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January 9, 2020

Clara Collingwood

What Works Community pilot: exploring design methods

We believe that by combining the heart and the head we can turn good intentions into lasting impact. To help them innovate and achieve breakthrough results, the programme of our What Works Community (WWC) pilot includes combining innovative data practices with person centred approaches to systems design. 

The challenge we have set each LA is to develop a solution to increase the number and duration of successful tenancies in the private rental sector (PRS) for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.To help them execute this challenge, the second day of the WWC residential in Liverpool focused on the ways in which design methods can be used to help establish a compelling qualitative evidence-base to underpin change. The design workshop was delivered in collaboration with our colleagues at IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy leading the way in high impact design. 

Here are some of the highlights:


Design thinking is a process of creative problem solving that starts with the person. It encourages organisations to focus on the people they cater to, so it  leads to better products, services, and internal processes. The process for gathering design insights can inform and influence policy or practice direction by both sharpening our understanding of the problem the policy or intervention needs to address (analytical insights) as well as building awareness of the potential solutions on offer (creative insights). Whilst many research techniques can help identify the existing situation, in addition to this, design approaches consciously seek to turn these observations into new ideas and solutions with or for users. 

This approach is invaluable in relation to preventing and ending homelessness, which can result from systemic failure to fully cater to people’s needs. 

Our day pursued three objectives: 

1) To learn about what design research is, and why human-centred methods are valuable for uncovering people’s needs and energising teams. 

2) To learn how to ask the right questions, select the right methods and make sure outputs are useful.

3) To understand how design thinking can accelerate efforts, and how it relates to evidence -led approaches. 

To begin, our LA pilot teams framed their challenges by capturing on one page the key challenges and issues that they each face, identifying the people affected by these challenges, and pinpointing the assumptions that could influence their research. Next came influence mapping, by which the pilot teams brainstormed the people, places and things that play an important role in the ecosystem of the PRS. These are the same first steps undertaken by organisations such as the Wellcome Trust when working with IDEO to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in developing countries. 

At the core of all human-centred design research is an understanding of the importance of asking ‘the right question’. The right question is different depending on the context, but it is always instrumental. One IDEO team asked a woman with arthritis if she had any trouble opening her bottles of medication. She claimed to be having no trouble at all. But the team then asked to see how she opened her medication: it turned out to be an incredibly dangerous process involving an electric meat slicer. Though we don’t expect any of our LAs to encounter many electric meat slicers in this process, the value of a well placed, open question stands. Asking the right question can provide invaluable insights during any research and design process. 

LAs were introduced to a number of tools to help guide their design research. These include an ethical checklist, to be used at all stages of the interviewing process which mandates respect, responsibility and honesty. If anyone conducting design research ever feels uncertain, nervous or uncomfortable about something, it is worth questioning why, and double checking with colleagues. Researchers must value the comfort of their interviewee, and respect their boundaries. Sometimes this can mean not interviewing people who are too vulnerable to benefit from the experience, or making it explicit that the interview may not have a tangible effect on the situation of the interviewee. Researchers must safeguard information that might compromise a participant, and ensure they have their informed consent. Finally, clarity around how their experiences will be used and communicated. 

All the information gleaned from interviews needs to be ‘downloaded’ and synthesised as soon as possible following the interview. Downloading is the process of quickly debriefing with your team after an interview, to discuss and pull out key takeaways, learnings and quotes, and to perhaps adjust your interviewing technique. Synthesising is the process of making sense of this qualitative data. 

There is nothing tokenistic about the role of the user in regard to design methodology. This improves organisational rigour as well as the effectiveness of interventions. Traditional market research infers from the past, focuses on broad demographics, involves scripted questions and high level rational perspectives. Design research informs the future, investigates anomalies, involves dynamic conversations and develops deep emotional empathy with the user. Where market research validates opportunities, design research inspires them. 

Having developed a design research plan, as well as all relevant interview mapping skills, the teams carried out design research interviews with a number of stakeholders relevant to their challenge; to develop methods of promoting sustained private sector tenancies for those at risk of homelessness. These included landlords, people who have experienced homelessness, as well as legal professionals. 

Our LA teams left the residential armed with a practical understanding of human centred design research, the confidence of the experienced, and a list of stakeholders to be interviewed. We’ll be sharing the outcomes of this work very soon, but in the meantime if you’d like to know more about the What Works Community pilot, visit the webpage or email us at wwcommunity@homelessnessimpact.org.

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