Are your health benefits financially inclusive? with Carolyn McMahon

Leslie Harding
April 12, 2021

In this episode of Better Benefits, Carolyn McMahon joined us to discuss human-centered design and its potential to help make health benefits more financially inclusive. Carolyn is an independent financial inclusion consultant and founder of FemFinance, which offers consultation in the areas of strategy, consumer research, and product design. She specializes in complex program management, strategic communications, product development, and human-centered research. We also welcomed a special co-host this episode, our Chief Insurance Officer, Amanda Turcotte.

Carolyn’s journey to working in financial inclusion 

Carolyn’s first professional passion was conflict resolution, and she is a trained mediator. In doing that work, she spent a lot of time in people’s personal finances, observing how money can constrain what they are able to do in their lives and how that can lead to conflict. That sparked her interest in understanding more about financial inclusion.

Financial inclusion asks us to consider how we can design systems that are more accessible. This includes changing systems that weren’t created to be inclusive and increasing access to financial products that meet people’s needs. 

Carolyn’s work in financial inclusion led her to start her research and strategy firm, FemFinance. She says it was a “no-brainer” that she would be leveraging human-centered design practices and principles to inform her work there. 

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design as a principle is just what it sounds like, putting human behavior and attitudes at the center of inquiry. On principle, it means taking human needs into consideration first. There is nothing novel about human-centered design, which is, well, by design. That’s because it is all about meeting human needs. It is simple and elegant. With human-centered design, your touchstone is solving a real problem for real people.

Human-centered design is also a research methodology. It involves thinking about qualitative data, having small sample sizes, and using longer engagements with research participants to fuel deep insights. It involves participants, not subjects. In a human-centered design process, when you are researching you are co-creating with your participants. 

Classically, another principle of human-centered design is that you don’t start with a product. You start with curiosity about a need or problem. Fundamentally you are not testing a product, you are making a hypothesis around a problem, then understanding that problem and how it manifests in daily life. Once you understand the problem fully you can begin thinking of possible solutions.

What happens when we apply human-centered design principles to employee benefits? 

Using human-centered design principles is certainly not the norm at health insurance companies. Based on her experience in the industry, Amanda tells us that typically they start with a product and identify quantitative problems, like not meeting enrollment or profitability goals, then make hypotheses, agree on what to try, and implement changes to the product. The problem with this system is that it goes from problem to hypothesis to conclusion—there is no step for research, experimentation, and analysis. Human-centered design focuses on understanding problems before jumping to solutions, which can make those solutions better suited to meeting people’s needs.

Employers and brokers can use human-centered design principles to improve their employee benefits strategy. On a global level, something everyone can do is try to cultivate a mindset of genuine curiosity. Speaking to this idea of genuine curiosity, Carolyn tells us, “That’s really easy to say and it’s really difficult to do. It’s hard to ask questions, especially when you’re afraid of the answers...and it’s hard to be curious about things that aren’t immediately in front of your face.” 

One of the benefits of human-centered design is it elevates voices you may not be hearing. For example, if you’re a broker, you've likely got some clients who are always calling you, wanting to talk about their rates, their plans, their problems. You know their challenges and needs intimately, so it’s easy to be reactive to their problems. But who are you not hearing from? Who are the clients who renew every year, but never call? What about the clients who ghost you at renewal time? What did you not hear about from them? Human-centered design principles might say, let’s go out and do long-form interviews with these people you never hear from. Ask them open-ended questions from a place of curiosity, and be ready to hear about their full experience. Then let this inform your relationships, your behavior, and your plans.

What should employers know when implementing human-centered design in regards to their benefits?

Health insurance is one of the most personal products on the market. It exists at the intersection of money, health, family, and in some cases religion. People don’t want to talk about these at a party, let alone with their employer or boss. Employers often have to be stewards of the law, of compliance, and of the bottom line. Those hats that employers have to wear are sometimes not well-suited to encouraging open, honest, safe conversations with employees. For this reason, it is sometimes beneficial to bring in outside researchers to help. Employees may feel safer sharing their true thoughts and feelings with a third party instead of their employer, which can generate more meaningful data and insights. 

How can human-centered design fuel financial inclusion? 

Human-centered design is aligned with inclusion because it is about understanding the needs of all people, but it still has to be intentional to be inclusive. The same biases that can permeate big research studies can also permeate research fueled by human-centered design. It’s important to acknowledge those factors and be intentional about mitigating biases. Some ways to do this include structuring conversations and questions to be inclusive. When researching small groups of participants, think about who is in that room, their varied experiences, and spend time with them asking open-ended questions. Be open to hearing what they have to say, including views that you may not be aware of or expecting. Then allow all these insights to inform any solutions you come up with.

Listen to the full episode to hear more from Carolyn.

Carolyn’s resources

Carolyn recommends the book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. She describes it as a small book that’s had a big impact on her thinking. It is an accessible text that paints a vivid picture of poverty in America, which is essential to learn how to ground yourself in the structures of this country.

She also recommends Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. This book was one of the very first financial diaries. The authors’ primary insight is that we may think that people who don’t have much money don’t have an active financial life, when in fact the opposite is true, and the tighter money is the more active your money management must be. This book represents a profound shift in thinking for many. 

For those interested in learning more about human-centered design, Carolyn recommends IDEO’s human-centered design kit. And a lot of sticky notes to record your findings! 

You can get in touch with Carolyn directly at and learn more at

Note, this episode is for informational and educational purposes only. Carolyn McMahon is not endorsed, affiliated with, nor compensated by Greenhouse Life Insurance Company.

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