Sustaining a Human-Centered Design Approach to Engaging Families

Feb 6 2019

Authors: Sheetal Singh

This guest blog post by Sheetal Singh is the second in a two-part series about the Early Learning Lab’s Parent Innovation Institute.


In 2017, the Early Learning Lab launched the Parent Innovation Institute (PII), a nine-month initiative to explore how human-centered design (HCD) strategies, including co-creation and rapid-cycle learning, could help the early childhood field engage parents and improve family support services. 

For the institute, four participating family-serving organizations in Oakland, California’s Fruitvale neighborhood assembled teams of two staff members and two parents to co-design and prototype new and improved service offerings.

The goals of the initiative were to improve programs and services to better meet the needs of families, develop the leadership skills and innovation capacity of staff and parents, and strengthen the connections between organizations serving parents in a community. You can read more about the program and the experiences of each of the teams here. Six months later, we’re revisiting the evaluation and sustainability of human-centered design in this context.


Photo Credit: Early Learning Lab

Evaluating Our Human-Centered Design Initiative

Going into the initiative, we thought long and hard about an evaluation strategy. Program evaluation is difficult, particularly when the objectives are to support parents and strengthen relationships using rapid cycles of implementation and learning. How do you measure feeling supported and connected? And when should you evaluate an early prototype that, by design, continues to be refined?

Working with our funders, we decided to measure the strength of the PII model by comparing baseline metrics on the programs with metrics from the prototypes of new services.

For example, one data point we looked at was program attendance numbers: Were more or fewer people attending the new services compared with the older ones? As you will read in the report, overall more people attended the new services that the library and the Head Start center prototyped. Another promising outcome was that three out of the four organizations are now including their prototyped programs as part of their regular offerings.

We also had qualitative evidence, from pre- and post-surveys and interviews with the participants that indicated they felt they had developed their leadership skills and that PII helped foster connections between the teams. The teams have continued to connect and learn from each other, even after the end of PII.


Photo Credit: Early Learning Lab

Six Months Later: Reflecting on Results

But is this the whole story? Six months after the program ended, we wondered: Did the HCD training stick or did the organizations go back to business as usual?

We recently sat down with Annabelle Blackman from our Fruitvale branch library team and Carolyn Chung and Angelica Pacheco from the East Bay Agency for Children in Oakland to find out how PII affected their organizations and the way they work with families. We learned that both organizations have retained aspects of the HCD methodology in their work.

For example, Annabelle observed that in the months since the library team launched a new preschool-readiness play group, the cohort of children coming to the play groups has changed. The original cohort of mostly 4-year-olds has moved on to preschool and the library staff now have more toddlers in attendance. The activities and materials Annabelle was using are no longer age-appropriate. She needs to adjust the curriculum of the play group to fit this younger crowd, and she is using her design skills to do that:

I haven’t been in a toddler mindset in years. I do feel that I have to go back and learn and experiment. And I think that is design thinking’s biggest strength—permission to experiment, to fail fast. You don’t feel heartbroken when you try a new thing and it doesn’t work.

While both teams are seeking more feedback through surveys and focus groups from parents who attend their programs, they have not been able to make time for community engagement, a key part of the design process. Going into the community and observing and talking to parents in neutral spaces (parks, cafés, laundromats) allows for the opportunity to speak with a wider group of community stakeholders than the ones already attending programs, and it changes the power dynamic between the program and the parent. It is easier to be honest about feedback on a program or discuss views on kindergarten readiness when family members are chatting in a park instead of at their child’s preschool. But going out into the community is not usually part of a librarian’s or family engagement specialist’s job description. We also know that resources at most family-serving organizations are tight, and staff are rarely given space and time to engage families in this way.


Photo Credit: Early Learning Lab

Sustaining Human-Centered Design in Institutions

At the Early Learning Lab, we take an iterative approach to our own work. PII was just one model for bringing HCD principles to the early childhood space. We’re now taking the insights we learned from our initiative to adapt our approach to bringing co-creation and rapid-cycle learning to the field.

Communities are living, thriving entities, with new parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children coming into our family-serving organizations, bringing new experiences, perspectives, and needs. We can’t take a one-and-done approach to innovation. With the right support and organizational structures and buy-in, we believe organizations can sustain their own HCD strategies. Innovation needs to be internally driven, intrinsically motivated, and part of the organizational culture. 

One big lesson from PII that we carry with us is this: Although the initiative was successful at achieving the goals we had identified, particularly in increasing parent and staff leadership skills, we are aware that creating a lasting environment where staff have the support and permission to bring design and innovation to their work requires greater buy-in from leadership at the organizations. Leaders control the allocation of time and resources to embed the human-centered design approach into the culture of the organization. What if, in addition to training staff who work closely with families, we could also work with leadership to sustain the use of HCD in their organizations?

Over the next year, we will be exploring how to support this type of capacity development and identify new ways to incorporate HCD principles into organizations that serve the families of young children.


Sheetal Singh is the interim executive director of the Early Learning Lab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sourcing and spreading smart innovations and technology tools that equip parents, caregivers, and teachers with better ways to help children from birth to age 5.