follow-up questions becomes trickier.
  • Trust is hard-earned. Some of our research surrounds truly challenging parts of other people’s lives, and they may not want to talk to us about it with us—especially if we can’t do anything to help in the immediate future, or if they could be spending that time telling the same story to a case manager. And some of the people we’re working with (especially now that Kat and I are narrowing our focus to women who are experiencing homelessness) have had to build up walls in order to survive. We want to hear their stories, and we want to drill down into the nitty gritty details and the whys and wherefores…but if we only have a one-shot half-hour conversation, we might not be able to get as deep as we need to for the most valuable insights.
  • Focus is hard (1). Tangents and stories and sidetracked conversations abound. Because we’re trying to be sensitive to our “interviewees,” and because we want to earn their trust, we find ourselves trying to get as much information as we can while carrying on informal conversations with many of them.
  • Focus is hard (2). Focus means a small slice of the pie. It’s the only way to have true impact, but it still feels bad to ignore the rest of the pie. Plus, these problems are so entangled and co-existing, that’s it’s hard to discern which small part of the system is the most interesting or the most impactful or the most entangled or the most culpable.
  • “You’re from the suburbs, aren’t you, sweetie?” You’re going to be outside your comfort zone, you’re going to feel really naïve, you’re probably going to have to confront your own inner assumptions, biases, stereotypes, monsters at some point. You’ll be talking to people who you never normally would talk to. It’s great, it’s uncomfortable, it sucks, it’s tremendously valuable, it’s hard, it’s awesome, it’s enlightening, it’s inspiring, it’s scary, it gets easier, it’s empowering, and it’s still hard.
  • Fine line between helping and rescuing. I think we’ll be grappling with this one for a long time. But it’s really hard not to perpetuate the us vs. them mentality. And it’s really hard to keep that mindset of “I want to step in and help you” in check. I think most of us are on-board with the “design with” and co-creation methods in theory, but it’s much harder to put them into practice when so many external factors push you in the opposite direction.
  • Not having a real client. For better or for worse, projects are much more contained when you have a real client who’s paying you for your work. Defining focus or making decisions become easier when you have some constraints to work within. Having that relationship with a company or organization also helps with making in-roads in scheduling interviews or contextual inquiries.

Like I said, it doesn’t feel like these challenges are unique to our design research. They just feel more amplified because we are 1) new to research and 2) working in a new sector. I’m curious if others in the class are feeling similarly or if they’ve come up with their own unique challenges because of their specific focus area.

Let's reframe case management

Yes, I’m blogging on Thanksgiving.I’ve already admitted to my compulsion to blog, and to be fair, this holiday is all about marinating. It always happens that when you’re marinating in data, your insights come during the down times, after the concept models have been made, and you’re not scheduled for anything.

Last night, we started throwing out ideas about reducing wait times, point systems in exchange for service, getting people through the system quicker—half-baked ideas from our research at ARCH and surrounding homelessness. This led to us talking about games, leaderboards, incentives. We mapped out activities, actions, feelings along a user journey through a “game.” (Think people sitting around a sheet of brown paper with beer, throwing out ideas to a scribe with a sharpie. Wait, I think I have some visuals…)

Anyway, it was a useful exercise to blow out one idea and play it through in more detail, but I wasn’t completely sold on the game idea, and this morning I woke up realizing why. A game and incentives sort of assumes that we want you to keep working with the current system.

I think we need to rethink the current system.We talked to one woman in line at Trinity Center who was planning on going to MHMR for an intake appointment, so she can get a case manager to help her apply for housing.

You need a case manager because the system is so complicated. I have to do the footwork to get there and give them all my information, and then they’ll do the rest.

I drew a concept model! (Three weeks ago, I would have thought this through as a list or in writing, instead of with a model. These design tools are getting under my skin.)

In the current system (on the left), social workers become case managers who do all the organization, resource finding, system navigation, referrals FOR the clients. In the current system, many organizations feel like they need more case managers, period. And social workers are educated and trained to believe that a critical part of their job is to help clients navigate the system to get the resources they most need.

What if we change the system (model on the right), so that it’s easier for clients to navigate it on their own to find and obtain resources? What if we made it so easy, clients felt empowered enough to do so? What if social workers could spend more time doing the counseling and support work that they’re trained to do and less intake and referral? What if peer groups could support each other during the process? What if we created tools that automated some of the information management and data entry? What if we created a “wayfinding” system to help people navigate the system of social services?

It’s what happened in the travel industry.My mom used to be a travel agent with Summit Travel. She helped individual customers book flights across a system of airlines. Her travel agency went out of business, and she ended up working as a “city ticket officer” for Saudi Arabian Airlines, doing more specific work for the airline and its dedicated customers.

Individual customers now book their own flights with online tools that help them navigate the various airline options. Now that the middleman of the travel agent is gone, airlines have to cater to and compete for the “end-user.”

So why not remove the middlemen of case workers providing referrals and processing paperwork? Why not help people navigate the system themselves so they can connect directly with the services they need? Let’s design the parts of the social service system that we designers can actually influence, and give the people who deal with people (the counselors, social workers, psychologists, therapists) more time to work with people.