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Human Centered Design and Today’s Federal Government


Lindsey Ryan

Date Published

Dec 21, 2021
7 minute read

What is Human-Centered Design?

Let’s level set. Before we dive into why Human-Centered Design (HCD) is the future of work at federal agencies, we need to define it. Fortunately, my colleague Robyn wrote an entire post doing just that. To summarize, HCD simply means considering the human perspective during all phases of problem-solving. To do so, we center on three principles:

  • Focus on all people
  • Find the root problem
  • Everything is interconnected

When it comes to application for federal agencies, the most important thing to remember is that HCD is a mindset. No matter what problem you’re tasked with solving, it’s where you must start: designing with the human in mind and at the center. Or as we say at The Clearing, “people first.”


What’s Driving the Move Towards HCD for Federal Agencies? 

As humans that live in 2021, we’re all demanding more from the products and services that we interact with. We experience good Human-Centered Design on a daily basis. We know what it looks like, feels like – we know it when we see it. For example:

  • Amazon Prime is designed around modern life, simplifying the human experience by removing the hassles traditionally associated with shopping
  • Grocery delivery services make it easy to shop, avoid crowds, and save time
  • Our phones use our digital behaviors to prioritize content that we care about so we see it first

Fortunately for all of us, the federal government has realized they too must consider the individuals they serve when designing their systems, processes, and services. When I go to renew my passport or get my Social Security card updated with a name change, that experience should be as seamless as the ones I have in my everyday life. When federal agencies can’t meet expectations, customers like me get frustrated because we’re having good customer experiences elsewhere.

And now, the stakes are raised with the President’s new Executive Order. The headline of which is music to our CX team’s ears:


Putting the Public First: Improving Customer Experience and Service Delivery for the American People.


But how do you do that as a large federal agency? Well, you start by understanding your customer’s perspective on how they want to interact with your service or tool. This is where Human-Centered Design comes in.

Simple Mechanics, Big Changes

My colleagues and I are currently working with the Personnel & Services Department of a large federal defense agency that wants to make its systems and applications more intuitive and easier to use for its employees (the customer, in this case). Instead of developing new systems and waiting until the application is released to find out if it actually works for the human, they have introduced HCD into the process as early as possible. As a result, they’re getting a better sense of what the customer is really looking for before they make critical decisions (avoiding wasted time, money, and resources).

We are also seeing agencies realize that HCD is a key tool in determining whether or not they should take on a project. Transformation efforts aren’t just about how much it costs or how long it takes to do something anymore. They’re about determining the pain point that a customer or employee is experiencing right now and asking, “does the proposed investment solve that pain point?”

Why it Matters 

FOR THE AGENCY: HCD cuts down on wasteful spending, allowing agencies to put more money toward mission-driving activities. How? If you are designing applications or services with the human in mind, you’re getting feedback from real customers on what they’re looking for. It means you’re not wasting time, dollars, and resources building something nobody wants because you started by asking them what they DO want.

Putting the human first also brings equity and accessibility to the forefront, another focus of the current administration. An HCD mindset will help agencies deliver on those priorities by designing applications, systems, and services with all members of the public and their needs in mind.

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AS A WHOLE: If every agency practiced HCD, the government would operate in fewer silos. Let’s use the name change example again. Human life events are not siloed the way the government is in terms of the agencies that cover all the places you’ll need your name changed.  Say I go to get my name on my Social Security card changed. That means I also probably need my name changed on my driver’s license and passport.

If HCD was employed across the entire government, federal and state, it would be the catalyst in figuring out how to better design processes and systems to be more like everyday human interactions. For example, agencies would know if I put in for a name change in one spot that I’ll need it changed in three or four other spots. So instead of having to interact with three systems, they would design a single place for someone to make all those updates at once. Or better yet, make the subsequent changes for me, proactively handling  my additional needs

FOR THE TAXPAYER: Think of it like an “easy button.” I don’t know how many different places I need to have my name changed. But if the government is able to prompt me, or take care of it for me, it moves to a level of not just reacting to customer needs but anticipating them. Just like I experience with the non-governmental service providers in my life.

The Clearing and HCD: What’s Next?

We’re already helping three large agencies employ HCD principles into transformation efforts. What we’re focused on is the mindset shift mentioned above. It doesn’t matter if you’re a developer, coder, or executive, each has a role to play in delivering a human-centered experience. At different levels, decisions made by each of those people impacts the customer. Using HCD principles allows us to help clients ensure it delivers the right impact.

We’re also beginning to see HCD as a virtuous cycle, where those designing the system benefit from it just like everyday users. Think about the Personnel & Services systems work we talked about earlier. You can’t escape any government agency without engaging with HR. Employees need to be able to make sure they’re receiving benefits, go up for promotions, check their pension, set up retirement dates, etc. However, working in HR doesn’t preclude you from having to deal with those systems. In this case, those we’re designing the systems and applications with have as much to gain as any other user. It’s that win-win proposition, coupled with the executive focus on customer experience, that will continue to push human-centered design into the federal spotlight.