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Human-Centric Design Is Still Evolving in Government

At the same time, however, government practitioners must not lose sight of the high bar and rigor required to achieve true use of human-centric design. Simply saying a product was created using the practice won’t cut it.

A developer looking at application design models on a desktop computer.
As human-centric design continues to sweep throughout all levels of government in the United States, experts say practitioners must not lose sight of its core values, or risk damaging the movement.

What human-centric means in the simplest terms is designing products or services with the user in mind, rather than the entity doing the selling or offering. The way human-centric design is achieved is by designing something, having users actually use the thing, and then thoroughly interviewing those users, and taking their carefully considered feedback into account during the next phases of development. If a website is too clunky, designers hear about it and de-clunk the site. If an office building has a staircase in a spot where nobody will actually use it, the architect finds out and moves those stairs. And so forth.

On the surface, designing things this way sounds easy, but until relatively recently, it had largely eluded American government, especially those who design things that range from benefits forms to buildings to the process at the DMV. This has changed as government is digitizing and trying to keep up with online private-sector service. A number of landmark projects in the public sector have also shown what’s possible when true human-centric design is applied.


Stephanie Wade spent five years leading Bloomberg Philanthropy’s government innovation and design programs, which often involved human-centric design.

“The use of human-centered design continues to spread every day at all levels of government,” Wade said.

Wade noted that President Joe Biden had issued an executive order to require the practice for federal service delivery, and that cities nationwide had continued to add designers to their staffs, marking a major increase from just 10 years ago, when there was nary a designer to be found in American city halls.

Whereas the impulse of government has long been to just try to solve any problems internally, that’s no longer the case, and the result, Wade said, is causing “a rebalancing that has a ripple effect throughout all of society. What design can do is lift up and find the dark spots behind the curtain so to speak about who’s being underrepresented and underserved.”

The practice — or at least awareness of it — continues to take hold throughout American state and local government. This has even become the case in mid-sized cities, including Mobile, Ala., said Jayson D’Alessandro, director of that city’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

“It’s ingrained in everything we do,” D’Allesandro said. “I’m a designer by trade, went to school for product design, but I’ve been on the team now for eight years and recently became the director. Over that time I’ve been transitioning everything I know about designing products for humans over to the platform that government is and can be.”


This is all, however, not to say that the process of applying human-centric design to government is perfect. Challenges remain.

One of these challenges is the use of the phrase as a buzzword, rather than an actual academic practice with great integrity and rigor. It can be akin to the eco movement, where so-called greenwashing became common, with companies and others just saying work was green because it sounded nice and people liked it.

Have a new government website? Say it was built with human-centric design. And maybe it was built with the intention to be friendlier to the user, but that alone doesn’t count. Without waves of user interviews and subsequent redesigns, it’s not pure human-centric design.

This becomes problematic in government if those projects fail. In the public sector, failed projects have wide-spanning impacts.

“You’re setting back potentially a meaningful vehicle of change by an administration or two administrations, depending on what level of government you’re at,” Wade said.

And, indeed, human-centric design can truly be a meaningful vehicle of trade for government. Perhaps the most concrete example of this is the story of Civilla, a nonprofit design firm that used the practice to reduce Michigan’s bulky 40-page public benefits form to a svelte 18 pages. This made it easier for residents in need to fill out (much easier) while also saving time for the public servants who had to process it.

It was a win-win, and now the firm is looking to spread the work it did in Michigan nationwide.


Civilla’s work on its first Michigan project went live in early 2018. Since then, that work has continued to evolve, going from just applications to renewals to even altering core business practices, said Michael Brennan, the firm’s co-founder and CEO.

Civilla is also now exploring whether its process and learnings can help Michigan’s state government in other areas, specifically looking at unemployment insurance, which became a major issue during the pandemic. Child welfare is another state government function where the practice can make improvements, as is governmental correspondence.

Civilla is now conducting similar human-centric design work with Missouri, Connecticut, as well as a third state out west, largely in the same category, around access to benefits. These states were chosen carefully and deliberately, to get diversity in terms of region, challenges and politics, said Lena Selzer, Civilla’s co-founder and senior director.

The idea was to create an early cohort of adopter states to show that human-centric design can widely help government do better, both in terms of its service to residents as well as with its own efficiency.

Internally, the folks at Civilla were curious as well about how their work would travel. As human-centric design practitioners and true believers, it was anathema to them to just assume it would. They suspected their work would transfer to other states, and they hoped their work would transfer to other states. But they still had to study the real results on real people.

They now have some early returns.

“The headline on it is a lot more transfers over than what we expected in the beginning,” Selzer said.

Civilla’s work — and indeed, human-centric design itself — seems to transfer across lines in terms of public applications, renewal systems and correspondence.

To help states — as well as anyone else with interest — the firm has created Civilla Practica, which is a set of free online courses about human-centric design. Hundreds of people across the country have now taken the courses, in at least 30 states.

But getting back to the earlier point, it is crucial that the work never lose the rigor on which it depends, and that the states deploying it don’t start just throwing the phrase around as a buzzword.

“We can almost begin to take it for granted that a key element across states and now across systems is the commitment to deep user-driven research and insights,” Brennan said. “You can’t shortchange that, you can’t cut the corners on that.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.