Upon turning 18, foster youth face the extremely difficult challenge of transitioning or aging out of the foster care system.
“The experience of aging out is traumatic. Some youth have longed for permanency and yet have not been adopted. Others want simply to be out of the system and on their own-- and yet they often don’t have the social support and networks that can ensure their success as adults. No matter how youth approach aging out, one thing is certain: resources, services and supports begin to fall away once you turn 18.”
- Kristin Brown, Solutions PDX
As participant and co-organizer of The Social Impact Lab and the OpenIDEO Portland Chapter, I was connected with the local non-profit Solutions PDX and a motivated group of former foster youth who shared the goal of supporting youth transitioning out of foster care.
Over the course of an 8-week intensive “design marathon,” my eyes were opened to the numerous challenges faced by a group of people I’d hardly known anything about. I’m so grateful to the youth I met, who so enthusiastically participated in this project. With their expertise, and our team’s design thinking process, we were able to propose a solution to the open-ended question:
How might we redesign “home” or “housing” for transitional foster youth?
Phase 1: Empathize
We conducted interviews with former foster youth and their advocates to learn as much as we could about the transitioning experience. We also created co-design opportunities where youth shared their insights through ideation, prototyping, and testing ideas. In doing so, we learned of one of their biggest obstacles to finding housing:
Youth may not be aware of what housing opportunities are available to them.
Former foster youth Nora* shared that she had to move out of “terrible” housing situations 3-4 times during her first year out of foster care, since she and her mentor weren’t aware of a better option:
“I wish I knew about the apartments I live in now. I wish I knew about them then. Nobody told me.”
Phase 2: Define
Using our insights from the empathize phase, we focused our research specifically on how foster youth seek out resources and support for finding housing. While most of these young people expressed their preference for personalized face-to-face help, there were some situations where they would look online instead:
Scenario 1: In-person support
Youth often prefer to receive personalized, in-person support from parental figures, mentors, and people they can relate to: “[They can] help you get a grip on yourself.”
In-person help is not always available/accessible
Even mentors and other supportive individuals may not know all the information needed, like in Nora’s situation
Scenario 2: Online individual research
Youth may be unable or reluctant to ask for help, especially about certain stigmatized topics: “I don’t want to admit to people that I have mental health problems.”
Support is not personalized
Information is difficult to find and navigate—information about separate programs are not available in a single place
Refining the Design Brief
Clearly, there is no “right” or better way to ask for help—both in-person and online channels have their benefits and challenges. So we refined our design brief to be:
How might we improve the ways that foster youth and their advocates access and share information and resources about housing?
Phase 3: Ideate
During a two-day “Social Impactathon,” we all worked together to ideate solutions that could address our new brief. We identified the following goals that we hoped our solution could address:
Tailor a research experience to fit the specific needs of transitioning foster youth
Connect youth to helpful individuals, and enrich their in-person help sessions by enabling them to access and share accurate information with each other
Cultivate a community that can help to ensure information is relevant and up-to-date
In order to check off these three very important boxes, we felt that only an online digital resource could do it all in a scalable way. But we didn’t want to lose sight of how important it is for youth to receive personalized, face-to-face help.
Phase 4: Prototype
We created a wireframe for what we are calling the Oregon Foster Youth (OFY) Resource Hub. It would be a mobile-optimized website or app that provides accurate, up-to-date, and relevant information for Oregon foster youth and their advocates. Youth and advocates may peruse the app independently, or make use of a number of features that encourage them to connect, or to reach out to others for face-to-face help. Here’s how we reimagined Nora’s journey to find housing (from the empathize phase) using the Resource Hub.
Nora wants to get started finding affordable housing, but cannot meet with her mentor until next week. She decides to use the OFY Resource Hub to learn more about the housing on her own.
When Nora opens the Hub, she answers some personal questions so she’ll only see information that is relevant to her situation. She creates a profile that reflects that she is over 18, a full-time student, and has a part-time job.
Once on the home screen, Nora sees the search bar, which she would normally use when looking up a specific question on Google.
Since she doesn’t have a specific question right now, she selects the Housing icon.
Nora sees information for the housing category, laid out in simple, digestible steps.
Because Nora created a Resource Hub profile and account, she may see a screen like this next time she visits the Housing category page. She can pick back up where she left off in her housing process, and she may also opt to receive reminders about the different steps.
Nora clicks on one of the steps to open a helpful resource. It presents detailed information about how to find housing, along with multiple connection opportunities that will put her in touch with advocates who can help her with her progress.
Phase 5: Testing
The next step for this project is to test our prototype and validate that it could be an appropriate solution for the youth and advocates we are trying to serve. We hope to work with Solutions PDX to get this phase underway in 2019.
Designing for Social Impact
For me, designing for social impact extends beyond the project you see here. As a volunteer organizer of the OpenIDEO Portland Chapter, I work with a team to host monthly events and workshops that connect Portland talent to social impact design thinking challenges.
Part of that effort includes co-organizing the Social Impact Lab, which in itself is an experience that we are iterating upon, designing, and testing. We are looking forward to introducing another session of the lab in 2019!