Michael Brennan, Samuel Brennan, Rachael Carson, Gaby Dorantes, Scott Everett, Rachel Rosenbaum, Adam Selzer, Lena Selzer and Alan Williams
There is perhaps no term as ubiquitous in city hall tech and innovation work these days as “human-centered design.” It is being cited in projects ranging from single sign-on initiatives to 311 mobile apps. While the concept has been around much longer in the private sector — deployed by gigantic companies like Amazon and Apple — government is just now catching up, crafting websites, processes and forms designed for human users rather than institutions.
Civilla, a Detroit-based company that describes itself as “a design studio dedicated to changework,” is out ahead, helping to push government in the right direction. Housed in a refurbished office where Chevy once built the first Corvette, Civilla has used human-centered design on an impactful project within state government, yielding significant results that are changing lives. Project Re:form started in 2015 as a redesign of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services application form, which at 45 pages, 18,000-some words and 1,000 questions was then the largest application for public benefits in the nation.
Within Project Re:form, Civilla conducted hours of interviews in applicants’ homes as well as with the public servants who processed the novella-length forms. By early 2018, the team had a new svelte version of 3,904 words, 18 pages and 213 questions that also kept all vital content. That form has now been implemented, and around this time last year, stakeholders reported it was coming in 94 percent completed versus a previous average of 72 percent, leading to faster processing. The form, in other words, now works for real people, both the applicants and state workers behind desks.
Since Civilla launched Project Re:Form, the influence of their work has noticeably trickled into statehouses and city halls across the country. In partnership with Code for America, the company is also working to do for Michigan’s online benefits application what it did for the paper version. While the Civilla team is varied and deep, at its heart are CEO Michael Brennan — a veteran of the United Way in Michigan — and Lena and Adam Selzer, design experts out of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.
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