Why human-centred design is essential for public servants

women in meeting

Written by Puja Balachander, CEO/Founder, Devie

Government is often criticised for being out of touch, slow, bureaucratic, and resistant to change. But it also has the potential to promote equity at scale.

I’ve seen that the human-centred design process is a way for public servants to shift government towards fulfilling this potential.

Human-centred design is a creative approach to problem-solving, that uses the needs and problems of humans as the basis to come up with ideas and innovations. This visual is a simple way to represent the approach.



(Image credit: the Office of design and Development in the City of Austin)

You start by diverging — researching the problem from the perspective of as many stakeholders as possible. Then you converge on the key patterns and opportunities that are at the root of the problem you’re solving. You diverge to brainstorm and test a bunch of solutions that address those root causes. And based on data from testing, you converge on which solutions will make it to the next round. This process repeats itself, until you’re making smaller incremental improvements on a particular solution. I’ll come back to an example of how we used this model in my work below!

Human-centred design is an iterative process, meaning your ideas are never “finished” and implemented. Instead, you’re constantly testing, learning, and refining your ideas — forever!

There are three key things about this process I think make HCD the best way to design policy for humans:

  • One is that it shifts the blame for unsatisfactory outcomes from the user to the designer. It can be easy in government (and business, and academia, really anywhere) to tell ourselves it’s users’ fault that a service isn’t achieving the desired outcomes. We tell ourselves, maybe they don’t know it exists, maybe they don’t realise it’s good for them, maybe they’re using it wrong etc. I love that HCD is simple in its foundational assumption: you’ve designed your service to achieve the results you’re seeing. The only way to improve the results is to improve the design, not to change the users.
  • The next advantage is how HDC provides a structured process to improve design. Each stage within the process has specific methodologies and tools to help you understand problems, come up with and test ideas, and analyse the results. This means two things: one is that the results are more consistently effective, the other is that anyone can learn the process and tools immediately.
  • The final reason I love HCD is that it’s an iterative process, meaning your ideas are never “finished” and implemented. Instead, you’re constantly testing, learning, and refining your ideas — forever! I think this addresses a core challenge in government. We often have an evidence-based practice that has been proven impactful in ideal conditions, which fails on implementation at scale. And this tends to be because we assume the idea is “done.” That we can now take it, and replicate it, rather than seeing it as something that needs to constantly evolve and adapt based on how humans actually use it in context.

Solving a real-world design problem

I’ve spent my career applying HCD to address complex challenges through the public sector. This spanned everything from child welfare with the Presidential Innovation Fellows at the federal level, to chronic malnutrition with Madagascar’s National Nutrition Office, and police accountability with the City of Austin.

For example, in Austin in 2018 community animosity towards the police department was high, yet there were few complaints made by the community to the City’s Office of the Police Monitor, the office dedicated to taking in and using community feedback to discipline where necessary, and improve police practice. The staff knew that the reason community members weren’t submitting complaints wasn’t because they didn’t have any — this was a design problem. That’s when they brought in my service design team to work with them on redesigning the complaint process.

We started by diverging. We conducted user research interviews with internal and community stakeholders, dug into the data on complaints from the past, and shadowed the process of complaint intake and processing. This process gave us a ton of data, and our next step was to converge and make sense of it all. We came up with three overarching themes:

  1. That there were barriers to accessing the complaint process, which disproportionately impacts the communities most vulnerable to police misconduct
  2. There was a lack of transparency between complainants/public and the Office of the Police Monitor that makes it difficult to demonstrate value, progress, and accountability
  3. And finally, that there was a lack of institutionalisation of processes around taking in and investigating complaints, that made it difficult for the Office to do its work sustainably

Going through this process requires humility and courage

We then took those themes, translated them into design challenges (for example: How might we make the complaint process more transparent to the complainant and the public?), and came up with hundreds of ideas we might pursue (diverging again). This time, we prioritised the ideas by those we thought might be most impactful, and we decided to start testing and prototyping a digital complaint form through which members of the public could submit and track their complaints online. The team is still iterating on and improving the form, and taking up and prototyping other recommendations too! You can read more info on this project here.

Going through this process requires humility and courage. It requires admitting you’ve designed for the results you’re seeing, but that you can design for better ones too. It requires stamina, and the willingness to admit the work will never be done. I’ve seen that humility, courage, stamina are defining personality traits of public servants. And I hope that more public servants across government use HCD to promote equity at scale.

Originally posted here

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