6 minute read

Shaping services through human-centred design

Dr Jules Maitland is the founder and managing director of human-centred design agency All In. The agency is based in Canada but works with not-for-profit and government organisations worldwide to help address social problems through the human-centred design of public services and social change.

Q: What is human-centred design?

A: “The principles of human-centred design ask us to keep the people most impacted by the problem that we are trying to solve front and centre throughout the design process. In the context of public services it asks us to think very carefully about the problem, asking us not to jump to solutions, but instead really explore the problem and ground it in the reality of the service users and service providers. This nuanced insight into the context in which the problem is occurring can lead to a better and deeper understanding of what the actual problems are on the ground, and lead to the design of solutions that are better equipped to address them. ”

Q: Where does the user’s perspective come into human-centred design?

A: “The way an organisation views the problem is often very different to the way the issue is experienced in the community. Sometimes we find ourselves masking the symptom where there are much deeper root causes. If you don’t spend that time exploring what the issues are with a community and you only bring them into test the solution, you might have a great solution, but it might be fixing the wrong problem. People experiencing these complex problems day in, day out, bring perspectives, insights and capabilities to the table that, no matter how well intentioned a team is, they are otherwise never going to see.”

Q: Do you think local authorities are using human-centred design?

A: “It is certainly an emerging practice in local government, and with all practices there are the early adopters and others who don't yet know how it can help them yet. When I attended the iESE Transform Awards it was very clear that there are authorities who are already taking a very human-centred approach to service (re)design. They may not necessarily be aware of the language of design and design principles per se, but for them this is their natural way of working.”

Q: What might be stopping some authorities from using human-centred design?

A: “There is a legitimate vulnerability in working closely with service users, around inviting people to explore these complex social problems because the public sector may feel it should already have the answers, and the perceived risk around setting expectations while engaging in meaningful dialogue. It can be overwhelming to start thinking about adopting human-centred design principles if you don’t yet recognise your organisation in them. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It is okay to start small. Look for opportunities in your existing projects to check your assumptions or ideas with members of the public. In my experience they are so thankful when they are asked, and they have valid and insightful ideas. For me, that is where the culture change is, changing the conversation and relationship between the public sector and the public.”

Case study: River Stone Recovery Centre

River Stone Recovery Centre in New Brunswick is a substance use disorder treatment space set up in July 2020 with funding from Health Canada. In September 2020 the same team set up The Phoenix Learning Centre as an emergency dropin centre for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity affected by the impact of Covid on essential community services. The Phoenix Centre has since closed after planning consents prohibited its continued operation, but a new site is being sought. All In helped with the design of both centres from a service user and service provider perspective.

“The primary focus of the brief was to help make sure the voice and needs of both the program participants and the team were included in the design of the centres. We designed a range of activities to explore the experience of substance use disorder treatment with clients and team members, identify strengths and limitations of current approaches, then generate and test ideas for alternative approaches,” Dr Maitland explained.

“We created prototypes to test the overall concept with existing program participants, the services that should be provided, the times of day that they should be provided, and the room in which injectable opiate replacement therapy would be offered. We also facilitated the cocreation of a code of respect between staff members and program participants to establish mutual expectations and boundaries."

Dr Sara Davidson, Medical Director at River Stone, said: “All In helped us draw the staff together and come up with shared vision which empowered people to feel engaged. Involving the participants provided a good reality check about what we were trying to create. The collaborative approach helped build into the system the bigger concepts around providing a space that would be most helpful to the people we serve. It was nice to have an agency come along and validate a lot of the things we were trying to do and help us design things appropriately and in a supported way,” she added.

Dr Maitland explained some of the impacts the design work was able to have: “At a macro level, taking this approach created a collective sense of ownership between team members and program participants. Individuals could see their experiences and needs reflected in the design of the new space and service, and the space and service was more robust because of that. At a micro level, through broader explorations of concepts such as safety and belonging, we were able to identify and minimise power dynamics. We designed elements of the centres to reduce unnecessary barriers between the team and program participants and make resources freely available to program participants."

"Participants being able to see the weather forecast so that they could prepare mentally and physically to spend the next few hours outside in extreme heat or extreme cold without having to ask a member of staff. Being able to get a drink or a snack when they needed it, without having to ask permission. They may not seem big impacts to those of us who are lucky enough to never have been in that position, but they are central to designing public services with dignity," Dr Maitland adds.

Dr Davidson believes that if an organisation is considering using human centred-design it is important to be ready to take a good look at the challenges it is having and have the willingness to let go of preconceived ideas. “Anyone who wants to truly be able to transform their workplace needs to suspend disbelief, assumption and be open to making change. They need to really want to make authentic changes to something, not just keep working within the same parameters but be ready to do a deep dive,” she concluded.

• Find out more about All In here: www.allinagency.ca See a Social Research & Development field guide about River Stone Recovery Centre and the design process here: River Stone Recovery Centre - Resources (recoverynb.ca)