Three Es of a Human-centered Approach to Build Meaningful Solutions

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People’s lives are richly complex and complicated. So we know that one size does not fit all when it comes to designing dignified and equitable solutions that connect people to help. Whether for an agency working to streamline enrollment, a worker managing a caseload of 300 people, or an applicant figuring out what benefits they are eligible for, how we help people must be driven by understanding the challenges these agencies and individuals face day in and out. 

We have to start by considering a person’s whole experience: who they are, what they’ve been through, and how they navigate the world. That’s why our approach to people-first design embodies the three Es: Equity, Experience, and Empathy.

  • We work toward building more equitable systems by recognizing broader issues of racial, economic, and social barriers that lead to people starting off in different places and having diverse needs.
  • As we work to connect people with the lives they dream of, we take into account the lived experience, getting to know their specific challenges and choices.
  • By approaching people’s challenges with empathy, we see things from different perspectives and design better experiences that treat all people with dignity.


Access to care is not enough. True equity requires recognizing that we don’t start out on equal footing, so that we can ensure that everyone gets fair and equal treatment that meets their needs, regardless of who they are or where they live.

In the Inland Empire of Southern California, more than 20% of children live below the poverty level. These children are more likely to experience dental-related health problems and reflect a large number of California’s children missing school because of the lack of early dental interventions.

When our partner, First 5 Riverside, wanted to empower local families and non-dental professionals to improve children’s oral health through a cloud-based, risk assessment mobile technology tool, The Inland Empire Smiles mobile app, we knew it had to be more than just good technology. We had to design for the inequitable barriers preventing families from accessing better oral health for their children — barriers some families faced because of where they were from and shortages of useful educational resources to teach parents better dental practices.

Read more about how our commitment to equity translated into a better, more effective tool that has successfully screened and connected over 9,000 high-risk children to dental services.


As part of our human-centered approach, we learn what truly works by speaking directly to folks about their lived experience — their knowledge, their choices, their personal journey.

To dig deeper into the crisis of college student food insecurity, we listened to Sandra’s story of her struggle to access and keep her SNAP benefits. Her lived experience validated and nuanced what we knew about this challenge: that students face specific barriers in navigating public systems, ranging from lack of information on campus to the instability in housing and employment that leads to documentation frustrations.

Learn more about how Sandra balances a busy life as a student with the pressures of food insecurity.


Asking for help is not always easy. Folks in need often feel uncertain about accessing services, fearful of how they will be viewed by others, and defeated because systems can be hard to navigate. Infusing empathy in our work means taking the entire process into account, including the emotional impact, allowing people to access assistance in the most dignified ways possible.

Our president and CEO, Robert Phillips, encourages us to ask ourselves, “How can we help our public institutions default to visualizing people in need as our mom, our sister, our brother, our neighbor?”

It also applies to those trying to provide help, by creating better systems and tools that provide autonomy and time, so they are “more likely to see the person in front of them as empowered, informed, and independent — embedding fairness and empathy in the system.”

Read Robert's thought-provoking post about how we can unlock government’s potential through fairness and empathy.