Case Study: Design to Address Racial Biases & Excessive Use of Force in Law Enforcement

Bowen Zhou
17 min readDec 13, 2020


On average, 1 in 2000 men and 1 in 33,000 women die from violence during police interventions in the U.S. Out of these, black men are twice more likely to be killed. (data from a study by Esposite, Lee, Edwards).

Problem & Overview:

Racial biases and police brutality has been a major problem in the US. Through research, we have found that there is excessive use of force exchanged during police and civilian incidents. Minorities suffer the most from these incidents. For this project, we decided to examine the causes of this excessive use of force and provide design solutions to address the issue.

Time Frame: 4 weeks.
Team Size: 2
My Role: Project Lead

Design Approach:

In chapter 31 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson introduces the idea that we don’t change behavior and mindsets through force and criticism, but rather through mutual connection and understanding. Inspired by Wilkerson’s idea,

we decided to approach the problem through the lens of empathy, and through the police officers’ perspective.

We employed a Double Diamond design process that produces human-centered designs.

Interview Group:

To view the problem from the officers’ perspective, we look for:
- Officers with municipal job experiences
- who interact with civilians on a daily basis
- with at least 3 years of experience working in the police department

We gathered:
10 Officers
These officers' jobs varied from Patrol Officers, Correctional Officers, Crime Investigators, to Sheriff and Liaison Officers whose jobs are to supervise and guide patrol officers. We even interviewed an officer who became a court Judge.

Research Insights

Notes gathered from the interviews were grouped into insight groups

4 Pain Points:

1. Officers lack the social experience to do well in civilian interactions.

“You need social work & skills to work as a police [officer] or else you create walls during the interaction.” — Anynomous Officer

There needs to be more social interaction based training and practice. Here is one of my favorite quotes from an officer:

What we do is customer service.” — Anynomous Officer

Most officers’ jobs orient around working with and responding to the people. Most of the time they are responding to small incidents and discourses, only a small percentage of these incidents are violent.

Good social skills are vital to their job. How they interact and respond to civilians directly determines an incident’s outcome, and dictates if the situation escalates or dissolves peacefully.

2. Officers have insufficient empathy and understanding for minority members of society.

Through our interviews, we found that only some cities' police training involves diversity training.
Officers reflected that learning about social issues like understanding race on textbooks simply does not achieve a degree of understanding that overcomes their pre-established biases.

Officers need more education and exposure to different members of the society that are not textbook-based.

3. Officers feel misunderstood and attacked by civilians

“ I am frequently attacked online, especially now.”

“ It feels like I have to avoid mentioning my job because of the possible backlash. I feel more isolated in the job now more than ever.”

“An immediate family member of mine is a cop. He’s angrier and more aggressive than usual.” (referring to the racial protests in U.S.)

— Anonymous Officers & online responses

Police Officers feel judged by the public when they have their uniforms on. Furthermore, they have difficulty discussing their experiences with others who are not officers because they believe others simply can not understand. The recent heat and protests around issues of police brutality have only increased their disconnect with the public and increased feelings of hostility between them. The conclusion we can draw from their feedbacks is:

Officers want to be understood

“The amount of force used on someone is and should be dictated by the subject.”

“A lot of civilians know they are innocent so they don’t comply. When they resist, we have to move up the level of force being used because we don’t know that they are innocent. ”

— Anonymous Officers

Officers expressed that civilians often don’t understand protocols during incidents. As a result, they respond incorrectly without knowing that certain responses would require officers to move up on the “ladder of force” and use more aggression on the civilians. To conclude:

Officers want civilians to have more knowledge of the police’s job and incident protocols

4. Stress from the job can influence officer to civilian interactions negatively

“my work is not difficult 99% of the time but it’s that 1% that can break some people.”

“A lot of us suffer from mental health issues. We are very afraid…terrified, during gunfire and the idea of someone trying to kill you will stick with you forever.”

— Anonymous Officers

Officers are very stressed

“Most of the time we have to deal with people when they are at their worst. It’s hard to stay postive after that. Some of us don’t know how to disconnect from that and become nagative. The negative people often make all of their interactions on the job negative.” — Anonymous Officer

When stress becomes severe and unmanageable, officers let stress influence their actions

From these insights, we can create a User Persona that accurately describes our user group and their needs.

We then created a User Scenario and Experience Map based on officers’ insights.

Through the same interviews and a second round of interviews, we gathered insights on existing behaviors that address these pain points.

Insights on Existing Behaviors:

1. Officers achieve empathy for different social groups through conversations with real people

“The more education and time we spend interacting with other LGBTQ officers, civilians, and making it a part of culture, the more we know how to treat others and the more people won’t be hesitant to reach out to us for help”

— LGBTQ+ Lisalion officer, Leader of inclusivity training in his city

Officers gain an understanding of social matters through real interactions with the social group in question, and not through classroom learning.

“If I give a talk today and changed someone by 10%, then that’s enough, and slowly they will change all the way”

— LGBTQ+ Lisalion officer, Leader of inclusivity training in his city

Learning and understanding social issues is a gradual process, and it is achieved through repeated exposure to the subject matter.

2. When connections are pre-established, incidents are resolved peacefully

“Reaching out to the community and doing community policing helped us tremendously. The community is willing to work with us, a lot of things about respecting others just become second nature to us, we try to make the city a better place.”

— Anonymous Sheriff

Officers who engage in community policing find that they form better connections with civilians.

3. Officers cope with stress by doing positive and connective activities

Out of the officers we interviewed, there’s one thing that officers who are managing their stress better all have in common: they understand the importance of positive activities and connections.

They keep themself surrounded by activities that help them stay connected and which generates positive energy.

These insights directly address our users’ pain points.

Pain Points -> Solutions & Behaviors

Problem Statement

By combining our pain points and insights on existing behaviors, we created our Problem Statement:


A platform that bridges officers to professional civilians in different professions so they can engage in conversations on needed topics and increase their empathy for each other.

There would be 2 platforms, one for professional civilians and one for officers. Our Primary platform is for officers. They are the target user for our problem.

This quote informed the type of platform we want to create:

“It’s not about educating them. It’s about generating a culture and atmosphere in the department that is understanding and respectful to all minorities… and the way to do that is through engagement with the community”

— LGBTQ+ Lisalion officer, Leader of inclusivity training in his city

User Persona

•Bill finished his academy training 6 months ago.
•Although he is prepared physically and academically for police work, he feels that he is not prepared mentally for the job.
•He doesn’t know how he would react under violent and unexpected situations, and he doesn’t know if he is biased or not.
•He is nervous that under extreme circumstances his biases would show up and accelerate the situation.

3 User Segments:

How Does This Work?

Mandatory System
In addition to
providing this platform as a resource the officers have access to 24/7, there would be a part of the platform that is a mandatory aspect of the officers’ job.

Officers would receive mandatory meetings they have to do each month. The purpose is so that officers would have a universal standard amount of coverage on topics deemed necessary for them to understand. The number of mandatory meetings per month would be determined by further research and testing.

Proof of concept by existing behavior:
Officers in a police department that does community policing all have to do a mandatory hour of community engagement each day. They reflected that they enjoy that hour of the day and having a mandatory requirement encourages them to be more accountable.

Final Features:

The Insights and User Needs inform the Features & Functions of our Design.


Mandatory Topics

  • A mini progress bar on the top of the page creates easier access for officers to book meetings according to mandatory tasks

Join Conversation on Topics

  • Botton left “Meetings to Join” column — Click to expand and show only meeting recommendations and search results

Connect to Human Resources:

  • Bottom right “People” column — Click to expand and show only people recommendations and search results


Connect to Human Resources:

  • Filter Position & Interest and input search keywords to find the person who can address your questions
  • Select Meet to book a meeting
  • Select Connet to see the users’ profiles


Connect to Human Resources:

  • Network page allows users to save their connections to contact in the future


Connect to Human Resources:

  • The profile page allows officers to determine if they are interested in engaging in conversation with the professional


Join Conversation Topics:

  • Select Meetings to Join on the Home page to show only meeting results
  • Quickly view meeting contents by selecting the meetings on the left
  • Click “join” on the right info column to join a scheduled meeting
  • After joining, the meeting would appear in the user’s calendar and appear as a notification on the day of the meeting


Join Panels on Topics:

From our interviews, we learned that for officers with extreme views, it is easier for them to change opinion by first being exposed to the opposite view through listening to speakers. After their views start shifting then they can engage in conversations with people with the opposite view more efficiently.

  • The blue title of “panel” and “conversation” indicates the type of meeting it is
  • Conversations have a max of 3 participants (decided based on research papers that suggest any number of people above 3 in a conversation would require extremely high concentration for people to comprehend fully)
  • Panels don’t have a participant number limit
  • The type of meeting it is and how many people are in a meeting is also indicated by the profile symbols on the right of the meeting boxes


Open Up the Topic Before the Meeting

To create more focused and purposeful conversations and panels, participants have to fill in a brief outline to set up a meeting.

  • When participants are proposing a meeting to another professional, they send the invite after filling in the proposal
  • When participants are joining an already scheduled meeting, they can view the structured Conversation Guide
  • Depending on the setting the Facilitator created, the participants can request edits to the Conversation Guide
  • Participants can view the Conversation Guide during a meeting to keep the conversation relevant to the goal


Mandatory Topics

  • Progress page shows users their progress:
    Current Goals, Available, Future Goals (Locked until available is complete), and Accomplished Tasks
  • Users can view past meetings or schedule future meetings

What Does This Look Like in Use?

Bob is training to become a patrol officer. He learned that understanding how one interacts with civilians during incidents determines an incident’s outcome. He doesn’t have any experience with life and death situations where shooting is involved.
Goal: He wants to learn more about what to expect from violent situations, and how to manage emotions & reactions during these incidents by talking to a professional.

User Flow:

User Flow:

The officers would be motivated to engage on this platform because of the various user motivation we created by addressing their desires.

User Motivations:

Motivation 1: Feel Connected & Understood
Solves officers’ desire to be understood and feel more connected by providing spaces and opportunities for small intimate conversations.

Motivation 2: Benefit my job performance
Solves officers’ desire of gaining social experience and skills for the civilian interaction part of the job.

Motivation 3: Reward system
Existing Behavior: Some departments use a points reward system to encourage officer engagement with the community. They reflected that this works well. We will also implement this system.

Lastly, experienced officers have the additional motivation of potentially becoming a resource under “civilians in professions” to help the other officers.

How did we arrive at the final designs? Let’s view the process we went through to get here.

Structure & Features:

The Insights and User Needs we collected informed the features of our design. We used stickie notes to come up with ideas for solutions to address our user needs.

Flow Chart and Wireframing

After a few conversations about the scope and structure of our platform, and what our main features would be, we sketched out a rough wireframe of the platform.

Final Task Flow Diagram

After more conversations, we finalized a Task Flow /Structural Diagram so we could start making our digital wireframes.


Tested with 10 Users

With our rough digital wireframes done, we began testing our product on police officers. We assigned a few tasks for them to complete on the platform. We asked them to think out loud and observed how they completed each task.


Below is an example of how we analyzed our interview notes from the 1st round of the User Tests.

We made iterations to the design based on our analysis.

There are 2 main categories of changes that we made. One is project and context-based changes, and the other was general design problems that we learned to solve by doing and testing.

Meaning & Context

An example of design changes that are project-based is different words meaning different things in different contexts. Police Officers have a very negative connotation that they associate with the word “confession”. We found this to not be the case with people who are not officers.

To iterate, we got rid of the function “Confession Board” altogether. This feature is not necessary for us to achieve our user needs and project mission.

Layout & Hierarchy

We noticed the users didn’t use the primary function of our website in the top section of the site as much as we wanted them to. They instead went to the secondary function of our site — community posts. We realized that is because it takes up the most space in our layout. It, therefore, seems like the main purpose of the site.

This issue is solved in combination with another issue that would be explained later.

The Most Important Feedback:

In addition to connecting officers to others through conversations, panels, and messages, we initially had a Community Post Area on the Home page where officers can post thoughts and engage in public discussions online.

However, the feedback we got on that feature indicated that this design would not satisfy our users’ needs.

The main insights we got are:

  1. A Post section would allow too much freedom to the officers. Officers would abuse this freedom and use the feature in harmful ways. They might post inappropriate comments or use passive-aggressive language in the posts. Officers reflected that they have observed other officers getting aggressive on their online platforms.
  2. Having a Community Posts Section confuses our users. Frequently when we ask them to set up a meeting, they posted a community post instead. Officers want simplicity, and they want to see clearly what the main function is.


We got rid of the Community Posts feature of the site and replaced it with the search bar and meeting & people recommendation feature. This increases officers’ engagement in conversations and with professionals.

This would clarify the function of the site and at the same time encourage officers to engage with and learn about the community. This also solves our earlier Layout & Hierarchy problem.

Now that we understand the process and the designs, let us re-iterate and further explain what it is the product does and how it does it.

There are two types of users that we provide to officers as resources:

Civilians and civilians with professional expertise in areas relevant to law enforcement. For our design project, we mainly explored the connection from officers to professionals. Right now civilians can join the panels and conversations open to them to further assist the officers in understanding civilian needs.

Where do these people resources come from?

We are going to use Police Departments’ existing behaviors to recruit for people resources. There are a couple of ways in which professionals are already being recruited by departments.

  1. Make use of the Existing Database
    Police Departments already have professionals from other fields come in during training to talk to officers. This is a database of people we can transfer to the site.
  2. Bridge Existing Databases

“We are lucky because our department is located beside a university. So we frequently invite professors to come over to give classes and provide input during training. We got a lot of interesting knowledge because of that.”

— Anynomous Officer

  • Officers’ people resources are limited by location. By bridging professional people recourses from department to department, we can increase officers’ access to people in different types of social groups and backgrounds. We increase their tolerance for difference and compacity for empathy.

3. Social Media
An innovative police department that we interviewed created an online presence through social media. From there, they are contacted by and are contacting professional people like policymakers and activists for collaboration and connection. Oftentimes activists would offer to help out this department in, for example, understanding LGBTQ+ people.

Through the same social media platforms, they also connect to civilians and chat with them through messages. Officers reflected that people open up more on social media and connect with them better. Most of the time, a lot of people in need of help wouldn't call 911 but they would text the officers via social media.

This is a special case of what an innovative department is doing, we can implement this to most police departments and use social media as an access point for collecting people resources.

Validations for our Solution:

Gathered during User Tests


We need to place officers in a virtual environment and test out how well our design concepts work.

  • Are officers motivated and do they want to come back?
  • Does the format of video conferencing pose any unforeseen challenges?
  • Does the research-based number of having 3 people in a conversation work in this context?

If these tests indicate that our designs don't work, and the conversations are not going in the intended direction, we will test out another concept:

  • Including a 3rd partner who is an experienced conversationist to facilitate the conversation

When the experiments are done and our designs finalized, we will begin researching for and designing our second platform:

2nd Platform for Civilian and Civilian with Professional Expertise

After a human resource is approved, they would have a platform where they could provide their presence as a resource, and start engaging with the officers by starting and joining conversation and panels.

More research on the civilians' and professionals’ side is needed before we start to design the 2nd platform.

Thank you! I am very excited to show you this work and I would love any criticism and feedback from you!

Feel free to follow me on the platforms below to learn more about the exciting projects I’m working on!

Here is my Portfolio:

Here are my Socials:



Bowen Zhou

With art, I inspire. With design, I serve. With ideas, I create change.