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Adding up to success in human services

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reinvents its child support calculator.


The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services redesigned its child support calculator in a clear, transparent and human way.

The co-design process was not “build it and they will come” development in which technology solutions are built in isolation. Instead of creating something for caseworkers, the department created it with them, using iterative development methods. And that made all the difference.

By exploring the calculator’s place within the larger customer service process, the department, working with its partners, surfaced underlying challenges and then designed solutions directly with those who use the calculator—and the parents they assist—in mind. This helped to take the stress away for caseworkers, make parents feel fairly treated, and establish the right amount of support for the children involved.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 edition of Policy & Practice.


Establishing an appropriate child support obligation for a family can be complex. It involves personal financial information and, sometimes, raw emotions.

Child support calculators play a vital role in the process. Caseworkers use them to determine the necessary level of support based on robust state formulas. The calculator is a linchpin of the program—child support orders would not happen without them, and it is used over 5,000 times per month.

Well aware of the importance of this tool, the department had tried before to enhance it without satisfactory results. This time, leadership recognized that to get different results, they had to work differently.

Key Findings

The project team approached this initiative as something much more than a usability refresh. They approached it as a service design challenge.

This meant addressing the calculator in context. Not as a technology transformation for technology’s sake, but as a tool within a broader service experience.

This experience needed to be a clear, consistent, collaborative—and human—interaction. Caseworkers had to be armed to be transparent with parents about how child support decisions were made. Parents needed to have all of their questions answered.

Instead of using a rigid, sequential design process, the project team opted for an iterative design process. This meant that solutions were repeatedly tested as they were being built.

The team shared progress with a group of up to 20 stakeholders every two weeks. They gathered and incorporated feedback into the next stage of development.


Six months after caseworkers started using it, the new co-designed calculator is helping them offer the positive customer experiences that they hoped to deliver. Today’s calculator is a tool, not a barrier.

The calculator helps build understanding, guide parents and assure that child support obligations are fair. The result is more transparency, consistency and faster results.

We had a unique one today with one non-custodial parent and two different support amounts for two different periods, and it worked like magic.


The department’s experience co-designing the child support calculator offers insightful lessons for other human services agencies that are considering using a similar approach:

Start with the business case
Co-design and iterative development is not the right fit for every situation. Agencies need to think first about the business problem that they want to solve.

Balance risk and creativity
Agencies that select an iterative design approach must be comfortable with the risks that come with it. This kind of process can challenge agencies’ risk tolerance.

Make user-centered design a priority
For co-design processes to work well, agencies must keep users and customers as their North Star throughout the development process. This means understanding the behaviors of specific audiences.

Close the loop on feedback
Agencies should develop a process that does not just solicit initial feedback, but that also reengages people toward the end of the process, perhaps with a first view or option to test drive the tool.

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Erin Frisch

Erin Frisch
Director, Office of Child Support,
Michigan Department of Health and Human

Jamie Walker

Jamie Walker
Managing Director