By Jem Heinzel-Nelson Alvarenga Lima

As a team who works primarily with research and data, “empathy” is not a word that we often come across. But over the past several weeks, our team dived into the world of human-centered design to think about how measurement tools and systems can respond to the needs of early childhood teachers and providers.  Human-centered design is all about building empathy with the people we are designing for and developing new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.  It helps teams and organizations keep the people we are looking to serve at the heart of the process. and Acumen Academy have partnered together to create a 7-week online course that helps teams dive into the three phases of the human-centered design process: Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation.   The course is a combination of independent reading and watching videos with weekly team workshops as teams work together to create innovative solutions to real-world challenges.  It was a fun opportunity for our team to come together, brainstorm, put together some crazy ideas, laugh, and grow together professionally; a welcomed respite from the past two years and a chance to develop a sense of community together.

Our team decided to focus on the following challenge: How can we better design tools and processes to change early childhood teacher/provider behaviors and increase evidence-based practices? This challenge builds on our team’s ongoing work with the Brief Early Childhood Quality Inventory (BEQI) as we seek to refine and improve the BEQI tool and processes to help improve quality in early childhood settings in the USA and abroad.  One of the newest aspects of BEQI is the development of an app (still in beta phase) where both observers and providers can collect information and data about classroom quality and receive individualized feedback to address specific areas of improvement.  As we work through the details and design of this app, our team is using a human-centered design process to make sure that beyond simply collecting data, the app helps providers and program administrators with goal setting, suggestions and supports, and incentives for increasing the frequency of evidence-based practices to improve the quality of their early childhood programs/classrooms.

During the Inspiration Phase (my favorite stage) our team had the opportunity to hear and learn directly from the people we are designing for: early childhood providers.  With the impacts of COVID limiting our ability to do fieldwork over the past two years, this was a breath of fresh air. We held interviews with multiple early childhood providers to better understand their needs, what works for them when it comes to measurement and professional development, what they like and what they don’t like, what motives them and what frustrates them.  Providers were honest in their interviews and had us laughing with them at times and shaking our heads with empathy as they shared some of the most difficult aspects of their jobs.  These interviews were incredibly insightful and really helped to inform and shape the next phase of the process: Ideation.

During the Ideation phase, our team had the difficult task of navigating through all the rich information, anecdotes, and insights gained from our interviews during the Inspiration Phase to synthesize and turn our research into tangible ideas and solutions.  This was hard for our team- there were so many directions and different opportunities for design- it was challenging to choose which were the most promising to move forward with.  Ultimately, we had to make a balanced decision on which ideas most excited us as well as which ideas seemed most practical for our team to implement (i.e. we couldn’t go with the idea of providing an all-expense paid vacation to Hawaii for the providers who showed the most improvement in the quality of their early childhood programs.)

Our team is still working out the details of our design and next steps as we move into the Implementation Phase.  We have developed a prototype for this aspect of the BEQI app and we are excited to test these concepts and continue to get feedback from providers to make sure we design measurement solutions that meet their unique needs.  It is our hope that at the end of the day, our solution to our team’s challenge (how can we better design tools and processes to change early childhood teacher/provider behaviors and increase evidence-based practices?) will be successful because we kept early childhood providers at the heart of the process; because we built empathy with the people we aim to serve through a human-centered design approach.