Project Background

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health had growing concern with increasing numbers of HIV among young men, especially young black men. This is a group that is harder for the Health Department to reach for a number of reasons, including many incidences of abuse of black people by medical professionals.  The organization wanted to experiment with ways to reach this community by using design thinking. My colleague, Rob Peagler, who works under the business name of Social Innovation Studios, hired me as a contractor to support him in this project.

Black hands clasped with rainbow ribbon


Come up with one or more concepts for ways that the Philadelphia Department of Public Health could try to reach young black men who sleep with men to connect them with resources. These resources include HIV testing and support after a positive test. The Health Department is also motivated to reach these men as part of their contact tracing efforts, to reach out to those exposed to HIV to hopefully mitigate the risk to the community.


  • Empathy Maps
  • Workshop planning and facilitation support
  • Other concepts for outreach

Team Members

My Role

In the outline of my role for this project Rob specified that he hoped I would be a sounding board, that I would help research various concepts we might come up with, and provide support in documentation and workshop planning and facilitation. As part of this project, we both had Dept. of Public Health employees create empathy maps for this target group, and facilitated a workshop that we were both familiar with; The Future, Backwards.

The Work

We decided to start at the interface between the Health Department and these young men. Most often, these men are contacted by staff at the Health Department called Disease Intervention Specialists, or DIS. These are the staff conducting contact tracing for HIV infections. Their job is to interview people who have tested positive for HIV and try to get the names and contact info of any partners who might have been exposed, and follow up with those people to get them tested. DIS workers need to be friendly and professional, and also maintain the privacy of the folks they are tasked to follow up with, to maintain HIPAA compliance. 

Clearly, the jobs these DIS workers have before them is not easy. Because we didn’t have a way to reach out to people recently diagnosed as HIV+, we decided to start with the DIS workers, and analyze more of their role and their interactions with community members (who they call clients).

Empathy Maps

After a few meetings with DIS staff, we decided to capture their impressions of their clients and roles through empathy maps. Empathy maps are commonly used to gather insights about users of a system or product. Below you can see some sample “maps” from our sessions.

Sample Empathy Maps

Workshop: The Future, Backwards

The Future, Backwards is a workshop format inspired by the Cynefin framework, which was developed to help executives make decisions. In my previous role at the Action Mill, where I met and worked with Rob first, we often used it as a tool for sense-making, and to identify scenarios that were particularly risky or rewarding in a project or roadmap. 

We ran the workshop with almost the entire DIS staff at the Philadelphia Health Department. We broke them into several groups and presented the task: to imagine the best possible situations in which they do their work, and also the worst possible situations. Then identify the steps that lead to both scenarios.

Our client, Melinda Salmon, was present and participated in one of the groups. After the workshop she said she was impressed by how the staff really did hold the considerations of their clients as a main priority, because in the day to day flow of their work sometimes this didn’t come through clearly to her. For us, the workshop highlighted even more of the unique challenges that DIS staff face, and how their roles have changed in the face of the rise of dating apps.


Rob and I ended up exploring a few options through the course of this project. One of the more exciting in our view was the idea of having the Health Department sponsor a “Party in a box.” This was inspired by the PEC’s campaign called a Block Party in a Box. The idea centered on the fact that folks could apply and be awarded funds to hold a party, including a budget for food, drink, DJs, decorations, etc, and the Health Department would have a representative there to provide testing. 

Another idea involved building an app that DIS staff could use to reach out to their clients, and provide rewards for the client’s participation by adding their partner’s contact info.

To wrap up this project, Rob moved on to complete it on his own. He decided to continue to hone in on problem interface areas between the Health Department and the community. A particularly difficult relationship was with CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadephia), and the staff on their teen ward, in relation to DIS workers. This relationship was sour for a variety of reasons, but a lot of it had to do with lack of transparency on the part of the Health Department and their goals and legal requirements. Rob created a roadmap and lead several workshops between these staff groups, to help them reach a better understanding, and hopefully smooth communication between them in the future.

My Take-Aways

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