While researchers want their work to contribute to social change, this is easier said than done. Researchers rarely have the tools or connections to reach the policy makers and practitioners who would make use of their work. Similarly, policy makers and practitioners often struggle to develop and implement policies and programs that reflect best the practices identified through research. This means there are significant gaps between knowledge and practice when it comes to addressing social problems like homelessness. This is where design thinking comes in as a tool to strengthen the connection between research, policy, and practice.

What Is Design Thinking?

In the technology or graphic design fields, design thinking refers to a process of creative problem solving with the goal of communicating a desired message, function, or feeling. In research, design thinking encourages researchers to think like designers. This means having an eye on how they will mobilize the knowledge they’re creating at every step of the research process. It also involves networking with the people who might want to use their research.

Design thinking is an active approach to sharing knowledge. It involves collaboration and making use of different tools, skillsets, and knowledge mobilization strategies. It means considering the interests and objectives of the intended audience and addressing the barriers they face in accessing and using knowledge, such as limited time, specialized language, or a lack of access to academic sources.

One example of design thinking in action is the site you’re on right now: the Homeless Hub, by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH). As the world’s largest library of research on homelessness, the Hub is always trying to make that research accessible, understandable, usable, and relevant to those working on solutions to homelessness. It was developed with multiple audiences in mind, such as government, news media, people with lived experience, policy makers, researchers, students, and social service workers.

Our design thinking approach has six parts:

  1. Content creation
  2. Accessible content for multiple audiences
  3. Knowledge translation
  4. Graphic design
  5. Communications and marketing
  6. Evaluation

We will take a quick look at each of these elements in turn.

1) Content Creation

Researchers who use design thinking methods are not focused only on publishing in peer-reviewed journals or presenting at conferences. They have additional goals, such as amplifying participants’ voices, influencing policy, developing new solutions to social problems, or changing organizational practices. Knowledge alone is not enough to meet these goals; to have the most impact, knowledge needs to be mobilized.

In design thinking, knowledge mobilization guides the research process from the beginning. It is highly collaborative and involves partnering with agencies, organizations, and communities at various stages, making it consistent with the principles of community-engaged scholarship. Pulling together diverse skills and interests as well as groups with different goals and approaches gives research a wider reach and can achieve a greater impact.

2) Understanding our Audiences

People engage with content in different ways and for different purposes, so a crucial part of design thinking is developing targeted content that takes into account your audience’s needs and how they can use your research. For example, the financial cost of accessing academic articles can be a barrier, as can the technical language used in them.

At the COH, we make all of our research available for free and release it in various formats to reach different audiences. For instance, we create plain language research summaries of our reports and even create infographic versions of their central arguments for quick consultation. We further summarize the reports as easily shared blog posts and push out key messages on social media. Each of these formats is intended to reach a different audience.

Identifying your target audience requires careful consideration of several factors, such as their prior knowledge of the subject, their time constraints, their reasons for seeking the knowledge, and their opportunities to act on it. Keeping these factors in mind can help you increase the impact of your research.

3) Developing Layered Content

At the COH, we take a layered approach to knowledge mobilization that involves translating research into multiple formats to reach a range of audiences and have a broader impact. We still produce long, detailed reports for those who need them, but we also produce summaries and blog posts and even present the same research as infographics or short videos.

We save on time and effort by thinking about these layers from the very beginning of a research project with the help of our dedicated communications team. Here are our typical steps:

  • Outline the story we want to tell
  • Flesh out concept ideas
  • Develop a visual design
  • Review and refine
  • Release

An example of this is THIS Is Housing First for Youth, released in 2021. It broke with the typical structure of an academic paper and instead follows a narrative arc as it presents the program model and operations guide. These reports were also distilled in blog posts, infographics, videos, and even a three-part, self-paced training on our e-learning platform, the Homelessness Learning Hub. This layered approach in turn contributed to a media strategy by being easily converted into messaging as part of a media package.

4) Graphic Design

Graphic design is a key part of our layered approach to knowledge mobilization. It helps to present information in a clear and visually appealing way. It can make complex information easier to understand and more engaging to the audience.

5) Marketing and Communications

The COH uses both conventional media and social media. Conventional media includes newspapers, television, and radio, and we engage with them through press releases, news conferences, and interviews. Social media is media that we produce directly and share with our networks, such as blog posts, newsletters, and social network posts.

6) Evaluation

As with anything, it is important to evaluate your communications work to see that it is achieving its goals. We use Google Analytics to track visits to our websites as well as to individual sections and reports. This requires embedding snippets of code in the website to get information about where users are coming from, what they are viewing, and how long they stay on the page. Social media also has a number of analytics tools, with Facebook, X, and LinkedIn all having their own analytics dashboards. These tools allow us to see which posts are most popular, and they help inform the wording, frequency, and scheduling of future posts.

In Conclusion

For research to contribute to preventing and ending homelessness, it needs to get into the hands of the people who will use it in a format that makes sense for their needs. Design thinking is about bridging this gap, going beyond the traditional academic format and language. At the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, we engage in design thinking every day as we conduct and mobilize research. Our goal with sharing this brief summary of design thinking principles is to support other organizations and researchers in the housing and homelessness sectors in expanding their reach and impact as well.

However, we know that not every organization or researcher will have the capacity to do all this. Through our social enterprise, Hub Solutions, we offer knowledge mobilization services to the sector. Whether it is to build a website, distill research into an infographic, or layout a report, the Hub Solutions team can help. All funds earned go back into funding the COH’s research agenda.