As a user experience designer and researcher for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Peterson ’12 educates and empowers teams to use human-centered design methods to build more efficient software and services. More simply, Peterson uses the design process to create positive, real-world change.
To understand why user design solutions can do this is to understand that it's all about the process.
As Peterson explained, "Design is an iterative process, no matter the kind of project you're working on, visual or otherwise. User design begins with understanding the impact your client wants to have - for whom and for where - and that means research to guide what you build; you don't just pre-define a solution and starting building things. You come up with a number of ideas, and you build the roughest, smallest thing to test each idea. If something works, you add to it. If it doesn't, you've learned that it doesn't as quickly and cheaply as you can. When you deliver a solution, you have more assurance its what the user will need and want."
Before moving to HUD, Peterson spent a year in Salt Lake County (SLC), Utah as a Code for America fellow. While there, he used user-centered, design thinking techniques to create a simple texting program that allowed the county to drastically reduce recidivism rates among citizens caught in the criminal justice system.
Called ClientComm, the texting system not only changed the way case managers in SLC operate, it is changing the lives of those under court ordered supervision. It is helping everyone involved build trust and see each other as humans rather than cogs in the system - and it has demonstrably lowered SLC's re-arrest rates.
Going into the project, Peterson and his partner, Kuan Butts, wanted to lower SLC's recidivism rate, which was 10 percent in 2014. To understand how to create change, they had to dig deep by researching the experience of everyone in the system, from people on probation to criminal justice staff.
"I was the primary human researcher," Peterson said. "I created questionaires, ran workshops, and from there, I used my design skills to create visuals that people could use as shared talking points when we followed up."
They discovered that case managers had problems getting hold of clients to remind them of court ordered court or treatment appointments. People in the system changed phones often or used relatives' phones, and case managers had to text multiple numbers. What made it worse was that budgetary restrictions meant that case managers often shared a single phone.
Peterson and his partner first built a "low fidelity" version of ClientComm that allowed case managers to fill out a simple online form to send multiple text messages. Feedback was incredibly positive.
Based on feedback, Peterson and Butts continued to build on their program, adding features and refining usability as they built what eventually became ClientComm.
Case mangers were thrilled, saying the ability to easily text multiple numbers made it especially simple to connect with clients who were aged 30 and under. Being able to ‘talk' to clients easily over text allowed case managers to built rapport with the people they were supervising. It helped them work together to strategize on how to work around situations people in the system faced. And it made caseloads more manageable.
The results were impressive. SLC's Pretrial Department improved client success from 50% to 82% between March and October 2016. Case managers saw time savings greater than five hours per week, and also said that they were developing better relations with clients.
ClientComm was so successful that Code for America has continued to develop the system for use in other cities.
Peterson, meanwhile, plans to continue to pursue collaborative, user-centered project.
"Turning to social design wasn't an overnight thing," he said. "But I knew I wanted to collaborate with people. What I got from my time at MICA was validation that there are multiple ways of designing - and in Baltimore, there's an openness to collaboration, so I was able to experiment and try out a lot of things. But even when I was a graphic designer who created book covers, I always thought about how the user would interact with what I was making. That's still at the core of what I do."