Navigating a complex and inefficient web of social service systems can be crippling. What if social services took its cues from the customer-centric, technologically streamlined world of retail?

Imagine this. You’re a single mother of two, working multiple jobs and struggling to make ends meet. You have come to terms that you need support, but where do you go? You are unsure of your eligibility for different social services and feel overwhelmed while navigating the intricacies of assistance for each of your needs—from food insecurity, to housing, to employment, to health care.

Today, this is not an easy process. Members of our community in need may struggle with keeping a sense of dignity and belonging as they share repeat vulnerability with each new organization. What would it feel like to seek help over and over again? Would you even start? The barriers in the life of a person who is experiencing hardship are already immense, but the added challenge of navigating a complex and inefficient web of social service systems can be crippling. If our purpose is to uplift and stabilize these individuals so they can quickly become self-sufficient and contribute additionally to our community, social services must be approachable and human-centered.

This piece of thought leadership is part of 11 Moonshot Ideas to Move the Columbus Region Forward: A Future 50 project.

THE IDEAS

The need for a civic renaissance • The private sector should fight inequity • Closing the digital divide • Driving equity by funding women-owned businesses • Designing a more equitable region • Using data to guide public policy • Customer-centricity in social services • A radical recalibration of education • ISO: Ambassadors for science • Finding true work-life balance post-Covid • Reimagining community-police relations • Why we did this project

Most service agencies and their operations tend to work in a silo, under their own distinct systems which are fragmented from other providers. The understanding of what a person and their family needs is decentralized, often existing only within the individual agency for that one service provided. If the data exists at all, it is not easily shareable and thus no single provider has a complete picture. This makes it hard to assess the needs of the whole person, where they are already getting help, and how agencies can make the biggest impact on their experiences. What if social services, rather than feeling siloed, could wrap around a person and put their holistic needs at the center? How does this vision and transparency enable agencies to guide and serve their customers more intentionally like businesses serve the modern consumer?

We believe the future of social services is an experience of empowerment, choice and convenience—one where different organizations coordinate and share their collective data to meet people’s needs end-to-end. The future is predictive, where rather than the customer experiencing friction from seeking help, that help is proactively presented to them and curated to their unique needs. That means if you are homeless, you don’t have to learn how to navigate each and every system, and there is no wrong place to start your journey. Regardless of the individual’s first touchpoint, that person would be guided to resources where all their needs are met starting with just one interaction. If we can imagine a future for social services like today’s on-demand economy, customers will one day be able to access support services as seamlessly and immediately as using Netflix, Teladoc or Doordash.

This all becomes possible when organizations collaborate with one another to build a more holistic, deeper understanding for the people they serve and the problems they face across the social determinants of health. The key is being human-centered. Armed with this knowledge of the customer and their needs, agencies will see opportunities emerge to improve how they serve their audiences, and insights will drive the priorities for what they build to meet those objectives. As more organizations build their data capabilities and share what they learn with their peers, predicting future customer needs will proactively improve outcomes and uplift our communities to self-sufficiency.

In Columbus, this shift is already underway. There are multiple forward-facing organizations in our own community working to build this vision—Mid-Ohio Food Collective, Smart Columbus and Columbus State Community College are among them—but there is more work to be done. We call on nonprofit board members and community leaders to prioritize a culture of customer centricity—to reimagine what their customer’s ideal experience could look like, and how collaborating with other agencies to understand the whole person across sectors will help bring this vision to life. We have to start by seeking to understand the complexities of the human experience, sharing our data and customer research with our peers, and congregating to solve these hairy human challenges together.

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Human-centered design for nonprofits

Social services are uniquely positioned to improve the human condition, finding increased efficacy when leveraging data and a customer-centric mindset to meet the needs of their communities. In my work developing ZoCo, my digital and user experience design agency, I’ve found nonprofits who use data to understand the people they serve often come to more innovative solutions. It starts with looking outside of your own perspectives and assumptions.

ZoCo’s partners at the Mid-Ohio Food Collective are especially invested in data-driven insights, and through collaborative efforts, we prototype together to test and learn with their customers. This helps them uncover opportunities, inform design decisions, and launch initiatives that solve complex problems with clarity and courage. It’s the first step to reshaping their customer journey.

The Mid-Ohio Food Collective provides enough food for 150,000 meals daily to help stabilize families. The organization supports its customers’ interconnected needs by linking hungry neighbors with wraparound community services, helping them toward economic sufficiency.

Today, Mid-Ohio is exploring and beta testing several new initiatives to prioritize customer needs, choice, and convenience—solutions such as food lockers, “food as health” prescriptions, and on-demand food delivery. The organization also is undertaking efforts in partnership with Smart Columbus, Franklin County, Columbus State and others to develop technology solutions that connect with other social service providers to deliver more seamless and integrated user experiences across social service entities.

We call on nonprofit board members and community leaders to prioritize a culture of customer centricity—to reimagine what their customer’s ideal experience could look like, and how collaborating with other agencies to understand the whole person across sectors will help bring this vision to life.

Lacey Picazo is founder of ZoCo Design, a digital and user experience design agency.

With contributions by Ryan Wilkins, John Rush, Alex Frommeyer, Josh Harrison and Jordan Davis