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September 11, 2019

James Cartwright

Impact Forums 2019: Taking a person-centred approach

Starting with the person is one of CHI’s first principles; it infuses everything that we do. From the development of evidence tools to designing trials with local authorities to identifying research priorities, a human-centred design approach is always crucial. But what exactly does that mean? 

Human-centred design goes beyond just thinking about your end user (although as we’ll discuss later, putting the voices of lived experience at the heart of conversations around homelessness is essential) it means considering the impact of your policy and strategy decisions on every person they’re likely to affect, like service providers and front-line workers. It also means admitting the limitations of your knowledge and designing processes and strategies to help improve that knowledge base.

“As a designer, I’ve found there’s really no substitute for talking to your end users,” said CHI’s Stina Jonsson at our Edinburgh Impact Forum. “A single story from a person can spark an idea or trigger change in a way that statistics simply can’t.”


While human-centred design has been rigorously defined by design consultancy IDEO, their 57-point plan is too detailed to pick apart here. The Design Council offers a simpler framework, setting out seven core principles that can help individuals and organisations start putting user-centred design at the heart of their work as a tool for driving change. They also provide a useful mechanism for discussing our own work in this field.

1. Get past your own great idea.

We often approach problems with a lot of existing preconceptions about how best to solve them, assuming that our expertise will help us divine solutions. But testing the veracity of what we think we know is the first step towards embracing an evidence-informed approach to practice. 

The homelessness sector has often assumed that it knows the best methods to bring an end to homelessness, but the numbers tell us that this is not, in fact, the case. Whether designing policy, tools, or interventions, to create new and effective solutions it’s essential to start researching with an open mind. 

If that research forces you to change your initial assumptions, so much the better. This was a key lesson for the members of our CLORE leadership cohort, whose iterative approach to intervention design was all about testing ideas from first principles. “You have to have the confidence to change direction,” said CHI Implementation lead Sophie Mei Birkin at our London Impact Forum, “not be wedded to an idea.”

2. Don’t be restricted by your own knowledge

During your research process you will need to be asking smart, naive questions to turn your assumptions into substantiated fact. Being convinced you know everything isn’t conducive to that result. In homelessness in particular, we are aware that we know a lot about what causes homelessness, very little about what solutions can end it sustainably, and even less about which of those solutions are cost effective. 

Knowing how little we know is an important place to begin our work. Admitting that we are experts in the causes of homelessness, but novices when it comes to solutions is vital to ensure that we ask the right kind of naive questions to drive change. It also ensures that we look to a broad cross-section of people to find answers.

3. Spend time with real people in real environments

Observation of people is crucial, and it is impossible to design well without doing it. In 2018, when we were working with the Scottish Government on an options appraisal for a new data and monitoring system for rough sleeping, our first priority was to sit down and speak to people experiencing, or with lived experience of, homelessness.

We asked them how a system that stores information about them could make positive changes to their situation. We met with around 60 people over the course of six user sessions, from a mix of backgrounds and experiences. Over the course of a couple of hours, we spent time hearing people’s stories — the circumstances that contributed to them losing their homes, their experiences of the homelessness system, and for a number of people who were no longer homeless, how they came out the other side.

All of this was vital to ensure that the options we were co-designing with a range of stakeholders had the voice and considerations of our users at heart, leading us to propose systems we simply wouldn’t have considered without their input.

4. Identify other users

The complex interrelation between different fields of public policy and services often means that more than one user group will be affected by your design. This is a fact that revealed itself when analysing the research base that underpins our Evidence Tools

In these instances, it’s important to investigate other user groups that could be affected by your work, partnering with those who know them best to extract learnings specific to those groups as well as looking for commonalities across groups. This thinking informed the creation of the SHARE Framework, to unite a wide range of stakeholders under the shared ambition of ending homelessness.

5. Follow your users lead and needs

Gathering different user perspectives is an essential part of designing any system. During our work with the Scottish Government, our primary research revealed a multitude of different perspectives that shaped a set of principles to inform the design of their new data monitoring system. One man in Glasgow told us that he didn’t, “know how many times I have told my story to different workers, different agencies....it loses its impact by the fifth and sixth time you’ve told it.” 

As a result of this and other similar stories, we recommended that the personal stories of people experiencing homelessness should be filed and shared with relevant service agencies to spare users the trauma of retelling them to every agency they encounter.

6. Think about the whole journey of the product

It’s rare to create a service or product that doesn’t require adaptation after its initial launch. An iterative approach to design is therefore essential. Often, launching a product will reveal much that remained unclear during the formative stages, including new users and audiences whose needs may not initially have been addressed.

This is one of the reasons why we continue to update all of our evidence and gap maps on a regular basis and why we’re about to launch a new set of indicators for our SHARE Framework. The needs of our users develop as they work with our tools, and as we attract new kinds of users, our tools must evolve to reflect that.

7. Prototype and test your idea

Prototyping is one of the most important parts of creating a human-centred product because it allows you to test your design on a live audience instead of in a vacuum. Prototyping and testing doesn’t need to be complex; it can be  as simple as sharing an idea with a group of potential users and as ambitious as running large-scale trials with multiple stakeholders. 

Being a What Works Centre, we are also firm believers in rigorous testing and the use of behavioural science to improve interventions. Our upcoming work with the Behavioural Insights Team is designed to test current thinking around how best to encourage more landlords in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) to accept tenants in receipt of DSS. Currently 52% of landlords are unwilling to do so. We’ll be putting ideas like BIT’s EAST framework to the test to see if such a methodology can drive change in the PRS.

To find out more about our approach to human-centred design or any of the projects mentioned above, get in touch with our team on hello@homlessnessimpact.org.


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