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Human-centered design (HCD) continues to grow in importance for federal programs,  as illustrated by the Office of Personnel Management’s continued investment in its HCD-focused Lab, which delivers  guidance for agencies and their support partners on everything from creating a user-centered approach in government to how user-centered design enables government agency tech transformation.

While there is a tremendous and appropriate focus on it today, human-centered design is not a new field. And though the term itself is more than 40 years old, the concept is timeless. That’s because the human-centered design is the mindset of putting users at the center of everything an organization does. It’s a user-centered approach to thinking, and it matters to anyone in a position to build or create anything intended for use. 

Human-centered design is an avenue to turn pain points into opportunities for organizations and the people who use their services, websites, applications, tools, or processes. Doing so requires developing intentional processes and methodologies that condition teams to consider end-users and what their needs are. It involves thinking about who these people are, how they interact with a product, what they’re trying to do, and how to make that easier. The key questions include: What are their journeys? What are their processes? Where can design help to streamline things? What is the intended outcome?

This type of end-user research is essential. It’s derived from inputs including interviews, contextual inquiries, and behavioral data. With research in hand, design teams can produce artifacts like personas and journey maps that enable them to gain critical insights into the business needs alongside a user’s needs, as well as to identify gaps.

From there, human-centered design teams can identify patterns and commonalities by looking at qualitative and quantitative data and then synthesize it into a set of findings and recommendations for clients. Then, together, teams can define and prioritize product and service enhancements that will have the greatest impact on users and the mission, executing a continuous roadmap of measurable improvements. Throughout the process, teams should continually share progress, results, and lessons learned.

Human-centered design thinking is a non-linear process. Teams should continually revisit findings and monitor user behavior throughout a project to ensure we’re staying in sync with users as their needs evolve. Core human-centered design principles serve as a guide throughout any engagement.  These include:

  • Engage early and frequently with stakeholders.
  • Empathize and engage users every step of the way.
  • Identify and solve the right problems.
  • Build trust throughout the experience.
  • Address the need for change.
  • Incorporate feedback from business, support teams, and users in a continuous cycle.
  • Apply industry standards and best practices.
  • Measure and continuously improve.
  • Infuse joy in product and process.

As we see more and more of our federal partners embracing human-centered design principles, we are seeing enhancements in customer experience across the government. This means people will derive more value from government programs (and inherently, more trust). It also means government programs will be better and more efficiently able to serve the people they are meant to serve and in ways that make these experiences more effective.