Why Social Workers Need To Think Like Designers

Sean Erreger LCSW
7 min readJun 6, 2022

Let’s start from the beginning. About five years ago I wrote a post about the need for social workers to be involved in UX design. My argument was that social work was missing from UX design (mostly health product design). That our systems thinking is essential to creating better health care experiences. We can utilize our education and experiences to solve healthcare problems such as reducing friction within the system. I found this especially true when looking at digital solutions. Don’t worry social workers, I still feel strongly about this, however my thinking has changed. Social work superpowers can be further unlocked by understanding user experience and product design.

When I did the original post a social worker who collaborates with designers challenged me to think critically. Don’t worry Joe, it took me about 5 years but I got there 🙂 …

The parallels between social work and design (thinking) are obvious — unfortunately to only a few of us. I dig your medium post, and will challenge you to think about shifting the perspective from putting social workers on design teams — to putting designers on social work teams

- Joe Silva (@painpointpaisan) December 20, 2017

So what has changed for me? Enter my job (about 7 months ago) as a clinical consultant for Awake Labs. Awake Labs is company using wearable data via a watch to better understand the emotional state of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As they were designing they recognized the need for hire clinicians as part of the team to design better experiences for caregivers, clients, and clinicians using their product. I was excited to enter this work as I finally got to put my original blog post to the test.

An unexpected outcome for me was able to learn from the product design perspective . I have learned design tools that helped me rethink not only my work at Awake Labs, but my role as a social worker. It was helpful to use these tools to help design digital services, they can also be utilized to design any mental health services.

Here are some of the tools that I have learned so far and how they have helped me rethink mental health service design…

Jobs To Be Done Framework (JTDB)

I will give my amateur version of this framework and provide some resources to dive deeper at the end. “Jobs To Be Done” was born out the business world but has recently gained a lot of traction in the design community. It is the notion that you break down products or services by the tasks they are intended to complete. Seems simple enough but there is some nuance in language that challenges you to shift your thinking about the “Jobs” that need completion. The key is to take your product or service completely out of the process. Then go through the necessary steps to complete particular tasks for that “job”. Here is a clear cut example…. (pardon the pun 🙂)

You are examining the overall themes of the task that is meant to be completed plus the optimal outcomes during the process. To put it in more social work example, making a referral to mental health service is the goal. The theme is to do so this so that people have access. The steps might be “patient calling, secretary answering, appointment made, appointment reminder sent, and appointment attended”. Then you would list about the opportunities, pain points, and desired outcomes at each point in the process. To optimize the outcomes you turn these into “outcome statements”. For instance “Minimize the time it takes for for the appointment to be made”. This statement makes you think about how to best design for this job to be completed. Another reframe is “maximize the amount of times people show up for their appointment”. Again thinking through each step is imperative in this process. Through his one realizes how complex finding opportunities while minimizing pain points can be.

We are just finishing up this process but the main take home was slowing down to examine the process. We often adopt services in social work because “we have always done it this way”. That to deviate from the process would somehow be wrong. But to examine our services step by step, one is able to see the various opportunities and pain points. That in thinking like a product designer we can see that a lot of work is ripe for change and innovation. It’s easy to say we “need to increase adherence to appointments” or we “need to make our mental health app easier to use”. It is more of a challenge to figure out how. This requires deeper understanding of the process and the steps you are trying to accomplish. It is definitely more complex than that and for a deeper dive into this method check out this medium post and also the “Jobs to Be Done Playbook” by Jim Kalbach

Behavioral Design / Designing For Behavioral Change

My argument for social workers to be involved in “all things design” was that we are systems thinkers. We can examine individual behavior and but it in it’s environmental context. Social workers have a keen sense to zoom out at look at not only individuals making change but the systems that influence that decision. I believe behavioral design theory strengthens our ability to not only zoom out but more importantly be able to zoom back in. To carefully walk though how we design systems for the people we serve. There are two resources that further assisted me with this.

First is the Behavioral Design Guide by Irrational Labs (you have to scroll down a bit but is there for free). It effectively breaks down how decisions our made. Not by the people who are designing the service but by the people who will be receiving services. In social work, we often center our design decisions with the agency in mind and not those who are receiving services. Behavior design challenges us to again to break things down into smaller, intentional steps. Similar to the Jobs to be Done Framework it challenges us to create a map, think about barriers, opportunities, and how to better use them in design. Behavioral design defines the barriers more for you. Putting a name to some of these barriers can help you reframe the problem slightly…

Reframing problems in this way can lead to more thoughtful design of social work services. Thinking about the referral and intake services; in what way can we create a mental health intake process that is both meaningful for the clinician providing it, but also increase the ease the experience for the client receiving it. Examining this from the behavioral design can help us gain a deeper understanding of the systems we design. Pragmatic things like health insurance (or lack thereof) and transportation are certainly systems issues we can address. We also excel at thinking about considerations like language and cultural competency. However are we considering barriers like cognitive overload in our design of something like an intake or screening prior to a therapy visit? Are we considering how taxing this process is for clients and clinicians? Are we viewing it as “just another thing we have to do” without considering how we might do it slightly differently?

I also have begun to read “Engaged: Designing for Behavioral Change” by Dr. Amy Bucher. Although currently only on Chapter 3, it has been a challenging to think about behavioral change in both a more traditional “behaviorist” view and to better understand context. That thinking this way can get you to think about the individuals “problem” as part of a whole process. It is not just solved in one step, considering one perspective but thinking about the things that perhaps make that step easier to complete.

Design in a Social Work Context

My journey with design theory is just starting as this is only 7 months in. But what I have already learned has opened my eyes to how social work could benefit from thinking more like designer. There is a lot more design theories to uncork but even just introducing these two frameworks has changed my view about social work practice and systems design. I thought people were designing systems wrong because they were not including social workers. Perhaps social workers are designing services wrong because they are not including designers. As us therapists say “perhaps it is both/and”.

Going through the “Jobs To Be Done” to help design part of digital health service forced me to think about how this could be applied to other systems. Whether it be applying to for social services benefits or making a referral, there are a lot of ways we can use these design concepts to improve these experiences. I look forward to learning more as time goes on but excited for the next 7 months. I will certainly keep you posted 😉

Originally published at my blog StuckOnSocialWork.com. Would love to hear comments and you can also find me on twitter @stuckonsw

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Sean Erreger LCSW

blogger, consultant #socialwork, #mentalhealth, suicide prevention. How tech & Social Media is changing change…blog: www.StuckOnSocialWork.Com