The problem has existed since state and local governments launched the first computerized service system: How do you design software that focuses on what the customer needs to get done as easily as possible, rather than on the technical aspects of what’s needed?

Given government’s unique mission, its many business rules, regulations and ever-changing policies, the institution was never going to be an innovator around the user experience, especially when it came to technology. Because government has no competitor for most of the services it delivers, there has been little incentive to spend tax dollars on simplifying and improving how citizens interacted with government.

But as online services in the private sector exploded in the past decade, and with the rise of social media, giving citizens a platform to interact, complain and cajole government about the poor quality of its online services, the pressure to change has begun to bear fruit.

What the private sector discovered was that problems involving customers and how they experience a product or service can be improved through a process called human-centered design. By obsessively focusing on understanding the perspective of the person who experiences a problem, companies can figure out whether or not a solution is meeting their needs effectively or not, according to DC Design, a social impact design firm. 

“When you’re using human-centric design, you’re looking to understand deeply held needs and motivations that people have that explain why they behave the way they do,” Erik Olesund, a lecturer at Stanford University’s d.school, told Government Technology. The end goal, he added, is that the design stems from the needs of the people, rather than from the institution that wants to solve the problem.

The Apple store’s Genius Bar, with its staff who direct customers to the solutions they need, is based on a concept of highly evolved customer service run by a luxury brand hotel chain. Imitators of Apple’s style of human-centered design can be found in a growing number of firms where customer problems are paramount. Comcast, the cable giant, has put concierges in its stores who deal with a customer’s simpler problems at the front desk, or pass them along to an expert to solve the more intricate issues.

The success of these efforts has caught the attention of state and local governments. The best example so far is the department of motor vehicles. Gone (for the most part) are the long lines and long waits by customers who would finally arrive at a service window, only to be told they had the incorrect paperwork. Where states have modernized their DMV, customers are now greeted by someone who will triage their problem and, if they’ve got the right paperwork, will get them promptly to a service representative.

Those DMV lines are getting shorter for another reason: human-centered design in software. DMVs have realized the best way to shorten lines is by making it easier for customers to get services and problems solved online. For that to happen, DMVs are getting better at designing self-serve applications that are easy for drivers to use and get the job done faster.

There are lots of explanations of how human-centered design works. When Governing* looked at the issue from the perspective of government, it broke the concept into three focus areas:

User research: In its simplest form, this involves watching people try to do something you want them to do, like enroll in a benefits program. It also involves interviewing people to gain a deeper understanding of their behavior and the problems they encounter using the service. Product management: Taking a page from the private sector, state and local governments can designate someone within a department as a product manager, someone who can ensure that how a constituent uses a service and how they feel about their experience receives proper attention. Design principles: Governments and their agencies that articulate how their services look and feel can make a difference in how they approach their work. The U.S. Digital Service has a playbook on design principles; so does the U.K. Besides DMVs, some of the most promising efforts at human-centered design have occurred around social services. In 2015, California revamped its online enrollment for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With nonprofit partner Code for America (CfA), the state simplified a stodgy process that once took 45 minutes to complete and cut the online time down to 10 minutes. 

More recently, the state of Michigan overhauled its public benefits application process, which once was more than 40 pages long, with 1,000 questions, making it the most bureaucratic enrollment experience in the country. Today, it’s down to 18 pages and just over 200 questions. Despite the massive cuts in the length of the application, the state is still able to get all the information it needs from the new form. Civilla, the company that helped with the state’s efforts at human-centered design, is teaming up with CfA in hopes of bringing its streamlined design to other social service agencies around the country.

These are promising examples of what can be changed in state and local government and they are becoming more common. It signals a move away from what one public technology executive called the “Field of Dreams” approach to online services, in which government would build an application with the hope that, because it’s online, people will use it. Instead, government is starting to take the time to better understand human behavior and whether or not citizens are getting a good experience from online experience.

“You can’t change anything without understanding the people who are part of the process, both as customers and as workers,” Alison Fisher, program director for the state of Connecticut’s LeanCT program, told Government Technology last year. 

Fisher brings up an important point about using human-centered design in government software. The human factor is critical to the success of this design methodology, yet humans don’t always think and act alike. That means the design needs to take into account a range of people using the service — from the mainstream to the fringe — in order to work well. That kind of software design can take time and be expensive to produce, say experts. It may also make the underlying software code complicated.

Techniques that can help government measure the success of human-centered design include the use of quick and simple customer satisfaction surveys, scoring tools that measure a customer’s loyalty to a service, and behavioral economics that can nudge citizens toward behaviors that reduce costly errors.

Other issues that have to be overcome include data privacy, security and agency control, as well as access to information. Despite these challenges, the shift to human-centered design is underway. As more examples of it at work appear in government, the quicker it will become the norm.

*Governing is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company