Human-Centered Design

There are many ways to approach innovation and new ideas. 

Some people start with the business need, the social need, or the bottom-line. Some start with the social or political landscape; they go where there is pressure. Some even start with the capacity of stakeholders and staff. 

In Human-Centered Design, we start with the human, or the users, for whom we are designing the solutions. 

In this project, the main users are people experiencing homelessness and providers who offer homelessness-related services. By focusing on their real needs and experiences, we can create solutions that fit their lives and realities. 

Why Human-Centered Design Matters in Civic Context

In government and large organizations, elected officials or leaders create policies. Those policies influence the types of programs that are developed. Those programs inform how services are delivered. Finally, the public uses those services. Disconnect can happen by doing things this way. The policies, programs, and services that are created for communities often do not meet the realities, needs, and contexts of people's lives. Human-Centered Design reverses that hierarchy and starts with the people. 

It is especially important for us to start with the people experiencing homelessness because they understand the challenges better than anyone else, yet their voices are rarely considered and are often marginalized in communities. Human-Centered Design humanizes homelessness by capturing real experiences, joys, and pain-points to debunk stereotypes and assumptions. 

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We want feedback from people with lived experience so that their stories can inform decisions regarding services, programs, budgets, operations, and policies that directly impact their realities of homelessness. 


Human-Centered Design Methods

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Human-Centered Design methods help unpack and solve for complex challenges. We put the following methods to practice for our homelessness research and projects. We've separated these into: Discovery Activities, Synthesis Methods, & Design Methods.

Discovery Activities

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Desk Research

To support our field research on the experience of homelessness in Austin, we conducted a review of the existing literature around homelessness. We had several goals in mind: 

  • to understand homelessness as a phenomenon

  • to learn about the factors driving homelessness, and

  • to examine attempts to address it, both in Austin elsewhere. 

Toward these ends, we studied peer-reviewed scholarly research, reports published by government agencies and nonprofits, and the Austin History Center's archives. 

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Group Sessions

Group Sessions were 1 to 3 hour interviews that brought people with similar or shared experiences to the same table. We conducted group sessions at a shelter, a local county jail, and a substance recovery center. We also conducted group sessions with a group of people that lives under a bridge together and with service providers who may or may not work together on a daily basis. We were able to get a good understanding of a community's life, dynamics, and needs by conducting group interviews. 

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Content Audit 

We took inventory of current print and digital communications published by agencies housed in the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). We analyzed how well existing communication materials were meeting the audience’s needs and provided recommendations on how to improve readability, accessibility, and overall usability.

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Intercepts were 15-30 minute conversations at pop-up locations all over the city. This included libraries, bus stops, parks, churches, and resource centers to gather a large quantity of diverse perspectives. 

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Interview Activities

In order to bring richness to the intercepts, interviews, and group sessions, we used different activities to elicit conversation and stories that would otherwise not come up. Some key activities include journey maps to illustrate the steps of an experience, photo prompt cards to trigger different memories and perspectives, and a future state activity to help people  image their ideal future and identify the blockers that are prevent that from becoming a reality.

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Guided Tours 

Staff led tours of agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness. We toured multiple service facilities that uses different types of models to deliver shelter, housing and resources. We visited locations within Austin and all over the country. Having an expert give us a Guided Tour helped reveal not just the physical space but the routines, flows, and activities that animate it. We learned about the best practices and challenges of running such complicated operations.

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In-Depth Interviews

These interviews were 90 to 120 minute conversations with both people with lived experience of homelessness and service providers. The intent was to understand people's stories, experiences, and aspirations from both sides of the desk. These interviews revealed the journey of why and how someone becomes homeless, the challenges of surviving on the streets, and the complexity of working within and navigating the homeless system. 

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Data Audit

We looked into all the quantitative data directly or indirectly related to homelessness from City of Austin departments and local community partners. The data audit informed us of the current state of homelessness and provide metrics to track the progress of our different prototypes and initiatives.


The data audit, data system reviews, and interviews  with partners also revealed challenges of collecting and analyzing high quality data and sharing data.


Service Observation

One of the projects was to immerse ourselves in the day to day operations of the Austin Resource Center for the Homelessness. We observed and mapped the service journey of  someone entering the shelter to eat, shower, and sleep at night. The blueprint identified key service components - staff, tools/props, space, and processes - and provided recommendations to increase operational efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Synthesis Methods

Creating Insights 

We start with individual data points from our interviews. Every post-it is a data point, an exact quote, or an observation that we made. We group the post-its by similarity, thereby identifying patterns. From the themes, we created insights. An insight is a learning, an “a-ha” -- a provocative statement of truth that is grounded in data. It is usually a new way of viewing the challenges we’re trying to solve.

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We created frameworks to help organize our research findings and to make sense of the homeless services system. The frameworks helped to visualize key concepts and communicate strategic direction.


Opportunity Areas

Every problem is an opportunity for design. By framing the pain points identified in our research as How Might We question , it prompts us think expansively and creatively for solutions.

Design Methods


Design Principles 

These principles and success factors describe the most important elements of our solution and ensures that the solutions are grounded in the research.


Iterative Prototyping 

We make big ideas  tangible by starting small and learn by making something quickly and get key feedback from the people you’re designing for. We move through many cycles of prototyping and testing  until we finally get to the final product or service.


Ideation Sessions 

We hosted a series of ideation sessions within our team, with community partners, and with City staff to come up with any many creative ideas as possible to address the challenges we identified in our research.


Co-Creation Sessions

We are constantly convening groups of people we’re designing for; everybody from people with lived experience of homelessness to first responders to service providers. We’re empowering them to come up with solutions and make it real with us.  In addition to gaining valuable insight and ensuring what we create works for people, this this process creates more sustainable solutions. Partners and communities are more likely to adopt practices or services that they help create.


Creating Concepts

After coming up with many ideas, we start to evaluate and narrow the ideas. We refined, combined, and developed the ideas into concepts. A concept is more complete than an idea for it includes people, resources, interactions, sustainability, and mechanism of change. Many of our concepts started as storyboards.