Human-Centered Design: Keep Users in Mind to Keep Services Fresh

When a term makes it into a presidential executive order, it’s safe to say that it’s gone from trendy to imperative. The “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government,” issued in December 2021, calls out human-centered design (HCD) seven times, stating in no uncertain terms that agencies should use it.

But one reason why human-centered design is useful may not be immediately apparent. In addition to fostering trust and improving customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX), HCD supports governments’ adaptability, said Jenn Noinaj, President of Technologists for the Public Good, a former staff member of the U.S. Digital Service and a past GovLoop Featured Contributor.

That’s because although most people think of HCD as “giving people what they say they want,” when “it’s really about understanding what it is that they need by digging in deeper and finding those pain points and opportunities [to fix them] and then even doing some future-casting” in the context of the political and economic landscape in which stakeholders exist, Noinaj said.

“If you have some of these structures in place, it’s easy to have this pipeline of ‘How do these things inform our priorities?’ and ‘How do we quickly adapt to those things?’ because we have structured ourselves to be able to do so,” she said.

She offered the following best practices to making customer services more adaptable.

Identify Your Customer

For some government workers — such as those answering phones at call centers — the customer is obvious. For others, though, the end user might be far removed from their daily work, requiring an extra effort to incorporate HCD. In that case, Noinaj recommends taking time to reflect on the impact your work has.

“When I was working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, it was [with] a tech team that had never really touched their customers,” said Noinaj, a former U.S. Digital Service UX designer and strategist. “They made a lot of assumptions and I said, ‘This is really great, you’re starting with assumptions to help us understand ‘How do we want to phrase the questions that we want to be asking?’”

Get to Know Your Customer

From there, she worked with the team to get customer feedback through channels such as surveys and one-on-one interviews to become more in tune with the people who might be using their systems.

Similarly, she worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to insert HCD into a grant application process that fire departments used to get funding for equipment.

“At face value, it was really easy for our conversations to be around, ‘How is this grant application working? What is the process? What information do you need? How long does it take you?’ — very process- heavy things,” Noinaj said. “Those are all very valid questions, but then also [we had to make] sure to get into the deeper ‘How does this grant help you?’ conversation.”

Zero in on Pain Points

Through that, the team learned that the grant process was a heavy lift for fire departments, which often hired grant writers to handle it. She helped the FEMA team reframe the problem to be less about how to improve the application process and more about how to help fire departments get what they need to be successful.

“The fire departments, they’re not in the process of writing grants. They’re in the process of helping save lives and helping put our fires,” Noinaj said. “Aligning the goals with who your customers are and identifying those needs, that’s the part that’s going to allow you to be more adaptive and agile.”

The private sector has had great success with HCD, she said, pointing to the way companies not only make it easy for customers to get what they know they want, but to introduce things customers might not have realized were possible. The public now has the same expectation of government.

“People’s expectations have changed because the world has changed around them, which I think makes it a really exciting opportunity for government to meet and exceed their expectations by using some of these processes,” Noinaj said.

This article first appeared in “Your Guide to Becoming an Adaptive Agency,” from GovLoop. For more insights on embracing agility, download it here.

Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay

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