5 Ways Human-Centered Design Can Improve Your Work


You have probably heard the concept of human-centered design (HCD) thrown around, but you may be wondering what it’s all about. If you’re like me, you’ve probably searched for ‘human-centered design’ on the internet to learn more. In doing so, you were most likely confronted with a number of results that link to different HCD models. While this may seem confusing, it shouldn’t be. To a large degree, all of these models are similar, but may use different terms and have varying levels of rigor when applying the methodology.

At its heart, HCD is about creating new solutions that address the root causes of problems by deeply understanding the people affected by the problem. This means that the development of new ideas is grounded in an understanding of the needs, behaviors and context of the people who will interact with the final product, service or policy. How is this done? Well, embedded within the discipline are a number of methods that help you engage with people on a deeper level and assist in making sense of what you see, hear, experience and learn as a result of your interaction with people. In addition, the methodology contains tools that support the building of ideas visually, so that they can be tested with or used as a starting point to co-create with the people for whom you are designing. In fact, depending on the issue you’re setting out to tackle, you can use a variety of methods.

Instead of focusing the rest of this blog post on what human-centered design is, I’d like to focus on why you should learn more about it. You may have heard of how HCD has led to successes for companies in the private sector, like GE and Procter and Gamble, but I think it can bring success to our work as well. Here are five ways that human-centered design can improve the way you work in the public sector.

  1. It encourages you to work in teams. As the saying goes, ‘two heads are better than one,’ and advocates of human-centered design would agree. HCD encourages the convening of a team consisting of a variety of individuals from different backgrounds with various skills to work on a project. HCD also provides corresponding tools to strengthen people’s ability to work collaboratively. This diversity extends the team’s depth and expands the possibilities for a project, while also breaking down silos that can be so easily created in a bureaucratic environment.
  2. It emphasizes the “service” in public service. A core ethos of HCD is empathy for the individuals for whom you are designing. Engaging citizens and understanding their lives and experiences can help to create programs and policies that truly serve them. This is a helpful reminder for us to figure out ways to get out from behind our desks (even if that’s virtually) and connect with citizens, even in times with tight budgets and numerous deadlines.
  3. It inspires and empowers you to think beyond “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Empathizing with citizens will make it difficult for you to remain satisfied with the status quo, even for the best programs and policies. When you can put a face to a program, service or policy, it brings that program, service or policy to life. Seeing the world through the eyes of another will compel you to be realistic about the fact that there is always room for improvement, prompting you to seek continuous feedback to ensure that you remain responsive to citizen needs. This is something that can get overlooked as we’re rushing from meeting to meeting.
  4. It promotes informed action. The methods embedded in human-centered design provide a structure that enables you to not only collect data, but also discover important new patterns and preferences from the data that can become the foundation for any decision you ultimately make. Access to data, especially access to both qualitative and quantitative data, is a powerful tool that can help you determine whether to move forward and how. It adds richness and depth to our understanding of the issue and gives us a better sense of why something is happening, not just what is happening. While much of what we do is data-driven, gaining an understanding of the value of qualitative data can help to strengthen our decision-making.
  5. It is a safe way to test small bets before scaling. A common criticism of the public sector is our tendency to spend money and time building a product before determining that it is actually needed or that it works. HCD’s emphasis on exploring a variety of ideas through low fidelity prototyping and iterative development offers a lower risk alternative that allows you to test ideas by presenting them visually, often beginning on paper and then working in increasingly more complex forms, with potential users or beneficiaries. Not only can you manage risk with this type of approach, but you can also limit cost, two very important concepts in the public sector.

Want to learn more about human-centered design? Take the ‘Fundamentals of Human-Centered Design’ course provided by the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management. This three-day course (currently only available to federal employees) will provide you with an opportunity to begin learning about this discipline while using it through a project-based training. (Shoot an email to [email protected] to learn of upcoming training dates.) Or for a different type of learning experience, sign up  for the free, seven-week online training ‘The Course For Human-Centered Design’ hosted by +Acumen and IDEO.org beginning August 20th, but registration is open until September 3rd.

For those of you that have taken the Lab’s course, the IDEO/Acumen course or are familiar with HCD, I’d love to hear your thoughts on other ways it can improve the way we work in the public sector.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Sonja Armstrong

I think the +Acumen course encourages the forming of a team to participate. If anyone is interested, count me in!

Blair Corcoran de Castillo

You may be able to create a group through +Acumen with others from around the world that do not yet have a group, in case you have not been able to find enough people to start a group.

Terrence Hill

IDEO’s Field Guide to Human-Centered Design is free for download at http://www.designkit.org/resources/1.

Great little video on “What is Human-Centered Design” at http://www.designkit.org/.

The latest Acumen class just started yesterday – https://novoed.com/design-kit-q3-2015/ – but you can wait until the next one. Best of all, they are free. Very engaging if you have a team.

I loved my short time at the OPM Innovation Lab. I just hope that it will become more mainstream and transparent, and leverage its emphasis on the human side of innovation to drive change in the Federal government!