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Designing a social needs tool that will offer Minnesotans personalized, local referrals

To make human services more approachable, the Minnesota Department of Human Services is designing a new digital “front door” to access services in Minnesota in collaboration with communities and partners. This project aims to make programs and services easy to access.

One of the first parts of this new “front door” is a website, which will help people learn about the programs and services available to help address their unmet social needs across a variety of areas like food, housing, education, employment and child care. To make this quick and easy,  the website will offer a social needs tool, where people can answer 6-10 brief, yes/no questions to identify program and service options based on their unmet needs and wants. The tool will then connect to referral information and resources so that people can take action right away, when it works for them.

What we’re learning

We’ve been working with communities and organizations over the past year, listening, brainstorming, and designing together to make sure the new “front door” will meet their needs. Explore the reports from our engagement.


Wilder Research Partnership

Wilder Research works with nonprofits, community leaders, government agencies, foundations and policymakers on social issues in Minnesota. They offer a nationally respected nonprofit research and evaluation group, and data expertise. We partnered with Wilder on a multi-phase approach to research and data in support of this project. 

Focused conversations

The Business Solutions Office at DHS hosted a series of conversations with frontline staff from local agencies across the state, and with community leaders, applying a human-centered design approach. Participating groups included:

  • Client-facing staff from 10 Minnesota counties
  • A work group of staff from three Minnesota tribal nations
  • Members of the Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council.

User experience design persona research

A User Experience Designer conducted 27 interviews with people of different perspectives who participate in human services programs across the state. The designer synthesized these interviews with the findings from the Wilder Research work and the Focused Conversations, and used this information to develop a suite of personas, a helpful tool as we move forward in design and engagement to ensure various perspectives are considered throughout the project.


Communities, and local organization staff that work with them directly, are in the best position to help shape the design of the new website and the social needs tool. Connecting with lots of people with different perspectives is a value for this project. Direct, ongoing engagement, and using iterative design processes, will help us better understand the role that programs and services play in people’s lives, as well as what will make a new website and online tools most useful for them.


The initial research, engagement, policy and design activities for this project will occur through fall 2021. The new website is related to several other initiatives around integrated service delivery, and the timing of any piloting, testing and rollouts will be coordinated. Products resulting from the design work that’s underway will not be immediately available.

Learn more

The vision for the social needs tool

When a person or family seeks help, they can use the social needs tool on the new website directly or with assistance from staff. The social needs tool offers a brief questionnaire, 6-10 yes/no questions that will begin to assemble a high-level picture their current situation. Rooted in the social determinants of health, these questions will help to identify a person or family’s unmet needs. A person’s answers will be used to offer personalized, prioritized recommendations for the next steps to access available programs, services and community resources nearby.

A person using the tool will be able to create or log into an online account. Having an online account will allow the person to view, save, print and share results, as well as store historical information. This is an online tool, but if a person prefers to complete the tool in person or over the phone with assistance, staff will be available to help.

The referrals and recommendations offered by the social needs tool will include government and community resources, and people will learn the next steps for accessing the programs and services. For example, if they need food today, a recommendation may be the address, location and hours for a nearby food shelf. The recommendation could also offer them a direct link to an application for a food assistance program. Both options might fulfill the need they have identified in a different way, and they can choose what fits their situation best. The tool will not directly determine eligibility for programs, but it will help people down a path that will take them there quickly.

People will be able to save their information, including referrals, and come back whenever they would like. People have a lot going on, and the option to come back and explore further later gives them flexibility. If someone is trying to address an urgent need and doesn’t have time in the moment to consider additional options, they can pursue that and come back to explore more when they are ready.

The new website, social needs tool, and online account are part of a broader vision for what we call integrated service delivery, which will offer people a more connected, simplified experience all the way from exploring services, to applying and enrolling, to coordinating ongoing services and working with staff.

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