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What Is Human-Centric Design?

A philosophy regarding the creation of websites, forms and services seeks to simplify and improve constituent interactions with government.

For a long time, government has built websites, forms and services that reflect the needs of government, with little consideration for how difficult to navigate systems were for constituents.

This, however, is changing. The phrase “human-centric design” is popping up all over government, being used by everyone from elected officials to public servants to vendors who create and sell products in the gov tech space. Whereas in the past a government website might have consisted of dozens of pages — each one a dense block of nigh-impenetrable text — newer platforms are being designed with users in mind, putting the search bars and the most popular pages up front while streamlining government information across easy-to-navigate layouts.

This concept of human-centric design is one that has been used in the private sector for years to enable a greater ease of purchase. For big companies like Apple and Amazon, its been tantamount to success. Customers go to a site like Amazon and find a personalized experience that puts the products they are most likely to buy within reach of as few as one or two clicks, saving them time and energy.

It’s this friendliness that many government agencies now seek to emulate, modeling their own Web services off the success of these big companies. As a result, human-centric design is poised to become increasingly foundational to the efforts of government at the state and local levels in years to come.

With that in mind, Government Technology recently spoke with Erik Olesund, co-founder and design strategist of the design agency Collective Capital and a lecturer at Stanford University’s prestigious, about what human-centric design means and about the past, present and future of how it applies to state and local government.

What is Human-Centric Design?

Ask what is human-centric design, and “you’ll get as many responses to that as the number of people you ask,” Olesund said.

Olesund considers it to be “an iterative approach to both finding and solving problems,” one that puts the people who are most impacted by said problem at the center of whatever product, solution or technique is being built. The end goal is that the design stems from the needs of the people using the product, rather than the institution that wants to solve the problem.

Tech companies in the private sector — which is almost uniformly ahead of government in innovation and design trends — went through its own process to embrace the practice of human-centered design some years ago.

Many people have walked into an Apple store in a mall somewhere and been greeted by headset-wearing employees who staff the Genius Bar, which also allows customers to schedule appointments ahead of time online. It’s a far cry from the imperiled and laborious reception most citizens get at their local Department of Motor Vehicles field office.

Apple, however, didn’t invent this out of thin air. Olesund said they looked outside of the tech sector to find inspiration for this concept, which was created using the tenants of human-centered design. They searched for examples of great service and found it among the staff of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, whose comprehensive human-centric service they studied. And so the Genius Bar was born.

What qualifies a project as human-centered design, Olesund said, is often the intent of those working on a project.

“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 they way they do,” Olesund said, “and often times I think surveys are not enough to do that. Surveys can help you find a pattern or a reference point that may be interesting to explore, but you actually need to engage with people face-to-face, or at least in conversation to be able to probe deeper into why they behave the way they do.”

Human-Centric Design in Government

Government services, like all services, have historically used some form of design to deploy user-facing components. The design portion of this equation is nothing new. What Olesund says is new, however, is the human-centric component.

“In the past, government services were often designed from the perspective and need of the government institution, not necessarily with the needs or desires of residents or constituents in mind,” said Olesund. “This might lead, for example, to an accumulation of steps and requirements for residents, or utilization of outdated technology because the government institution is locked into a contract.”

Basically, government has never set out to design its services to be clunky or hard to use. These qualities have, however, grown out of the legally complex frameworks that governments must adhere to, which can subsequently result in a failure to prioritize the needs of the people using the services rather than the institution.

Change, however, is underway. Human-centric design is one of the main priorities of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F, a pair of organizations created under the Obama administration with missions that largely involve making government services more accessible to the citizenry through efficient use of tech.

Although the needs of state and municipal governments are more localized, the gov tech work done at the federal level by the USDS and 18F has at times served as a benchmark or guidepost for smaller government agencies.

“They both redesign services to make them digital and user-friendly,” Olesund said. “But they also do a lot of work creating frameworks and best practices for other government agencies to adopt in order to achieve some of the broader systemic change.”

One of the most tangible examples of human-centered design at the state or local level can be found at Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, which recently worked with the Detroit-based design studio Civilla to reduce its paper services application from 40 pages, 18,000-some words and 1,000 questions, down to 18 pages, 3,904 words and 213 questions. Currently, Civilla is working with the nonprofit civic tech group Code for America to help bring the same massive level of human-centered design progress to the state’s digital services.

Other work is underway in San Francisco’s City Hall and within the state of California. A number of cities also have iTeams funded through Bloomberg Philanthropies, and their missions are to innovate in ways that solve ongoing municipal problems, a mission that often requires use of human-centric design.

For local governments wanting to shift their work toward human-centric design, Olesund had what might seem like a simple piece of advice.

“If you’re a leader who wants to use this, you have to be willing to let go of some control,” he said. “You have to admit you don’t have all the answers, and you have to look for those answers among your staff and your residents.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.