Main content

Designing for policy change - Ariel Kennan on applying design to New York City's homeless problem

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 9, 2017
Changing the plight of the homeless through design? It sounds fanciful. But in a memorable talk at Enterprise UX 2017, Ariel Kennan of the New York City Mayor's Office shared what her team has accomplished - and the challenges ahead.

Ariel Kennan-enterprise-ux
Ariel Kennan at Enterprise UX 2017

"It's February, it's freezing cold, and it's the middle of the night. Our team heads out to the end of the subway line. As the workers clean the cars, our team heads out to approach the huddled masses... these are some of our most vulnerable residents, often let down by society and the safety net."

That's not your typical UX persona research - but when you're Ariel Kennan, Director, Design and Product for the NYC Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity, this is the core of your mission. If your work doesn't impact the neediest residents, you've failed.

At Enterprise UX 2017, during her "Building Design Culture" presentation, Kennan told attendees the surprising story of how her design team has affected the plight of the homeless, and influenced policy.

New York City government might not fit the classic enterprise definition, but it certainly matches in scale: 325,000 public servants, more than 70 offices and agencies, serving 8.5 million residents. Appropriate, then, that Kennan's presentation was part of the "transcending silos" track.

"We must put our citizens at the center of every service"

Kennan spoke about the homeless project, NYC HOME-STAT, and its success transitioning 690 people to housing in 2016:

We deliver services to millions of residents. However, we often organize ourselves into silos. I'm trying to change the practice by bringing dignity and empathy to the front of everything we do. We must put our citizens at the center of every service.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced HOME-STAT in the winter of 2016 to help address street homelessness: "My phone rang shortly after," says Kennan. She soon encountered a classic enterprise disconnect:

People didn't understand the service end to end. They were experts at their piece of the service. We knew we needed to get out there and start talking to more people and start bridging the gaps in knowledge.

Then there is the tension between research and urgent tasks on the ground:

Have you ever been in these situations where you need to be out in the field, you need to be doing discovery, but you have those higher-ups that need decisions; they need materials - and they want it to happen very quickly? This is familiar, right?

You can't charge ahead without buy-in:

This is an act we must often follow as design leaders in large organizations. We have to orchestrate the design work itself, but we also have to bring others along in the process.

Kennan's team got the research access they needed:

As we started to do this research, it would have been really easy for the program manager for street homelessness to say, "Nope, it's our busiest time of year, it's winter, it's critical that we're out there saving lives. We don't need all of you from the mayor's office over here following us and trying to figure out what we do. Just let us to our jobs." But instead, she gave us access. She let us in - she also let us talk to a lot of different stakeholders.

Those stakeholders included: policy makers, budget holders, case workers, program managers, and outreach teams. They also talked with the "everyday heroes" living on the streets:

It was also really important that we talk to the clients directly. We talked to people who were still on the street, people who were struggling with mental illness and substance use, and people who were permanently housed and receiving long term support services.

From research to journey mapping - without losing touch

The meetings gave Kennan's team "deep insight" into homeless services, "which allowed us to start connecting the dots." These meeting notes resulted in their first journey map, sticky note style:

ScreenHunter_1744 Jun. 12 10.05

Designers thrive on lightweight visuals, but there was a problem: sticky notes are really hard to share across locations.

We knew we needed to start sending these out and sharing the insights we received. We needed to go digital and fast.

So they want to a digital journey map, but kept the sticky note look. Digital sticky notes made the difference:

This was a quick win to allowed us to have some cover to keep working on the deliverable, keep doing follow-up research, and keep everyone up above us happy that we were making progress.

The next step? A full digital journey map charting out all the steps and processes (pictured right). This isn't the full view - the entire map was twenty pages long.

Kennan knew they needed to pull the group back together. "We're good listeners, not subject matter experts." So they hosted a day with all the stakeholders, to get feedback on the journey map. Attendees scratched their input right on the maps:


"We gave everyone this beautiful artifact, and asked everyone to draw on it." But it wasn't just a day of practical feedback on the map itself. It was a transformational day of discussions, envisioning the future, "going broad" to consider digital, data, communications - and possibilities beyond today's policies.

After that day, they issued a detailed narrative report based on the journey map to every agency and provider. Ultimately, they issued an updated journey map that illustrated all the services in exacting detail.

That intensive work has led to external results, including public-facing projects such as the HOME-STAT dashboards. (sample view of monthly dashboard pictured left).

These dashboards include case management tracking. The research informs what the dashboards should display and what metrics should be tracked. FAQ information that came up during the research, such as what to do if you see a homeless person in need, has also been posted.

Internally, Kennan is building a new case management system based on their research, that helps address identified bottlenecks. The relationships formed paid off - a good chunk of this work has now been handed off to service workers and tech teams:

It has changed the dynamic. They're not having technology shoved at them. It is built not only on the relationships, but the knowledge we've shared.

The Home-stat project has opened minds to design, building trust in new ways of working. Kennan's team has completed a slew of projects, redesigning the city's benefits portal, and helping to bring wifi to public housing developments.

But how do you scale this?

Kennan has a key challenge ahead - one that resonates with most enterprise UX teams: the problem of scale.

We have to start spreading our methods and mindsets.

They've added more designers since Kennan came on board, but Kennan is now investing in a crucial project: building their design culture. So how do you do that? She shared her "design culture building blocks," advising attendees to consider these questions:

  • What's your design mission?
  • What principles is your design living by?
  • What tactics and tools are you using to deliver and spread design?
  • What goals are you setting to know that you have impact?

Kennan's team has a shared mission in delivering public services: "We as designers are making public services more effective, accessible and simple for all New Yorkers." They have defined a set of principles to further that mission:

  • We believe government services should be created with the people that use and deliver them
  • They should be prototyped for accessibility and usablity
  • They should be accessible to all
  • They should be equitably distributed
  • They should be rigorously tested for impact and effectiveness

To spread the know-how, they've documented their tactics and tools, and created a service design tool kit. This content isn't meant for professional designers, but for public workers who are design curious. They've also created a city design portal for designers to engage with the city, tapping into New York City's design agency talent.

The wrap - achieving a dream by changing policy

Kennan's team has been able to inform policy. Recently, the city put out Turning the Tide (PDF), a report on the state of homelessness in New York City. It was written by a different team, in the Department of Social Services.

The first time I read it, I found myself tearing up. It was the voices of the many people we've talked to come to life in this official policy document.

The policy document includes their journey map, their public dashboards, and a description of the design process, citing the efforts of Kennan's team:

This is the work that I dreamed of doing when I started building my team.

End note - this article is part of my ongoing diginomica Enteprise UX series.

Updated with additional images, June 10, 10:00am PT.

A grey colored placeholder image