How we put users at the heart of our work

The Child Welfare Digital Service (CWDS) is a groundbreaking collaborative, a mix of vendors and state technologists working together, using agile software development methods, with child welfare practice experts across the state. As a nonprofit social venture focused on improving outcomes for children and families, Case Commons is excited to join forces with the Technology Platform, DevOps, Policy, Data, Implementation and other CWDS teams to deliver the Intake Digital Service.

Case Commons is deeply invested in the state's commitment to user-centered design. User-centered design puts caseworkers and supervisors at the heart of our work. Meeting compliance and reporting requirements is, of course, crucial; our starting point, however, is the flow of work and organization of information that best support day-to-day operational decision making.

On past projects this user-centered approach has helped us measurably improve both practice fidelity and data quality. In Indiana, for example, we implemented, as key features of a new child welfare system, “embedded” operational metrics on caseworker dashboards; these metrics contributed to a 13.8% increase in the share of children seen by their caseworkers in the last 30 days, and an 81% increase in recorded visits between children and their birth parents.

What sets our work with CWDS apart is that the state has arranged an unprecedented level of direct access to our users. We began with intensive discovery, interviewing and shadowing caseworkers and supervisors across our six core counties: Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Cruz, Fresno, Yolo and Butte. We not only listened to county users to understand their pain points and aspirations, but also observed them as they did their jobs - in the office and out in the field - to see the problems they didn’t think to share with us because they've become so used to them.

Such careful user research helps Wendy Christian, the Intake Digital Service Manager, and  Jeff Dent, the Intake Product Owner, rethink the Intake process and shape the Intake Product Roadmap [https://cwds.storiesonboard.com/m/cwds]. The Product Roadmap evolves iteratively as we learn from our users. Much of that learning flows from numerous rounds of usability testing. A central goal of usability testing is to experiment, to challenge our ideas and gauge if we got it right or if we have further work to do. This means we put a prototype - either mockups or actual working software - into users’ hands and ask them to perform a series of tasks with it. Often users will talk out loud and explain what they are trying to accomplish as they play with the prototype. Between that narration and what we observe, we glean rich and nuanced information. Wherever the user struggles we spot opportunities to improve, because we're testing the design, not the user, after all. We regularly share summaries of our usability testing findings at Sprint Reviews and other checkpoints with core county representatives. Here is an example report on some testing, involving 149 users in 6 counties, we conducted earlier this year:

 

How are we able to reach out to and do testing with so many users? The answer brings us to the most exciting aspect of our approach to user-centered design: Our core county representatives (13, across 6 counties) not only coordinate site visits, but also, after a bit of training and practice, conduct the testing themselves! Because of their backgrounds in social work they are great listeners, exceptional testers and full partners in design thinking. They make sure caseworkers and supervisors stay right where they belong: at the heart of our work.

Core County Representatives Show Their Skill at Conducting Usability Testing

 

Case Commons https://www.casecommons.org is privileged to be part of CWDS, working in partnership with a mix of vendors to deliver an open source digital service for California’s child welfare system. Case Commons is a nonprofit social venture. We build user-centered software for human services. Our motto is “Helping the helpers.” Our mission is to promote best practice and improve outcomes for at-need children, families and populations.