Organizational Change Through Co-Designing Collaborative Media
Collaborator UPenn's Center of Mental Health Policy and Services Research
Timeline 1.5 Years
Location Philadelphia
Mentors Nassim JafariNaimi
Zinnia Piotrowski

This master’s research shows how the process of co-designing a collaborative digital application introduced human-centered changes to an autism support service. The work has won the Digital Media program’s annual project award and was a poster in the GROUP ‘16 proceedings.


Enable an autism support service to be more client-focused.


  • Interviews
  • Shadowing
  • Contextual Inquiry
  • Four Workshops
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Weekly Observations


  • Service Design
  • Digital App
  • “Culture Change”


Fall 2014, I took Nassim JafariNaimi’s Participatory Design Project Studio. The studio had formed a partnership with Philly AIMS, a service under the University of Pennsylvania that provides coaching to new autism support teachers in Philadelphia.

Our class video interviewed Philly AIMS and learned about their practice. My group looked at service design.

We realized Philly AIMS values student-based data and research-proven strategies to achieve benchmarks. Yet special needs teachers often feel burnt out, and a service that doesn’t cater to educators’ complex situations risks regarding them as another classroom tool to improve. 

I hypothesized balancing Philly AIMS’s behaviorist paradigm with a human-centered approach where we invest in educators’ personal and professional growth could further their mission to spread quality autism care.

“That’s interesting,” the Philly AIMS director replied, “That’s not the way we’ve been taught.” The problem space captured my imagination, and I asked to make it my master’s thesis. The director agreed to a partnership.

Observing & Understanding

In May, I went to Philadelphia to shadow the two coaches and discovered they deeply cared for teachers, often going above and beyond their job roles. However, caught between conflicting expectations from The School District of Philadelphia, university research, and new educators. try as they might, coaches couldn’t always put their clients’ needs first.

Rather than imposing my own values, I told the coaches I would reinforce theirs.


By viewing digital media less as an end product and more as a canvas for creative solutions, co-designing a resource-sharing application with coaches in turn reshaped service practices.

Building Common Ground

“What values drive your work?”Rather than directly answering my first workshops’ theme, the team relayed what made their work hard. They needed to trust an outsider like me understood the gravity of their situation before opening up. At the end of the workshop, they explained equality drives their mission: they hope a child with autism, no matter his/her socioeconomic background, might have access to quality care.

Aligning Priorities

“I want to have more team participation.”

Brainstorming Together

“Let’s use videos to describe our thought process!”

Making Dialogue a Habit

After the workshop, the spokesperson coach incorporated show-and-tells into weekly team meetings. The coaches’ meetings, initially a time for announcements, became a space for iteration and learning. The team also began recording the show-and-tells. Conversations that were exclusive to one teacher and coach prior to the workshop now function as a learning opportunity for the entire coaching team.

A new coach (left) getting feedback on her resource from an experienced coach (right)
We adapted Round Robin to create tags. Coaches writes as many sticky notes as possible on a prompt, such as “phrases teachers would search to find this resource.” Afterwards, coaches swap sticky notes and write responses.
We later translated the Round Robin into a Google Doc activity to streamline the process.

“During meetings, rather than simply talking about problems coaches are facing, we now have a positive format for sharing coaching resources to address commonly faced problems with the opportunity to share feedback and generate further solutions.”
—Spokesperson Coach


By engaging the team in design thinking workshops, the process embedded co-design principles into Philly AIMS’s culture through a lived experience.

Digital App

Inquiry into the digital touchpoint not only served to ground problem-solving, but helps shift relationships into desired ones.

Previous Website

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Co-Designed App

1. Search


2. Strategies


3. Videos / Tags


4. Teacher Upload


Service Shifts

“She has guided us through various strategies during coaches’ meetings to encourage equal participation and idea sharing in a meaningful way, and has helped us to become more focused with our problem solving efforts.”
—Spokesperson Coach

The coaches and directors were excited about the digital tool’s potential, not as a means for them to push out content, but a platform for teachers to share their own experiences and solutions with each other. By re-imaging what kind of information passes through existing communication channels, we might also reimagine Philly AIMS’s role.

Organizational Impact

I advocated the coaches’ insights to Philly AIMS’s directors who appreciated balancing their behavioristic paradigm with a more human-centered approach. 

The Philly AIMS director later had a private meeting with coaches encouraging them to rely more on their “clinical intuition.”

Coaches’ often model resourcefulness for their teachers who feel their limited by funds (e.g., appropriating egg cartons as containers). In a similar vein, the strategies the participatory process introduced are low-barrier technologies the team already use on a daily basis (e.g., Google Doc, phone recordings, and sticky notes), so the team can continue to ideate solutions and integrate them into their work.


I gave the team a copy of LUMA’s Innovating For People.


“It’s great seeing the similarities between our two disciplines. It affirms what we’re doing.”
—Philly AIMS Coach

The coaches help because teachers, as people, matter in and of themselves. Similarly, the project’s turning point came when I began to regard coaches, not as a leverage point to the Philadelphia autism support community, but as people mattering in their own right.