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Episode #10 Empathy as a Service: Applying Service Design to the Homelessness Issue

July 20, 2017  ·  26 minutes

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Empathy. It’s an unavoidable word in the world of user experience design. Too often it is applied to designs in too narrow a fashion. Your empathy should come from the problem your design is solving, not measured in the level of frustration or delight experienced with your design.

Ariel Kennan is the Director of Design and Product at the New York City Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity. She has been working on the HOME-STAT initiative which is an effort of the City of New York to properly provide services to the city’s homeless population.

In this episode, Ariel shares her story and is joined by Marc Stickdorn who offers his insights on how service design can be done on such a massive scale. Marc is the CEO and co-founder of More Than Metrics and author of the book Service Design Thinking. He will also be teaching a daylong workshop at the UI22 conference in Boston this November 13-15. To find out more about his workshop, visit

Full Transcript

Jared Spool: This is the UIE Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.

In the pilot episode of the TV show Futurama, we’re introduced to Bender the robot as he waits in line at a suicide booth. He states that he can’t go on living once he found out that the girders he bent for his job were used to make suicide booths.

Empathy is a word that comes up nearly every time there is a conversation about user experience and oftentimes in a way as misguided as Bender’s logic. We speak of having empathy for users as they experience our designs. We speak in terms of frustration and delight. But it’s actually a step bigger than that.

If you are measuring your empathy in terms of your own product or service, you are potentially looking in the wrong place. Design is about solving problems, and if you are paying attention solely to the experience of your design, you run the risk of ignoring the problem it is intending to solve.

Ariel Kennan: Homelessness is one of our most visible quality-of-life issues in any city. A lot of cities face this. New York City has a right to shelter policy that's been enacted for quite a few years. But we have a lot of people in shelter. We have about 60,000 people in shelter. Then, we have a street population that rises and falls. It's a little under 3,000 people. Even though we're providing services to them, it's very visible. People notice it. People I think also just have a lot of compassion for people they see on the street and say, "Why? Why in such a wealthy and otherwise vibrant city do we have people who are suffering?"

My name is Ariel Kennan. I'm the director of design and product at the New York City Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity.

Jared: In social services, there is often a balance you need to strike with the users of your product. Many times, there are direct users and indirect users, and you need to be aware of the needs of both groups.

Many organizations face similar balancing acts between their employees and their customers. Whether it’s a call center or other customer support or sales efforts, you need to have internal services in place for your employees to help your users get what they need.

In Ariel’s case, her team focuses on her direct users, which are the city’s outreach workers. At the same time, her team needs an in-depth understanding of a group of indirect users, the homeless for whom the outreach workers are serving.

Ariel: A lot of government and a lot of civic tech stuff talks about the residents often at the end of the service. We spend a lot of time with the people who actually deliver the services. I think they're users that are sometimes overlooked and undervalued, that they need good tools and resources to do their jobs as well. Especially when you're looking at vulnerable populations who may have a hard time making decisions for themselves or may be otherwise impaired, that we need good people working on their behalf as well. How do we support them in doing their jobs?

Marc Stickdorn: I consider it as an organization using a new way of working, using what I called service design, you might call differently, to improve both. That's what I really like about it. Both the customer experience, if you like to say so, the customer in this case, homeless people, or people living in a shelter. As well as the employee experience, those people who are out there on the street working with homeless people. I really like both aspects of that because this is something we need to see much, much more in any industry.

My name is Marc Stickdorn. I'm a co-founder and CEO of More Than Metrics. I will be teaching the workshop Service Design: Creating Delightful Cross-channel Experiences at UI22 this year.

Jared: One challenge Ariel and her team faced was the sheer size of this effort. New York is a big city, and each borough had multiple agencies touching services that they were providing. A critical aspect of empathy is understanding the exact nature of the experience.

Ariel: We hosted an all-day workshop with the providers and the government staff and invited them to help correct our journey map. We made this beautiful artifact. It was about 20 11x17 pages, every single step detailed out, broken out into the major sections or chapters of the journey. We did a facilitated session where we asked them to help correct our mistakes, tell us about things we didn't hear yet, add things that were details that helped elaborate on a point that we were making. That alone was really great consensus-building around this work. These are folks that don't always have time to reflect and share quite in this way. They spend their days responding to emergencies, and so giving them the space for it.

As designers giving space for all of those voices to be part of it, without being opinionated or necessarily critical, but being based on the experience of what they had been going through trying to get this service or deliver this service. We weren’t trying to voice opinion, we were trying to voice what was seen as fact from multiple different people.

Jared: Even though Ariel’s work was being done in a social services department of the government, Marc says her approach was familiar.

Marc: I really saw a lot of the stuff I see in many different organizations, how important visualizing stuff is, visualizing data, for example, as a journey map to create what we academically call a boundary object. People from different backgrounds can look at that thing and interpret that however they need it. They're looking all at the same thing and they make sure that they talk about the same stuff.

Let's take a very simple example like at Telco. Somebody's going to a shop buying a new phone, and you do a focus group about that and people talk about experiences. They talk about their last experience and they have discussions about that. I would bet on that that if you have 10 people in the room, 10 people think about something completely different, because they don't really understand each other.

If you add a boundary object to it, like a journey map for example, and those 10 people create this journey map together, they know exactly what they're talking about. You know exactly. Are we having a shared opinion on that? Or actually do we still have two different stories? Boundary objects help a team to look at, for example, a customer experience, and then interpret or translate that into their domain language. If an IT person looks at a journey map they see something different than if a marketing person or a salesperson or a human resource person looks at that. You can extract the data which is important for your domain, but you make sure that you have a common understanding across all the different departments, or in that case across all the different people in the room.

Jared: Co-creating a boundary object like a journey map helps people confirm the accuracy of their understanding. If they didn’t get in the room together and go through the journey step by step, they could be leaving out important aspects that someone who intimately understands the process takes for granted. For Ariel’s team, gaining that shared understanding can literally be the difference between life and death.

Ariel: This was definitely the first time in working this way. A lot of these folks all know each other. They have to work with each other. They rely on each other for the different services because they're critical to the population that they're providing. But they weren't always able to come together and have these more facilitated conversations. That's something that I'm realizing in government, that in addition to the design materials that we produce, just being good facilitators of conversations and thinking about who's in the room at the right time, who are we pairing with whom, and how do we then have a constructive and also safe conversation that hopefully doesn't escalate to an area of aggression or conflict, that we can talk about the hard stuff and still have good movement on the other side, that we're making progress on real change.

Marc: One of the biggest challenge is that if you co-create with people from different backgrounds, they might have studied different subjects or they're working in different departments. They all have their unique language, the language they use among their peers, but it also is a certain way of thinking.

For me, service design is actually this kind of common language you can use. Through having simple boundary objects like a journey map, I mean it's not rocket science. There's no magic behind that. It's just a way to visualize data. That's all. But it helps a team to work together. I would say that the key factor of working in a co-creative manner is to have a good facilitator. I would say when you practice service design, being a good facilitator, helping a group to go forward within the process, is the absolute key aspect of doing service design.

Jared: Ariel’s team was in the center of this massive effort to gather all of this data from these varying sources. Not only did they need to arrange for this gathering, but they also needed to communicate with each department that influenced the journey. The team used the journey map to achieve their common language and understanding, and to facilitate these conversations.

Marc: Being a good listener. That's really for me one of the key differences between a facilitator and a moderator. A moderator often interferes into or put content into a discussion, interferes within a discussion. Whereas a facilitator helps a group to have a discussion, to come forward. In service design we like to say that we are never experts on the subject matter. On whatever a company's working on, an organization is doing, we are not the expert. The people who are doing that are the experts. Our role is rather is to facilitate the design process of that and stepping more and more out of the content. Asking rather dumb questions to really understand and then listen to whatever they say and learn from that.

Ariel: The session was, I would say, both reaffirming that we're pretty good listeners. However, there were a lot of things that we didn't know yet. It was more of a time constraint of we just needed to do more listening. We just needed more time. It also was a great leaping off point for us to know other people we needed to go talk to, to find out more to figure out where the deeper gaps were and also identify places that we were hearing different things from different people.

Jared: First hand experience will always be the thing that elicits the most empathy. Ariel and her team had the journey map and could listen to various people’s stories about their own interactions with the service. They now needed to step through that journey themselves to see where they may be missing things, or where the real challenges of the journey were. It was time to go out and do the work themselves.

Ariel: In addition to doing the journey map, we did some, what we called, stories from the street. Helping tell real stories of things that we saw, both from actual clients that we met on the street but also these workers, and showing both when they had successes but also some of the real challenges. We also encourage more people to go out into the field and shadow this work as well, so when they can, seeing through our eyes, but also trying to build additional empathy as well by directly experiencing it. There's actually a really cool ... it was picked up in the press, but the mayor and the social services commissioner actually went out and did frontline outreach one night, which was very cool to see.

Marc: Doing research. I think that is the most crucial thing. Really learn how the experience, how the reality is there. Don't work with assumptions. One of the typical mistakes we see nowadays is that people hear about certain tools, like a customer journey map for example, and then get together in a room, throw some post-its at the wall, create an assumption-based journey map, and never validate their assumptions. Then they base strategic decisions on these assumptions, and that just will go wrong. What you can learn from this case is do research, be out there, both with the employees and with the people you design for, your users, your customers. Do a lot of research continuously and base whatever you do on this data, on whatever you really find out there.

It is important that your team members see it with their own eyes, that you use qualitative techniques, if possible even ethnographic approaches, to really go out, that you do contextual interviews in the situation and context where the people that you really see it with your own eyes. Then over time it is important to keep your research data present, and not the quantitative data but the qualitative data as well, so photos you took, quotes from your users.

We often create what we call a research wall, where you hang up some defining quotes, photos, screenshots of videos and so on, artifacts you collect, and keep it present throughout the entire process.

Jared: Qualitative data is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

Ariel: We went out in a variety of different ways. We're looking for people. For people who are known, they have a client list. They map where they are, et cetera, so they know where to go back to find that person. Sometimes when we were doing, especially with some of the winter stuff, it's what we call a code blue, which is critical for saving people's lives because it's so cold outside.

We're going and checking on people to make sure that they are warm enough, to try to convince them to come inside with us. Some of that was more surveying from a car and driving around out in the outskirts of Queens looking for people, but also finding new places. We were out driving by a park out in Queens, and we saw something off on the back hillside of the park that looks like it could be somebody's stuff. We ended up getting out of the car and walking across the park and the outreach workers climbed up the hill and found a guy who had actually built an encampment up there. They offered him services, trying to get him inside. He declined that night.

We saw a lot of either just ignoring the workers, refusing, saying that they're okay, people who were very visibly suffering saying that they're okay. In New York, we have very good laws about protecting people's rights. They really have to be a danger to themselves or life critical in order to remove them from the streets, which I think is also something really important to understand, that we're not just doing enforcement and forcible removal of people, that they're having a choice in this as well.

Finally, one man said he was ready to come inside. They took him. They had to find a spot for him. They found a spot in one of the transitional housing locations, brought him in. He couldn't believe he had his own room. He was just shocked that he could have his own room, that that was even an option for him. But that was the only ... We witnessed hundreds of interactions, and in all of that we only saw one person fully accept services.

Jared: There is no substitute for experience. The old adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes rings true. We can’t design appropriately if we don’t know what we’re designing for.

Ariel: Pretty early on we were like, "Man, you get rejected just constantly by all of these people. How do you keep going?" That was something we asked every outreach worker, "What keeps you going?" I'm going to tear up talking about this, because it's so beautiful, but they told us the most beautiful thing they have ever had happen is when they give someone the keys to their own apartment. That person that they rescued got to come inside. When they give them their keys and they now have their own home and they have their services ... Sorry. I really am going to cry. That's why they do the work. That really stuck with us, was the giving the keys to people's own homes.

That's why the outreach workers do their work, but that's also why the city does this work.

Marc: It's such a visual picture of a success moment, actually of the defining success moment for outreach workers. This is why they're doing it. This is why they go through the valley of tears of frustrating moments of getting rejected again and again and again, because they're working towards having this success moment of passing over a key. I think it's just a wonderful picture which helps me as an outsider to have empathy with the outreach workers and understand a little bit why they're doing it.

Jared: In any service interaction, trust needs to be at the forefront. If your customers don’t find you to be trustworthy, they won’t use your service. But trust is also a major factor internally. Your workers need to trust the systems that are put in place so the promise or value proposition doesn’t disintegrate once the user engages with your service. Once you have a breakdown of trust it can be extremely hard to re-establish.

Ariel: It sometimes takes hundreds of contacts with somebody who's been let down by society to want to regain trust again, and so really saying, "No. We need to emphasize that."

Once they've built that relationship with this person and finally get them inside, get them willing to accept services, we need them to be ready and trusting once they go into that public assistance office or into that housing interview. We can't have it all break down because something further up the system broke.

Marc: How can they promote a product if they know it doesn't work? How can they promote any services if they know probably we won't keep it? That's a horrible experience for an employee.

What can service design do? We look not only at the employee experience or not only at the customer experience, but we also look at the internal systems. What are all the backstage processes behind there? How can we make sure that if somebody promised something we can keep it? It's the same idea there.

Jared: In any journey, you need to have a destination. If you don’t know where you’re headed, wherever you end is arbitrarily your endpoint. But you will never know if it’s the place you’re supposed to be.

When you’re designing a journey, knowing what you define as a success gives you a destination to move towards.

Marc: Before we start journey mapping we often ask: What is the most defining moment in the story? Another mistake many people do is they start journey mapping at the very beginning, which leads to a group having a huge discussion: So where does the story actually start? Instead start with the most defining moment. In this case it could be the moment when the outreach worker passes over the key. This is what we're designing for. This is where we want to go. If you compare that to web analytics, that would be what you define as a conversion. This is what you aim your designing for. Then think backwards. What are the steps that lead towards this moment?

You might come up with discoveries which helped for this conversion and you might find thing which does not help for it. These are then, again, different stories. Then you're going to have different journey maps, a successful one and maybe something where something went wrong, which will help you to understand and to actually do more research asking why didn't it work, to then understand what you could do differently to achieve this main aim you're working for, this defining moment of passing on the key. I really love that picture by the way. I think it's fantastic. It's a very visual success moment.

Jared: Empathy is a powerful driver. True empathy can change the way an organization approaches its designs or services, because they fully understand the issues that they are designing to solve.

Ariel: I think we had great success in changing the narrative, and a lot of, in particular, the public-facing things around this population. I think the people who are delivering the service have some of the biggest hearts in the world, but there was a lot of stuff that was a little more enforcement and a little bit harsher toned. I really saw a dramatic change in how we were communicating just out into the public about what people can do when they see someone on the street who may be homeless, but also the official homelessness policy document that's called Turning the Tide, which was issued in March.

I found myself tearing up the first time I read it. I really heard the voices of all the people we had talked to come to life in this report, a report, mind you, that my policy colleagues wrote. I didn't actually write it. It was such a change in maybe just even some of the dryness that you sometimes see in other policy documents that are less about the people that were serving and are serving on our behalf. It was a dramatic change in showing that we're providing these services, they're critical, and this is some of the stories of how they happen.

Jared: In an industry replete with buzzwords, we run the risk of burning a good term simply by misusing it. Empathy, true empathy, is an incredibly powerful driver of design. When we step through the journey and experience both sides of the service we’re providing, the customer side and the employee side, we arrive at a greater understanding of what it entails.

This gives us perspective that we may have not had previously. Ariel’s team saw first hand what outreach workers experienced in trying to provide services to the city’s homeless population. They could feel for the work being done and could translate that into defining moments of the journey.

This UIE podcast is brought to you by the UI22 conference that’s happening November 13-15 in Boston, MA.

Marc Stickdorn will be joining us there to teach his full day workshop, Service Design: Creating Delightful Cross-channel Experiences. He’ll show us how to create a cohesive customer experience by expanding beyond digital and designing for every customer touch point. To learn more about Marc’s workshop, visit

Also, if you’re in an organization that is looking to hire more UX designers anytime soon, I want to point you to our new school in Chattanooga, TN called Center Centre. Our students are learning what it takes to become an industry-ready UX designers and they need your help.

To help them learn the craft, they need great projects to work on. Companies supply the projects and, while they’re at it, they get to see what our students are capable of. It’s a great way to help grow our field while you’re doing preliminary recruiting. If you have a project that you think might work, please get in touch. You can learn more at Center Centre’s website. That’s C E N T E R C E N T R E dot com.

This UIE podcast was written and produced by Sean Carmichael. We'd like to give special thanks to Marc Stickdorn and Ariel Kennan for appearing on this episode.

You can find more information about the UIE podcast on our newly launched UIE Podcast Network website: U I E dot F M. Go there now and look at all the great shows we’ve put together over the years.

This podcast is part of the UIE Podcast Network. Thanks so much for listening and, as always, thanks for encouraging our behavior.