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Collaborating with users in the social sciences

10.11.2013
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Inviting in customers, and indeed non customers, to test out potential products is a pretty well trodden path these days, and with social collaboration it’s increasingly common for companies to co-design products alongside customers and other stakeholders.

Does the same apply in social care environments though?  Researchers from the University of North Carolina believe that it should, and set out to explore why it isn’t used more often by care providers.

The rationale behind co-creating products is a clear one.  By involving end users in the design phase, not only are you likely to get better products, but you are also more likely to catch potential problems before you start mass production.

“That wrist strap on your video game remote is probably the result of an exuberant child accidentally flinging a prototype through a TV during pilot testing,” says Karen Blase, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “A strap is a lot easier to add before you ship three or four million remotes.”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers explored how outcomes could be improved in foster care situations.  The Kansas Intensive Permanency Project (KIPP) was set up by the University of Kansas and the state’s Department for Children and Families.  The project was implementing a new service for children with serious emotional issues to help them find permanent homes.  This is a particular issue because such children are three times as likely to remain in long-term care as their peers.

The new service was designed to improve parenting practices, therefore reducing the need for foster care.  Usability testing was trialled with the first batch of families to determine the potential viability of the new service.

The researchers found that the usability testing unearthed several key challenges for managers to address before scaling up the project.  For instance, it identified the parents least likely to accept the intervention, thus allowing a new strategy to be attempted to improve success rates.

The collaboration not only improved the service offered to parents and children, but it also improved the relationship between all parties in the process.  The researchers believe that such an approach could be equally effective in other human service settings, and plan to research this more in future.

“Making small tests of change, which translate to improvements early on, can prevent us from walking too far down a path that won’t lead us out of the woods.”

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