When it comes to products that serve vulnerable communities, it's a non-negotiable that we partner closely with those communities. By naming what we don't know and designing alongside impacted folks, we create our best work: solutions that truly meet their needs and reduce harm.
Situated in the justice and re-entry space, CROP, a nonprofit founded and led by formerly incarcerated people, has designed the Ready 4 Life Career Development Program to secure promising futures for justice-involved individuals. This initiative offers participants (referred to as Fellows) a comprehensive, human-centered approach encompassing advocacy, housing, and skill development tailored for the future of work. They had us at the first mention of “human-centered!”
Our partnership with CROP marks a new and exciting chapter for Exygy. Together, we’ve embarked on a multi-stage engagement to supplement their already robust Ready 4 Life program with innovative digital services. The program is all about connecting participants, also known as ‘Fellows,’ to leadership training, digital and financial literacy, and housing readiness. The program also provides room and board for those who need it plus a monthly stipend. CROP has already empowered numerous Fellows to take charge of their personal growth and follow a path to healing and success.
Every year, the more than 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons in the U.S. are met with obstacles in their reintegration. Not only have many lost touch with their families and communities, they find themselves barred from receiving crucial public benefits, housing, and jobs. Not to mention adapting to a world that has changed technologically since they were incarcerated. These barriers make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for countless individuals returning home to regain their footing. The Ready-for-Life program was designed to help folks combat these very challenges.
One of our projects with CROP involved crafting a Ready-for-Life Fellow's Portal, a digital platform designed to accompany and assist Fellows throughout their journey in the Ready-for-Life program. In order to create a truly equitable and meaningful product, we knew we had to do things a little differently.
How do you know when to co-design?
At Exygy, we're big believers in putting people first through Human-Centered Design (HCD). The HCD process works to empathize with people, understand what makes them tick, and let their needs shape the DNA of our products. This process involves engaging with users directly through direct research using methods such as interviews and user testing. This way, we're not guessing what users will find valuable or will actually use — we're getting it straight from the source.
But let’s be frank: this process isn’t without its limitations. The users themselves do not decide how they are represented or actively participate in the creation of the product – the designer retains this authority. And in contexts where there has historically been power asymmetry — with one group holding decision-making authority over another — this can result in biased solutions that perpetuate inequitable power hierarchies.
Because of this, and recognizing our lack of firsthand experience with reentry, we understood the importance of inviting people with lived experience as valued partners in the design process. Where we hold expertise in one area, the user and community holds expertise in another. The key is working together to leverage our respective knowledge and to extend power equitably.
So how do we accomplish this? The answer: Co-design.
Co-design, a variant of participatory design, radically disrupts the traditional power balance in HCD by involving users in the design and decision-making process. Which sounds great, should be standard practice, right? But one reason co-design isn’t more commonly practiced is, simply put. it’s tough (and takes longer) to pull off.
Guided by our value of embracing fear, we embarked on what would be a challenging, but rewarding collaboration with end-users.
A look within
Establish our team’s positionality
Our backgrounds influence how we see things, which becomes particularly significant as designers with the potential to impact lives through our products. "Positionality" refers to how our inherent identities can shape and potentially bias our understanding of the world and how we design for it. The same information could have a different meaning for someone with a different identity.
To understand how our identities influenced our relationship with incarceration, we created a space within our delivery team (designers and project manager) to examine our positionality to the carceral system using these discussion prompts:
What are our experiences/ touchpoints with incarceration (can extend to the criminal legal system, recidivism, etc.)?
What are our beliefs about the above topic and where do those beliefs stem from?
What are our assumptions about this topic and its subjects (CROP, people who have been formerly incarcerated, etc.)?
Based on our discussion, is there anything we can do to help us navigate this project equitably?
Through open conversation and self-examination, it became clear our team lacked personal experience with or proximity to arrest, imprisonment, or incarceration. Also, we observed that this lack of familiarity made it feel like “stepping on eggshells” when interacting with the client, worried about accidentally saying the wrong thing.
Recognizing this, we took the initiative to educate ourselves and challenge our preconceived ideas — which included examining stereotypes about reintegration and expanding our understanding of the prison system and policing — and seeking subject matter experts for guidance.
Before our design team could begin creating and collaborating with end users, there was important groundwork to be laid.
Recruiting the right participants
Lacking any direct exposure to the carceral system, our next step was to create space for learning from the true experts — individuals who have lived through and endured incarceration.
In our case, we enlisted the support of Ready-for-Life coaches to stand-in for real and prospective Fellows (as proxy users). This decision was due to the challenges of involving those recently released, accepted into the program, or currently in the system. Fortunately, CROP's own hiring ensured that their coaches mirrored a representative range of lived experience.
For us, representation meant purposefully involving participants from marginalized ends who are even more so affected by systemic inequalities. For this, we sought to include the perspectives of people who have experienced long-term incarceration, those of older age, individuals without college education, and those with limited tech literacy, among others. However, in design, these experiences aren't just edge cases or at the “margins”; they form the foundation for fair and inclusive design.
For any meaningful community engagement, it was essential to establish trust.
An important part of establishing trust was having a community liaison from the client's side. This person helped connect Exygy with the right participants, building trust and making communication smoother. They also provided important context, language help, and guidance to make sure everyone interacted respectfully.
After the liaison's introductions, we designated a team member to host casual 15-30 minute meetings with coaches. This gave us a chance to get to know each other, explain our goals, and build connections. Most coaches were excited about this, and it greatly helped the workshop feel friendly and comfortable.
Preparing the Co-Design Session
Hosting a co-designing session is pretty similar to having folks over for dinner. We not only have to prepare the meal (the content of the session), but we also have to prepare the space our guests will occupy. Special attention must be paid to the atmosphere we create, the language we use, and the tools we incorporate so that everyone, regardless of their background, feels brave enough to fully participate and bring their full selves to the table.
We knew having a remote session was going to be the biggest constraint for the group. With guidance from our liaison, we selected Google Slides as our platform of choice, using elements that were user-friendly for individuals with limited digital literacy. It was simple enough to create templates that could be quickly duplicated and have a low barrier to use.
In addition, we decided on one comprehensive co-designing workshop — as opposed to multiple engagements — to protect the coaches’ time.
Realizing that we had just one session and limited time, we needed to make the most of it for design. But what could we collectively base our designs on? Normally in HCD, you begin with foundational research data (which the participants already had in their minds). That's why we devised a pre-workshop research activity using empathy mapping. This activity aimed to gather and generate data about the entire range of experiences that formerly incarcerated people encounter in their day-to-day lives.
This exercise opened our eyes, giving us insight into the real experiences and emotions of end-users from their lens, outside the context of any specific product. Using this data, we synthesized a summary that could serve as a foundation for our co-designing during the workshop.
After all this, there was only one thing left to do: run the workshop!
We won’t go into much details of each activity of the agenda, as the subject of this blog was about the set up and thought process.
Ice breaker: An easy icebreaker is always effective for getting everyone comfortable with speaking.
Kickoff: We started the session by asking the group the problem that would guide the workshop activities: What might a digital solution that helps a Fellow succeed in the Ready-for-Life program look like?
Design principles (qualities): Breaking into two small groups, we first defined what we termed “design principles” — qualities we wanted our solution to represent and embody. Words we came up with include "empathetic," "simple," and "guiding" as examples.
Rapid ideation: Participants were then led in rapid ideation. This 20-minute, two round free-form design activity had a few simple ground rules:
Quantity over quality
Dot voting: We reconvened as a group, sharing ideas and keeping our design principles in mind. Through a process of dot voting and feedback, the group reached consensus on which idea to pursue.
Sketching: Participants embraced the role of creators, guiding our design team in sketching a prototype for the Ready-for-Life Fellows Portal, outlining its intended features and functionality.
Design isn't just about the product; it's about the process. Though we tried a model that required less effort than a more integrated approach (e.g. commons-style decision-making), the results were still meaningful in instilling ownership and esteem in end-users. This first pass at co-design with CROP not only sparked ideas for future collaborative endeavors and power-sharing, but also signified the onset of a fresh design approach at Exygy.
By involving those with lived experience in the ideation and design process, we diligently create equitable products that cater to the needs of the intended population. The Fellows Portal's final product is currently in development and is set to launch in October 2023 for a pilot with CROP’s coaching team, who informed its initial design through user interviews.
We're looking forward to continuing our partnerships with end-users at the margins, and we're committed to refining our process to cede our power even further.