Developing a service design concept that would enable autonomy for children in foster care

MY ROLE: Service Design, UX Research

TOOLS USED: Photoshop • Illustrator

TIMELINE: January – April 2017

TEAMMATE: Zack Labadie

The Project

This project investigated the Massachusetts foster care system to develop a service design concept that would enable autonomy for children in foster care.

To do this, we researched the foster care system and the experiences of the key stakeholders within it, relative to the foster care children. We also focused on understanding the challenges experienced by these kids.


To begin our process, we worked to define modern autonomy and what that concept really meant. We brainstormed items, ideas, and feelings that we associate with being autonomous. 

Then, we grouped these words using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to create a diagram that represents the relationships and feedback loops associated with living autonomously. 

The colors used in the diagram is used to show  hierarchy – dark blue representing the most basic requisites to achieve autonomy, gold representing the goal states, and the light blue representing what’s in between.


Before beginning research, we laid out what we thought we knew about the foster care system, and realized it was very little. These gaps in our knowledge were very much highlighted, and we developed a research plan accordingly. 

Zack and I wanted to learn more about foster care and experiences of the stakeholders within the system.

We created a stakeholder map based on our initial research into the foster care system to showcase the key players in a foster child’s life. The people who were placed closest to the center are the people who are the most influential to the child’s autonomy. 

This mapping would eventually lead to a focus on the relationship between the foster child and the social worker.

We analyzed the everyday tasks of the children, social workers, and foster parents to help us better understand and empathize with  the people involved.

We sought out personal accounts and expert perspectives on the foster care system, finding stories from past foster care youth through news outlets and interviewing a variety of professionals and foster parents including Emily Mann, a Senior Research Associate with a Ph.D. in Social Welfare, Elise Dallimore, an Associate Professor specializing in organizational development and Foster Parent, and Jennifer Sartori, Co-Director of Adoption and Jewish Identity Project and Adoptive Parent.

“The worst isolation occurs when there is no parent present at all. When a child enters the foster care system, their only real parent is the state. The state is not a parent, it cannot properly care for a child.”

From our interviews, the most important insights we got were:

A positive feedback loop can exist in foster care youth: parental separation causes trauma or other developmental issues, this makes the child difficult to care for, the child becomes more apt to be relocated, instability increases and the child’s temperament further erodes.

Social workers are overworked, underpaid, under appreciated, and yet crucial to a foster child’s success.

Stability is essential in order for a child to have a fair shot at success (and, ultimately, autonomy).

“Adoption, you chipped away at the finite width of my lifespan … I picked myself up, when I had the strength, but always found myself falling again, without any internalized unconditional love on which I could stand. I fell through life, when others around me stood proud.”

When Zack and I developed a better understanding of the foster child experience through our research, we were able to use that qualitative and quantitative data to develop an experience map that follows a foster child’s experience in the foster care system, from entry to exit. 

The diagram shows important stakeholders and events in the foster child’s experience, as well as demonstrates the emotional impact that it has on them. Statistics regarding the likelihood of paths that diverge after relocation show the very different and uncertain outcomes that can be a result of foster care. 


Our research findings made it clear that autonomy for foster children was the result of having stability in their lives. Of course, reunification or adoption would be the ideal form of stability, but stability could also come in other forms of support. Thus, we worked to conceptualize a service that would help these children obtain and retain stability, as well as offer a path towards reunification or adoption.

We brainstormed all the services that we thought would be able to serve that purpose, and then plot them on a cost vs. value graph, where cost was the difficulty of the implementation of the service, and value was the impact that it would provide for the foster child. Ideally, the service would reside in the top left quadrant where it is low-cost and high-value.

Out of the various services that were in that low-cost, high-value quadrant, we eventually decided to explore the idea of a game that could be played by the foster child and the foster parent(s). We knew that games were a good way to not only offer a way to escape from reality, but also provide a catalyst for genuine social interaction.

Once we created our idea of how the game would play out, we modeled a hero’s journey to understand and visualize how the game would take place in the life of a persona named Susie. The hero’s journey is a narrative template that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, struggles through obstacles and triumphs, and then returns home transformed. This model provides an easy method of gauging the value and transformative capacity of any service or product.

In this case, Susie’s hero journey begins with her leaving isolation, feeling uncomfortable but agreeing to play the game, temporarily overcoming her fears regarding being in a new and different home, and by the end of the game feeling more comfortable to open up to her new family.

Using the hero’s journey as a guide, we created a dual track storyboard to illustrate the user-facing experience of the game on the top row, and the unseen technical functions of the game on the bottom row.

By this time, our concept for Reframe expanded to include the social worker, a key player in ensuring the stability and autonomy of the foster child. The game now serves a second purpose — interpreting and reporting the player data to the social worker, who would then be able to use this information to monitor the well-being of the foster child. 

We created a service blueprint to explore the potential of our game concept and have an idea of how exactly it would work. We planned out how the user would interact with the game, how the game would respond to the user playing it, and the various processes that support the gameplay. 


Lastly, we translated our storyboard into a service concept video in order to showcase our final concept without having a fully-realized visual design.