Strategic Pillar 2: Deepen Our Connection to the People We Serve

By Robert Phillips

I’ve learned over time that organizations focused on social change have a wealth of expertise and experience. With all of this intellectual energy, it’s easy to see why so many new ideas, approaches, and solutions are identified and developed.

Strategic Pillar 2: Deepen Our Connection to the People We Serve

Ryan Abshear speaking with Kelly Evans, left, at the Murphy Center for Hope as he participated in the Point-in-Time Survey which seeks to learn more about people in the area. (AP Photo/The Coloradoan, Erin Hull)

However, I’ve also learned an important lesson from tech development. In spite of all of this intellectual fire power, most of us are not that good at examining how people actually behave, interpreting what they demand (what we call user requirements), nor separating our own expectations from people’s actual behaviors.

At the heart of our efforts to merge policy and technology has to be a desire to create effective solutions and services that have a “solution-market fit.” This means our solutions should generate interest and income by ensuring every one of our solutions, services, and programs are built around a test-driven and user-led process.

Quite simply, we have to be about addressing the challenges people face in getting connected to opportunity in a way that is informed by and tested with real people.


Because if we can perfect our method of informing our solutions, test our solutions, and be prepared to change our solutions — quickly — based on the experiences, behaviors, and choices of the actual people who use and benefit from them, then we can truly begin to address big social challenges.

This idea is baked into the origins of Social Interest Solutions. When we started with the simple idea of creating an electronic application, we were able to radically shorten the time it took to complete and submit the paper form from 97 minutes to a mere 7 by asking people what were the challenges they were facing. We must continue on this path.

What’s more, we need to be comfortable that our solutions will change from their original concepts based on user testing and feedback. Being open to such changes might seem riskier — but this mindset enables a better-targeted solution that can help more people.

So what does this mean for our next chapter?

Our Work Moving Forward – Designing for Real People

Deepening our connection to the people we serve means we must work to enhance people’s satisfaction with our solutions by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in their interactions with our solutions. To do this we’re going to begin using a test-driven approach to ensure that we are satisfying the choices and behaviors of those who use and benefit from our solutions.

For example, we will test/talk with people early in the design process, and create prototypes to understand their responses to our ideas. Then we will continue iterating with people throughout the early phase of the architecture and requirements process, and into the design and development phases. Such an application of user feedback will ensure our solutions are well informed by the people that we serve.

In addition, while we employ many co-design and participatory design techniques (such as workshops, storyboards, end-user photography, descriptive artifacts, and low-tech prototypes), and user experience (UX) design methods (such as expert review, field studies, usability testing, and user personas), we will begin to test users’ responses via their actions rather than their articulated desires. The goal here is to make real people’s demands and behaviors central to the work of the design, development, and operations of SIS’s solutions. Success will be seen in the satisfaction and confidence we build with users when they engage with our solutions and services.

But this is only one part of the equation.

Developing the Ability to Connect

While many design approaches contribute to solutions for real people’s problems, they don’t go far enough. We must work alongside people, walk in their shoes, be part of the communities that we serve, and make those communities a part of us. We need to embrace an organizational strategy that that aims to improve the experience for the actual people who both use and benefit from our solutions and our policy innovations based on our authentic connections to them.

The Poverty Simulation Workshop is one example. Most of you participated in this workshop earlier this year, and it will become a core training for staff. Another is site visits – having folks actually sit in the social services office, sit next to an eligibility worker, and sit with people asking for help. This takes us deeper into understanding what it’s really like for people to get enrolled. We all need to have a real experience with real folks. I need all of us to have not just a good working knowledge of who we’re trying to help, but also to know what it’s like when you actually ask for help.

Another important strategy brings us back to being “porous” – something I talked about in the column on Pillar 1. When we think about deepening our connection to the people we serve, we need to bring the community into SIS. We need folks who have lived these experiences working for us, informing us, and advising us. Bringing more of this perspective inside will be a core part of our recruitment strategy for staff and our board.

Mining Data for User Patterns

Over time, on behalf of our clients we have collected several terabytes of actual user data that is stored on our servers. This “big data” is an extremely valuable resource that we have simply not tapped into or utilized. By looking at the data, we can learn at a granular level not just the programs people are applying for, patterns of use, and preferences, but we can deepen our knowledge of the folks that need help by understanding the challenges that they face.

While these data are owned by our clients, we need to develop a strategy to mine these significantly large data sets, understand it, and ultimately use it to inform our work. Our approach will need to be thoughtful, deliberate, and sophisticated.

But once we’ve distilled down these large data sets, our connections to people’s experiences will play a huge role in making sense of the reports and leading the charge for people-centered solutions. The treasure trove of data will provide new insights for our UX designers, while their close familiarity with the people who use and benefit from our solutions will enable them to analyze these data to create more robust solutions. Using this knowledge and incorporating it into our work will become standard practice.

Similarly, we’re going to look at the raft of information that publicly exists about people’s experiences. In the social media space, people have provided a ton of indirect feedback. People talk endlessly about how they experience enrollment systems when they are trying to find help – they share good and bad stories. We haven’t yet mined that information for trends and patterns that would help us do our work. Let’s start to ask them, and listen better to what people are saying.

The Takeaway

I want all sides of SIS to never wonder about why we’re doing what we’re doing, how we’re doing it or the method we’re using. I need all of us to know about folks’ real experiences and hear real folks’ feedback to our solutions, so when we’re designing or engineering something, creating some process, or identifying some policy approach, that’s what we have in our minds. We must understand the challenges people face and how we can make things better so that we’re able to create connections between people and the lives they dream of.

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One thought on “Strategic Pillar 2: Deepen Our Connection to the People We Serve

  1. Fred D. Mason, Jr. says:

    I plan to visit several social service offices and really get a feel for the work. Thanks

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