Design Thinking Shaped New Michigan Child Support Calculator (Industry Perspective)

An iterative, inclusive process resulted in a tool that serves staff and customers more effectively.

by Erin Frisch and Jamie Walker / August 18, 2016

“We had a unique one today with one non-custodial parent and two different support amounts for two different periods, and it worked like magic.” This child support worker is describing the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services child support calculator, which was recently redesigned in a clear, transparent and human way. 

The co-design process was not “build it and they will come” development in which technology solutions are built in isolation. Instead of creating something for caseworkers, the department created it with them, using iterative development methods. 
 
By exploring the calculator’s place within the larger customer service process, the department, working with its partners, surfaced underlying challenges and then designed solutions directly with those who use the calculator — and the parents they assist — in mind. This helped to take the stress away for caseworkers, make parents feel fairly treated, and establish the right amount of support for the children involved. 

Looking beyond the math

Establishing an appropriate child support obligation for a family can be complex. It involves personal financial information, and sometimes, raw emotions. Child support calculators play a vital role in the process. Caseworkers use them to determine the necessary level of support based on robust state formulas. The calculator is a linchpin of the program — child support orders would not happen without the calculator, and it is used more than 5,000 times per month. 
 
Well aware of the importance of this tool, the department had tried before to enhance it without satisfactory results. This time, leadership recognized that to get different results, they had to work differently. So instead of focusing solely on getting the complex math right, the department extended its emphasis. Without a doubt, the math mattered. But so did the more than 1,500 caseworkers’ experiences using the calculator with parents. That’s why the department moved away from status quo redesign processes to an innovative co-design process that emphasized both functionality and service experiences.
 
With this dual focus, the goal was to create an accurate, easy to use tool that “lifted the veil” on how and why child support calculations were made. After all, transparency is essential to building confidence and consensus among parents, caseworkers, attorneys and judges that child support payments are exactly what they should be. Leadership also hoped that a simple and clear calculator would help diminish people’s reluctance around using child support services when they really could benefit from the program.

Making a human calculation

This unique co-design process started with the caseworkers themselves. The project team conducted a series of interviews to understand frontline experiences and perceptions about the calculator. 
 
These interviews revealed caseworkers’ concerns for parents in this process was a top priority. They believed that parents experienced the calculator as a “black box.” Custodial and non-custodial parents provided extensive financial information, from income to expenses, which caseworkers entered into the calculator. But the calculator failed to provide enough information about how the resulting child support recommendation was derived. This left parents feeling confused and unhappy about support amounts.
 
For many parents, the issue was not the accuracy of the results. It was having assurances that the resulting obligation was fair. But caseworkers could not necessarily provide such assurances. The calculator was not optimized for consistency and transparency. It was not flexible enough to accommodate what-if scenarios. Most importantly, caseworkers did not have the tools to moderate informative conversations with parents. The results often felt arbitrary to all, and service experiences were not satisfying. 

Multiplying the impact 

Working from this insight, the project team approached this initiative as something much more than a usability refresh. They approached it as a service design challenge. 
 
This meant addressing the calculator in context, not as a technology transformation for technology’s sake, but as a tool within a broader service experience. This experience needed to be a clear, consistent, collaborative — and human — interaction. Caseworkers had to be armed to be transparent with parents about how child support decisions were made. Parents needed to have all of their questions answered. 
 
Instead of using a rigid, sequential design process, the project team opted for an iterative design process. This meant that solutions were repeatedly tested as they were being built. The team shared progress with a group of up to 20 stakeholders every two weeks. They gathered and incorporated feedback into the next stage of development. 

From black box to open book 

Six months after caseworkers started using it, the new co-designed calculator is helping them offer the positive customer experiences that they hoped to deliver. Today’s calculator is a tool, not a barrier. It helps build understanding, guide parents and assure that child support obligations are fair. The result is more transparency, consistency and faster results. The calculator is delivering important benefits:
 
Creating a head start that saves time 
The new calculator pulls data directly from the case management system so workers have a head start based on information that has already been provided or supplied through automated systems. The tool also allows for customization of specific comments that are routinely added to child support order recommendations, saving time and reducing effort when creating calculations.
 
Getting to the right answers—fast 
Auto-calculation makes it possible for caseworkers to quickly inform parents about the support that they would get during any timeframe. Unlike before, the answer is just a click away. 
 
Enabling more effective court time
The new calculator now creates a more exhaustive report specifically tailored to courtroom requirements. The project team designed the final report with caseworkers to help ensure they have all the information they need to present to the judge.
 
Delivering outcomes that matter
In the first 10 weeks that the calculator was available, there was a near 9 percent increase in the number of calculations performed compared to the same time period last year. Caseworkers can now accomplish the same results with a single calculation, where previously each calculation required at least two iterations.  
 
Helping parents serve themselves
As part of its commitment to transparency, the department plans to develop an online version of the calculator that parents can use themselves. 

Counting on lessons learned 

The department’s experience co-designing the child support calculator offers insightful lessons for other human services agencies that are considering using a similar approach.
 
Start with the business case
Co-design and iterative development is not the right fit for every situation. Agencies need to think first about the business problem that they want to solve. Different methodologies apply best to different situations. For example, regulation-driven initiatives are unlikely to be a strong fit, while user-centered needs like this are more aligned. The ideal for any agency should be to develop a set of options rather than to over-rely on the same standard approaches every time. 
 
Balance risk and creativity 
Agencies that select an iterative design approach must be comfortable with the risks that come with it. This kind of process can challenge agencies’ risk tolerance. Leadership must be comfortable letting something evolve, putting something into production that will by its very nature have multiple versions. Some programs are ill-suited for a methodology that is about continuous improvement and evolutionary change. Agencies also have to consider whether they have the time to commit to a process like this. Sometimes, more definitive, sequential process with formal exit criteria might be a better option. 
 
Make user-centered design a priority
For co-design processes to work well, agencies must keep users and customers as their North Star throughout the development process. This means truly understanding the needs and behaviors of specific audiences, not just making assumptions about them. It also means committing to the latest service design principles to create interactions that are intuitive, relevant and welcome. For Michigan, this meant finding the sweet spot to accommodate baby boomers and Gen X employees and millennial parents who have starkly different expectations and comfort levels with digital tools like the calculator.
 
Close the loop on feedback
By interviewing caseworkers at the beginning of the process, the department set an expectation about their involvement. Agencies that take a similar approach should develop a process that does not just solicit initial feedback, but that also re-engages people toward the end of the process, perhaps with a first view or option to test drive the tool.
 
The sum of the parts
As it was in this case, co-design is a newer development approach for many agencies. It provides an excellent way to build transformation that works for the people actually doing the work. It also embodies a test-learn-optimize philosophy that can help agencies get to the end result that works for all stakeholders, while protecting their investment. That adds up to a win for everyone involved. 
 
Erin Frisch is the director of the Office of Child Support for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Jamie Walker is the managing director at Accenture. An earlier version of this article was published in Policy & Practice, the journal of the American Public Human Services Association.