U.S. has the largest official prison population in the world. And among the 620,000+ people released each year, one third will return to prison at some point. While there are many causes for recidivism, unemployment proves to be one of the most influential.
With the overarching goal of breaking the cycle of incarceration, I designed an app to help the previously incarcerated obtain employment by focusing on the following problem statement:
Job seekers need a way to demonstrate their true selves and shared humanity because employers dehumanize them based on their criminal record.
Designing to tackle prejudice
1. Change the language. Replace the existing epithets in the area of crime with gentler language.
2. Revert the social construct of incarceration. Establish positive associations with incarceration by creating a narrative around resilience and growth.
3. Humanize through storytelling. Provide deeper insight into the motivation and experiences of the previously incarcerated individuals.
Change the language
Whether if it’s through news media or our colloquial language, the narrative surrounding people that have committed crimes are inundated with epithets. Some of these crimes have been decriminalized in the recent years but our language has remained the same. Felons, jailbirds, ex-convicts, our society has a label for every stage of an individual’s life in relation to the crime.
This persistent act of labeling reduces people to their crimes and, as a result, we see them as criminals and nothing else. It perpetuates the stigma. By allowing these individuals to redefine themselves, we introduce a lexicon of identity that reveals their shared humanity, which not only softens our mental fabrication of them into something less harsh and foreign, but also serves as a medium for connection and empathy, allowing the space for their true selves to emerge.
Furthermore, the use of epithets limits an individual’s room for growth and change by forcing them to see themselves the same way. According to the U.K. Ministry of Justice report Transforming Rehabilitation, people are less likely to recommit if they define themselves in ways beyond their mistake or the epithets.
"This takes me back to being that prisoner again. I’m not that prisoner today. I’m a taxpayer. I work. I’m a citizen. I’m a voter. That’s who I want to be. Those are the things that define me today." (Source)
Our mission is to help the previously incarcerated find jobs by harnessing an environment where they feel encouraged and are assessed for who they are. We can only achieve this by relinquishing our mental constructs of their identities. Giving them the ability to redefine themselves using gentler language is an important step towards this goal.
Revert the social construct of incarceration
An individual that came out of incarceration looking for help or ways to secure a job “shows us that they are committing to making a change” (interview participant from Hamilton Bridge). Emerging with this sense of commitment from a “dehumanizing” environment characterized by overcrowding, violence and enforced solitude requires a tremendous amount of resilience, creativity, hope and perspective, or, in other words, grit.
"I have been to the bottom of the barrel and have emerged more resilient, smarter, more determined to succeed, and more appreciative about the small things in life. I learned to eliminate the pain by finding pleasure in the pain, to turn shit into sugar." (Source)
Unfortunately, grit isn’t something we typically associate with incarceration, nor is it a quality that the job seekers themselves naturally identify with due to the cultural emphasis on education and professional experience. However, this cultural emphasis has begun to shift: not only is there research concluding grit as a significant predictor of success, there are also employers that have started to look for “accomplishments that fall outside conventional rubrics” (source).
Thus, helping job seekers communicate their grit accomplishes two things: it injects a note of positivity and hopefulness into our concept of incarceration, and it reveals the strengths and qualifications of these job seekers to both the employers and themselves.
Humanize through storytelling
Another way to demonstrate grit is through a continuous effort to cope and battle with life complexities, which often infect the lives of these job seekers. By giving them a platform to share their life stories, we reiterate on their life skills and capacity for hardships that have remained hidden.
"Imagine a candidate who’s a 40-year-old, black single mom who graduated from college while working full-time. She probably knows some things about planning, resolve, multitasking, and stretching a quarter into a dollar, Hamilton says. 'And I can make a good bet that she won’t give up.'” (Source)
Furthermore, storytelling fosters empathy and connection because of the shared human emotions and struggles that are embedded within. Psychology studies show that we judge someone more leniently for an offense when we know the details of their story. When I asked an interview participant about the factors that have proven to increase employers’ willingness to hire these individuals, he said it all comes down to “just having that conversation”, which resonates with the quote below:
"If you’re from the majority culture, and you’re trying to hire someone different from you, you need to have a human-type conversation…It comes down to authenticity. That means opening up, telling your own story, and letting people see you." (Source)
Emotional storytelling requires vulnerability, and here are some of the ways that I tried to inspire vulnerability through my design:
• Phrasing user guidance from a first-person perspective
• Using positive and encouraging language in user guidance
• Taking initiative to demonstrate vulnerability through sample stories under each story prompt
• Applying the same storytelling concept and profile layout across different user groups, including individuals that don’t have an offending background, such as hiring managers and support program volunteers
Understanding motivation and behaviors of both job seekers and employers
Job platforms serve as a bridge between two distinct groups of users that interact with one another through a barricade of subjective experiences and perceptions. The challenge here is to dismantle this barricade, so we can build an environment that fosters authentic connections and objective assessment. For this reason, the research phase for this project is dedicated to understanding the motivation and behaviors of both job seekers and employers.
• Who are the job seekers?
• How do job seekers with criminal records currently look for a job?
• What do they like and dislike about the current process?
• How do job seekers address the challenges they face in the current process?
• Who are the employers?
• How do employers currently think about hiring people with criminal records?
• What factors contribute to this point of view?
• How do we define success?
Leveraging both primary and secondary research
• Market Research. To gain a basic understanding of the current narrative, trends and policies around hiring the previously incarcerated
• Competitive Analysis. To understand how primary and secondary competitors position themselves, how they are received by both groups of users and what features are required
• One-on-one Interviews. To deep-dive into the needs, pain points, motivations and behaviors of both groups of users (given my limited time and resources, I reached out to support programs, placement agencies and other intermediary players in the field that can provide crucial insights on both groups of users)
Main problem: criminal record obscuring humanity through prejudice
By recording interview observations on sticky notes and organizing them based on common themes, I discovered that, even when inherent barriers such as habitual behaviors and lack of qualifications don’t exist, an external barrier persists in the form of employers’ unwavering prejudice, which is constantly fueled by a lifeless record from the past instead of the ever-evolving reality beyond it.
"Despite my time in prison, I considered myself trustworthy and responsible — the type of guy who would get the job done. I figured that desire — the willingness to work hard — would earn me a job, but failed to account for the discrimination ex-cons face…All people saw was that criminal record." (Source)
Using criminal records as a proxy indicator of these job seekers’ motivations and behaviors, we create a subjective social reality that often deviates from its objective counterpart in the following ways:
Visualizing the user journey through storyboard
To better understand the interaction between these subjective and objective realities, as well as the former’s impact on job seekers, I created a storyboard by mapping out the emotional journeys of both the job seeker and employer. This process forced me to not only think about what the user is thinking or feeling, but also anticipate their needs and pain points. For example, I found myself asking questions like: what was the job seeker’s experience in prison; how did that affect his/her mindset upon release; and what other factors may have influenced his/her thinking.
Refining the problem statement
One thing became clear through the story board: having no insight into Doug’s thoughts, feelings and experiences, the manager naturally fabricated Doug’s identity in his own mind based on the one thing that seemingly provides a peep into Doug’s inner world — his criminal record.
Due to our social construct of crime (e.g., portrayal of criminals in true crime documentaries), this fabricated identity typically takes on qualities that strip away one’s humanity and categorizes them as “others”, making it easy for us to dissociate ourselves from them and withhold empathy. As illustrated, when the manager called back to rescind the job offer, he reacted out of his fears without considering what it looks like on the other side of his reaction.
This leads to the problem statement below:
Job seekers need a way to demonstrate their true selves and shared humanity because employers dehumanize them based on their criminal record.
Reframing the problem statement into opportunities
I reframed the above POV into opportunities through HMW statements to jumpstart the brainstorming session. I narrowed it down to three statements (bolded below) based on scope, impact and relevance. Each of the bolded HMWs explores a different player in the problem — job applicants, employers and the wider cultural influences.
• Help job applicants demonstrate their humanity?
• Help employers become more compassionate towards these job applicants?
• Disassociate criminal records from negative definition?
• Present the job candidates as next-door neighbors instead of past criminals?
• Prevent employers from seeing their criminal records?
• Remove the job searching process?
Sketching out ideas
I decided to use the rapid ideation technique because I believe operating within a time limit can maximize productivity and results. Also, it is easy to get side-tracked and forget your main goal when you are working alone, so I appreciate the pressure that comes with the time limit because it keeps me tunnel-visioned throughout.
Prioritizing the ideas
I then organized the ideas above into a feature roadmap and prioritized them based on impact vs. effort.
Organizing features using sitemap
I used a site map to organize the high priority product features shown above.
Prototype & Test
After getting a better understanding of the screens and features required, I then sketched out ideas on how to organize the features on each screen.
Testing for functionality and change in perception
I created a set of mid-fidelity wireframes and a prototype based on the above ideas in order to gather valuable user feedback and validate the design concept early on. My two main objectives were:
• To assess the design’s functionality and friendliness
• To verify that the features do in fact lead to a shift in how people feel about job seekers with criminal records by eliciting compassion and empathy
In order to achieve these objectives, I asked test participants to complete the following tasks under two scenarios:
Scenario one: Burdened by a criminal record, the user faces endless roadblocks during the job search process due to employer biases. Tired of being judged, the user decides to download Grit and set up a profile. Tasks:
• Create a job-seeker account
• Set up your profile
Scenario Two: As a recruiter at a large tech company that has recently adopted new inclusive policies, the user is being asked to look into candidates with criminal records. The user then downloads the app and starts assessing candidates on the platform. Task:
• Explore the candidate profile screens
Iterating based on user feedback
Main user feedback:
• The on-boarding process was long; it felt burdensome
• Users may not want to commit to setting up a profile right away
• Users are taken aback by the pop-up messages
• Users may feel self-shame if they have nothing to showcase for a section (i.e., “Trainings”)
Based on the above insights, the following changes were implemented during the creation of the high-fidelity prototype:
• Shortened the on-boarding process to prioritize high-impact and high-relevance features
• Included an “Explore the app” option after account registration
• Front-loaded important information to manage user expectations
• Included links to other app features or in-platform support to motivate users and reduce self-shame (e.g., “What would you like to learn?”)
Branding: warmth and inclusivity
Searching for a job is already a daunting task that many of us dread. We feel vulnerable and we are scared to be rejected. People with criminal records need even more encouragement and compassion to deal with the added judgement and biases. That’s why I want the brand to project a sense of warmth, inspire and embrace inclusivity.
I believe illustrations hold a tremendous amount of value when it comes to conveying the brand message. To reflect the brand’s commitment to inclusivity, I tried to represent different cultures and races through my illustrations. This celebration of diversity also blatantly confronts the negative stereotypes of certain races, and thus, the marginalization of those races.
I picked a saturated yellow as the highlight color because of its association with energy, positivity, joy and hope. Complementing it with different shades of grey, I kept the UI simple to avoid distracting users from their tasks or overwhelming them.
For the logo design, I played around with shapes/geometry, perspectives and negative space. The final design is the letter “G” pictorialized into an image of a fist. Its minimalistic and rounded shapes are simple but welcoming.
This was an interesting design prompt for me to take on — while I find the cause extremely meaningful and relevant for today’s society, I did expect difficulty in accessing the target user group (individuals with criminal records) for research and testing purposes, especially within such a short time frame. As a result, I had to get creative and find other ways to obtain the information and feedback I needed to define the problem and validate my design concept. Of course, I understand that nothing can replace speaking to users directly. So if I had more time and resources I would use them to gain direct access to users. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal about how to be resourceful throughout this project.
• Conduct usability test on the high-fidelity prototype and iterate
• Design and test the remaining screens of the app
The bigger problem
Incarceration and recidivism is a far more complex problem than one that a mobile app could solve. Underlying this issue are problems of economic insecurity, low education, poor health and racial discrimination, which are topics that intersect with both social and economic policies. Thus, instead of trying to eradicate a problem that exists in the make-up of our societal and political systems, this app aims to help one affected individual at a time through a specific segment of the problem — employment upon re-entry.