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Human-Centered Design for Government

This approach inspires innovation and helps build tools that people actually enjoy using.

Innovation in local government is often thought of in terms of efficiency or cost savings. But this focus leaves out an equally important one -- a focus on how residents experience government programs, services and policy changes. Think about the resident, for example, who has a frustrating experience voting because the ballot is too complicated and poorly designed. A bad user experience is often a function of design that focuses on the technical aspects of what’s needed, but not on how the city resident is supposed to interact with whatever the city is doing.

Fortunately, there is a set of practices, borrowed from the worlds of technology and design, geared toward improving people’s experience in navigating products, services and the world around them, called human-centered design. Human-centered design engages people in the work of designing things that affect their lives, and it focuses designers’ attention first and foremost on the needs and preferences of the people affected. Firms such as Ideo, which has authored a very helpful Human-Centered Design Toolkit, have popularized this approach, using it to encourage financial literacy in schools, create effective strategies for early childhood development, and provide in-home toilets in Ghana.

In government, human-centered design principles are used most often in developing civic technologies, frequently involving organizations such as Code for America, who work to build tools that people enjoy using. For example, San Francisco developed Promptly, a system that texts the clients of human service agencies to ensure they stay enrolled. In the context of encouraging more effective civic discourse, interactive planning tools such as Community PlanIT have been designed to bridge online with offline engagement. Local governments are just starting to explore the tremendous potential for broader application.

But you don’t have to be a human-centered design expert to move toward making your department or administration more human-centered.

Here are a few examples of what it looks like to implement human-centered design concepts in government:

  • User Research: User research is a method of understanding how people use or don’t use your products or services, or how they interact with part of their environment as a result of a policy change. In its simplest form, it can involve just watching people try to do something you want them to do, like signing up for a benefit program. It can also involve interviewing before and after. Having deeper data on utilization and related metrics is still important, but sometimes, just talking to one person can make a powerful difference in how you think about your work.
  • Product Management: Tech companies hire experts to focus on how consumers use or don’t use specific products. The same can be done for services like taxpayer benefits or a city’s website. Hiring a product manager, or designating product managers in city departments, can ensure that how someone is using your services and how they feel about their experience receives proper attention. Chances are pretty good that you already have at least a few people in your administration that have this skillset and are just looking for cover to use it.
  • Design Principles: Even a basic articulation of how your products or services look and feel, or what you want your users’ experience to be like, can make a difference in how you approach your work. The United Kingdom developed a set of design principles, which have gained worldwide attention. The US Digital Service has a whole playbook. But even a three-word mantra can be useful.
Getting Started
  • Do some mystery shopping (trench coat optional): Pick a service and try accessing it by phone, in-person or online.  How does it go?  How do you feel?
  • Draft your own design principles: You can start by looking at the UK’s set of design principles for a guide and talk about them with your colleagues. Or, just jot down three words about how you want your services to look and feel (for example, to borrow from Code for America: “simple, beautiful and easy-to-use”)
  • Talk to a designer: People who are designers by training ask questions that you might not think to ask. A fresh perspective can go a long way. Be aware that not all designers are human-centered designers. Look for someone with that background. (By the way, some of these firms are open to doing free or inexpensive work for local governments -- doesn’t hurt to ask!)
City officials care about people and work hard to make their lives better. By emphasizing and implementing human-centered design in government, city officials can inspire innovation in the face of complex problems. Ultimately, these approaches can help us deliver programs, policies and services that not only make government more effective with limited resources, but also improve people's lives.
Human-Centered Design is one of nine approaches profiled in the City Accelerator Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government that can help local governments change the way they do business for materially better results. Download the guide here.

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