August 8, 2019
Trust us. We don’t know what’s best for you.
We’ll leave that up to you. But, do you know what’s best for your neighbors? What about their co-workers? Or their children? It’s the DC government’s job to recognize all the diverse needs of our community and to make decisions about what we think is going to be best for all District residents. But how does The Lab @ DC ensure that we are giving District government the best shot at succeeding?
At The Lab, we believe in the power of diverse information. We rely on all sorts of sources, like interviews, program data, observations, ride-alongs, surveys, academic journals, and the news. The Lab’s design process uses information to help us move from identifying an issue in the District to doing something about it. Does this guarantee the best results for DC residents every time? No, but if we keep drawing our ideas from diverse groups of residents and sources, we give ourselves the best shot at serving you better.
Phase 1: Deeply understand the problem space
Our first phase is to learn about an issue in detail. We talk to residents about their experiences, walk through processes with government staff, and dig into administrative data. Each of these sources helps us understand the challenge and how The Lab’s tools can be used to serve residents best.
In 2018, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) came to us with a question: how much were transportation barriers contributing to high absenteeism among students experiencing homelessness? They highlighted some troubling numbers from administrative data analysis: in DC, nearly half of students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent, missing what amounts to at least one day of school every two weeks.
With the Department of Human Services (DHS) and DME, we went to an emergency shelter and talked to families and case workers. What we heard echoed the numbers, but it also revealed details we would have missed if we designed from our desks. We heard that different family structures, schools, and access to cars meant that just about every family’s commute was unique. If we hadn’t combined what we learned from data with directly hearing from families, we would have designed a solution that didn’t meet the diversity of family needs. Instead, the Every Ride Counts pilot program is customized for the families in the District’s new Short Term Family Housing sites.
Phase 2: Create a prototype
Next, we create a prototype, or draft. Each is based on existing research and our best guess about what will work for residents.
In our Form-a-Palooza project, we redesigned District forms side-by-side with residents. We prepared residents to prototype by first laying out the challenge for them through process maps, interviews with agency staff, and cheat sheets on the research about paperwork. Residents then came up with fresh ideas—like transforming a dense, legal form on lead exposure into an educational piece on lead’s health risks and how to identify it. We compiled all of these ideas, shared them with agencies (and their lawyers) to fill in any gaps, and continued refining the forms. Residents helped ensure these transformations made accessing District services user-friendly and resident-centered.
Phase 3: Get feedback
Once we have a prototype, we want to figure out if it’s working the way we think it should. In two weeks, we’ll talk about rigorous, scientific testing. But, even before we test things formally, we want feedback from residents on our designs.
Last year, we worked with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development on a survey of affordable housing in the District. We took our survey prototype to the DC Housing Expo/Home Show and asked attendees for feedback. As we watched residents complete the survey, we observed where they struggled. We also asked them to share where our survey was clear and where it was confusing. One insight: some residents associated the word “home” with a single-family, stand-alone house—probably with a white picket fence—so our questions about their “home” didn’t fit their apartment, condo, or room share. Without getting this feedback, DC Government would have unintentionally excluded much of the audience we were trying to reach. Based on feedback, large and small, we tweaked the prototype, and kept designing (and getting feedback) until we were ready to send a focused and informative survey to residents.
Phase 4: Repeat
Repeat was embedded in the prior phases, but it’s important enough to mention again.
We take the feedback and we rework our prototype—sometimes we go so far back that we change our understanding of the problem—and try again. When we designed an anti-littering campaign with the Department of Public Works (DPW), we mapped the problem, then cycled between prototypes and feedback. We discarded junk puns and unripe ideas as we went, littering our harddrives with not-quite-right designs. In the end, we designed a sign for public trash cans that was based on evidence, specific to the District, and aligned with the agency’s character.
In all of our design work, we fix potential knots, hone our designs, and get closer to a program, policy, or service that could best meet the needs of all District residents.
The hard part. That’s because even the best design is just a design until we work with agency partners to put it into action. Come back next week to learn about the next step in The Lab’s project cycle: Do Something.
Katie Gan is a Senior Social Scientist at The Lab @ DC. Katie lives in Ward 2 with her husband and their dog. Sam Quinney is the Interim Director of The Lab @ DC. Sam lives in Ward 6 with his wife, son, and dog. Together Katie and Sam designed, prototyped, and got feedback on 17 versions of this blog post.1
1 Data source: Google Docs version history