Administration for Childrens' Services


The Administration for Children's Services (ACS) contracts with private nonprofit organizations to support and stabilize families at risk of a crisis through preventive services, and provides foster care services for children not able to safely remain at home.

The Community Based Strategies (CBS) team at ACS helps to develop new programs and initiatives driven by data, research, and family voice, including drop-in group therapy centers citywide.


User-researcher and facilitator


For many families who undergo prevention services and foster-separation, the experience can be traumatic. The challenge is to conduct research with families in a way that's dignified, trauma-informed, and non-intrusive. The last thing we'd want to do as empathetic designers is cause our family stakeholders to relive painful and traumatic memories by asking intrusive, questions in an irresponsible way.


In collaboration with the Community-Based Strategies team at ACS, my team from the Service Design Studio at NYC Opportunity designed toolkits known as culture probes for inspiring trust among families.

Culture probes are a user-research artifact used for gathering data about people's lives, values, and thoughts. We designed our probes as personalized gifts that our families could take home and perform a set of self-directed tasks at their convenience that would later open a window into how they view the world through their direct experience.

Our guiding principle for designing a culture-probe was to give families a sense of control and stability, especially in a time of difficult transition.

Table of contents

  1. The Problem
  2. The Process
  3. Evaluating the process

The problem- A culture of fear and stigmA among families


We can't include families in the research process unless there's mutual trust established

As user-centered designers, it's an established best-practice to incorporate stakeholders in our research efforts. The very notion of user-centered design is to talk to and learn from... our users. Sounds like the right thing to do.

However, in the case of family prevention services, the conversations can be emotionally charged and counter-productive for the very families we're designing and advocating for.

Throughout our second research sprint in which the Studio interviewed Community Based Organizations (CBO's) offering prevention services, a recurring theme that we learned was that families were in fear of ACS. There were also feelings of stigma that prevented families from fully trusting their ACS caseworkers. Here's what we heard from the CBO providers.

"The challenge for us is that ACS has to come in as investigators. They go in like the police. Whatever time/day it’s on their schedule. It’s not the most relationship-building for our families."


"When ACS says 'do you want services'- it’s implied that they’re going to take their kids away, and that’s the message conveyed. I know ACS is working very hard to change that, but that’s their fear."


"The challenge w/ ACS is that they make the families believe that they have to sign or if not their children will be taken away"


"There are some families that sign up begrudingly- some of the reasons revolve around fear of ACS. Those are the families that are the most challenging to engage."


The data obtained from interviewing families is unreliable

Furthermore, we also learned that the responses we obtain from families during interviews can be influenced by trauma and fear, thereby yielding unreliable data.

Mai Kobori, design consultant and lead facilitator of the culture-probes workshop highlighted this very phenomenon; that the information we get from conversations with families merely scratches the surface of deeper issues, due to families' fear of saying anything that may potentially incriminate them.

Credit: Mai Kobori from "Probe Workshop: How do we gather inspiration?"

As one Executive Director from a CBO stated, some families may say things just to appease someone who they perceive to come from a position of authority:

When we get brought in- the families will say yes in front of ACS and then once ACS leaves the families say 'I really don't want services, I just wanted to get rid of that ACS rep'
-a community based organization

How then, can we incorporate families into the design process so that they can share meaningful, latent knowledge about their experience with prevention-services in a meaningful, dignified, and non-intrusive way?

The Process- Using the culture probe as a research tool

Culture probes are participatory in nature

As a qualitative research tool, a culture probe is presented to our participants as a "gift" by which they are invited to interact and perform a set of self-directed tasks in a safe environment at their convenience.

By presenting our families with culture-probes, we aim to treat our stakeholders not as research-subjects but as co-designers who are experts in their respective field. The aim is to change the traditional way of obtaining information; from that of an impersonal interview, to an immersive (and delightful) experience.

Examples of participatory probes are photo-diaries, journals, neighborhood-maps that allow for families to self-report on how they see the world through their lens.

Credit: Mai Kobori from "Probe Workshop: How do we gather inspiration?"

Culture probes are trauma-informed and strengths-based

Instead of inadvertently have our families re-live painful memories by asking questions such as "how did you end up in this situation?", a more optimal approach for nurturing trust and transparency would be to focus on the family member's strength as a care-taker.

A culture probe can be purposely designed to contain a set of activities that highlight their achievements as parents. Questions such as "when did you feel proud of yourself for overcoming a challenging situation?" would frame a more positive mindset for our stakeholders and do away with any feelings of judgment and retribution.

Rebuild control. Find opportunities to give families a sense of control and stability, even in a time of transition
-Mai Kobori, Design Researcher
Credit: Mai Kobori from "Probe Workshop: How do we gather inspiration?"

Culture probes are non-intrusive

We designed our culture probe to be a take-home "gift", so that family members can take their time and perform the set of instructions in the comfort of a safe space.

This was also designed to remove any external pressure that an interviewer could elicit by simply being in the room and adding to the participant's apprehension.

Credit: Mai Kobori from "Probe Workshop: how do we gather inspiration?"

The Process- Co-designing the culture probes with acs

Facilitating the culture probes workshop

We invited the Community Based Strategies team at ACS with the end goal of creating culture-probes that would enable families to provide firsthand accounts of a "day in the life" and their experience pertaining to family prevention services.

Mai Kobori kicking off the workshop with an introduction to culture probes
Facilitating discussion with the ACS team on creating a research plan
We asked questions such as "what do you want to understand about your family stakeholders?"
After creating the research plan- the ACS team designed the culture probes for their families

Next we developed a research-plan based on a template of questions that would guide the creation of the culture-probes. The template was developed into the following themes and questions:

Research questions
On the goals

What is the goal of the project?


Who is the stakeholder you want to engage with? why?

The what

What do you want to achieve using probes for this project?


How do we want our stakeholder to feel when engaging with the probe?

Framing the questions

How can you ask some of these questions in an inspirational way?

We want our family stakeholders to feel respected, safe, relieved, heard, trusted, and loved.
-ACS Community Based Strategies team

Planning how to deliver the probes to our families

Among the endless mediums in which a probe can be designed and packaged, we decided to focus on three design "motifs."

A camera is a window into the visual world of the participants. They are often asked to capture moments in their daily lives: things which inspire, bore, evoke memories and encourages abstract connections that draws upon their unique experiences. Example question: take a photos of ‘the spiritual centre of your home’ and can be as vague as ‘something red’.

Maps encourage participants to interact withtheir environment as a way to documentwhether they feel safe, unsafe, happy,relaxed, angry, anxious in particular spaces.Map could also refer to family trees, lifehistories, meeting places, and so forth.

Postcards show open ended questions,allowing participants to reveal concernsabout their cultural environment,technology and lives in potentially differenttone of voices and settings. They are aninformal, friendly mode of communication.

Next we guided our colleagues with the following questions for how to design the most optimal delivery-experience when presenting the probe to the caregivers.

Guiding questions for how to deliver the culture-probe

Who will you give the probe to?


How long do you want your stakeholder to engage with the probe? Is it going to be passive or active?


Why did you decide to explore this medium? (camera, map, postcard, or another medium)


How will you entice your stakeholder to use the probe?

Description of the probe

What is the probe? Write the instructions and draw the design probe of your choice.


How do you want your stakeholders to use the probe?

  • What does success look like in deploying the probe?
  • Where do you anticipate the participant to engage with the probe?
  • How do you plan on giving your participant the probe?
  • How do you plan on having your stakeholders return the probe?
We chose to present our family participant with the map probes. It's titled: "What's your happy place?"
-ACS Community Based Strategies team

lessons learned- How to improve the workshop experience

Better time management for facilitating discussions

I can't overstate enough how great it was to have design "allies" within ACS participate with the Studio in improving the way city-agencies (i.e. ACS) communicate with families in a dignified and trauma-informed way via culture-probes.

The conversations were exciting, the ideas were flowing, we were all engaged- but I mismanaged the amount of time allocated for group discussion. As a result, we didn't have enough time to fully develop the probes. In the future, I would adhere to a strict one-minute share-out of ideas and allow for participants to jot down follow-up points or questions on sticky notes and share them if there's time remaining.

Finding a way to continue the conversation

Just because we had a great workshop doesn't mean the conversation has to end then and there.

One thing all of the workshop facilitators agreed upon was that there should be a way to keep the discussions alive and explore ways of digitizing all of our ideas in a shared repository. It would also be great to host a follow-up workshop to see how the culture-probes worked with the family stakeholders.

"I liked, I wish, I wonder"

We came together as a team and shared our thoughts on how the workshop went and how we envision its progress in the future using the "I like, I wish I wonder" framework:

I liked...

Good vibes thanks to the icebreakers

Everyone was eager and willing to learn

Everyone talked in the workshop. High participation.

Not a lot of the participants had knowledge beforehand

I wished...

Better prepped with time management (i.e. facilitator's agenda)

Shareout could be intentional with role-playing

A "solidified" end-goal deliverable as a compass

More balanced control in the group discussion

I wonder...

Time to test with outside groups

More time to spend with the probe

Give more tangible examples of culture probes and how they work

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