Abstract: Human Centered Design As Community-Engaged Research and Social Innovation in Social Work (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

608P Human Centered Design As Community-Engaged Research and Social Innovation in Social Work

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Wilson, MSW, IMBA, PhD Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Stephanie Begun, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Kimberly Bender, PhD, Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Amanda Moore-McBride, Dean and Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Ellie Adelman, MSW Student, University of Denver, CO
Jonah DeChants, MS, Doctoral student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Matthew Rutherford, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Denver

Human-centered design (HCD), popular in the fields of engineering, computer science, and business, has only recently been used in social work research. HCD actively engages the “end-user” through a creative problem-solving process comprised of empathic interviewing, creative brainstorming, rapid prototyping, testing, pivoting, and re-testing. The goal is to innovate products, services, and systems that respond directly to the experiences and input of the target group. These two case studies examine HCD as an innovative community-engaged approach to social work research and training.

Case Study 1

Purpose. This case study examined an interdisciplinary research team’s use of HCD to develop technology-enabled innovations for reducing youth pregnancy.

Methods. Youth with diverse identities and experiences were interviewed about their daily lives, “pain-points,” “hacks,” technology-use, and contraceptive utilization. In-depth interviews were also conducted with analogous experts who work in situations that require confidentiality and rapid trust-building. Generated insights led to iterative prototyping.

Results. Youth resoundingly desired contraceptives but named transportation and confidentiality as barriers. Youth demonstrated desires to take charge of their health but feared judgment by healthcare providers and avoided clinical settings. Preliminary insights inspired prototypes of interventions that bring contraceptive information and services directly to youth, confidentially and at no cost. Prototyping further unearthed youths’ preferences for scheduling technologies privately through “untraceable” appointments from their phones, while virtually building rapport with supportive clinicians prior to their appointments. The development of such scheduling technologies necessitated further HCD iteration, which actively engaged youths’ insights on software content, functionality, and user-experience.

Case Study 2

Purpose. This case study investigated the utility of HCD in an interdisciplinary graduate seminar where teams of students partnered with youth experiencing homelessness to design ideas for increasing meaningful interpersonal connections.

Methods. Student teams conducted insight-building exercises with youth to understand struggles to developing “meaningful connections” and then developed and sought feedback on initial prototypes of solutions to overcome those barriers. Pre- and post-course surveys assessed change in students’ perceived knowledge and attitudes toward homelessness, empathy, interdisciplinary competence, collaboration, and citizenship. Qualitative data collected via journal assignments, focus groups, and field observations were analyzed utilizing inductive content analysis. Relevant stakeholder groups rated teams’ final solutions for innovation, relevance, impact, feasibly, and sustainability.   

Results. Teams presented innovative solutions to address youths’ expressed desire for flexible and safe opportunities to engage in community-building.  Student participants increased in self-perceived knowledge and positive attitudes toward homelessness, interdisciplinary competence, and citizenship. Qualitative findings, triangulated across data sources, revealed students’ value for creatively iterating with empathy, allowing them to build stronger solutions. Pitched solutions were consistently rated higher for potential impact and relevance and lower on feasibility and sustainability.


These case studies demonstrate the promise of HCD as a community-engagement approach to conducting relatively quick, iterative research that informs development of solutions in direct partnership with impacted communities. Tensions must be considered, including how to establish deep empathy quickly, navigate IRB protocols, assure rigor while using creative data collection tools, and encourage individuals to embrace mindsets of ambiguity and risk-taking inherent in the design process.