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Human-Centered Design

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Improve Government Services Delivery

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“If human-centered design can guide us towards a human-centered process that accommodates how people work, how they like to discover and consume information, we’re all the better for it.” – Matt Conner, Acting Chief Information Security Officer and Director of Cybersecurity Office at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency


Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Human-centered design (HCD)—sometimes called design thinking—is a discipline in which the needs, behaviors, and experiences of an organization’s customers (or users) drive the design of a solution to a particular problem.

HCD methods can guide work across products, programs, and policy and can also enable federal employees to engage with the public as partners to identify and address the root causes of problems, rather than the symptoms.

Human-centered design:

  • Makes government more participatory and responsive
  • Increases stakeholder engagement and cross-sector collaboration
  • Offers insight into citizens’ needs, behaviors, and decisions
  • Equips us with tools for generating, testing, and improving solutions

Ultimately, using this methodology ensures that we are solving the right problem in a way that works for the people we serve.



An HCD process follows three main areas of work before you have a working solution:

  • Identify and understand the problem
  • Brainstorm and select possible solutions
  • Build and test out a prototype

The concepts of divergent and convergent thinking are key to HCD. Divergent thinking explores many possible ideas/solutions, and convergent thinking narrows down these problems//ideas to a few or one solution.

The point of divergent thinking is to collect as many ideas (no matter how crazy) and then use convergent thinking to bring it back into reality and see what’s the best possible solution.

There are two schools of thought for HCD and Design Thinking–the IDEO Method and the Stanford d.School approach.

The IDEO Method

The IDEO Model starts with building empathy during the discovery phase, then moves through a flow of divergent and convergent thinking and doing. It first starts with ideation, then goes to inspiration, and finally implementation:

Step 1: Inspiration

In this phase, you start learning how to better understand people. You observe their lives, hear their hopes and desires, and learn about the challenge before you.

Step 2: Ideation

This phase helps you make sense of what you’ve heard, generate lots of ideas, identify opportunities for design, and test and refine your solutions.

Step 3: Implementation

During this phase, you bring your solution to life. You figure out how to maximize its impact in the world.

Stanford d.School Approach

Stanford University has a five-step process that they’ve developed for HCD, which follows these five steps:

Step 1: Empathize.

Put yourself in the shoes of your users or audience, and design ways to observe and listen to their experience with your product or program. Collect insights and lessons learned from the process.

Step 2: Define

Using the insights and lessons learned from step one, narrow down the possibilities to define the challenge ahead of you–what problem(s) you’re trying to solve. Use different ways to frame the problem clearly so that you can collect the best ideas to solve those problems. Many times, people would define their problem in a “How Might We” question to help kick off the brainstorming (ideation) phase.

Step 3: Ideate

Using the clearly defined problem from step two, you can begin to think of all the ways to solve the problem. We do this through brainstorming. Use team brainstorming to create diverse perspectives and get better outcomes.

After you’ve created a list of great ideas, select the best ideas to create a short list to move to the next step. Also at this point, start defining how you’re going to pick the best solution over the others.

Step 4: Prototype

After you’ve narrowed down your choices, you can begin the process of prototyping, which is creating fast and inexpensive models of your solutions so you can get feedback from your users. The key here is to pick 2-3 possible solutions and then move quickly to create rough drafts to see if they will help our target audience or user.

Prototyping can be sketches or actual physical products built of sticks and paper. Whatever you create does not need to be perfect–it’s very rough and part of the process is to perfect what you have over many iterations so it gets better each time.

Step 5: Test

Now you’ve created a prototype, talk to your users to get their thoughts on what you’ve created. Ask open-ended questions so you can really get a good idea of what they like or don’t like. This is not the time to get attached to your idea–be humble and listen to what your users are telling you. It will help make the next draft much better and will improve over time.

Once you have prototyped and iterated many times, it is ready to pilot. A pilot allows you to test your solution in a real-life situation for a limited time and with a small target audience to see how it performs.

How might we encourage and support additional HCD projects at my agency?

Human-centered design is a process you can start implementing today on your existing projects to make it better. However, to create a larger culture that is more human-centered takes a little more groundwork and time.

Individuals or project teams using this approach often use it to tackle problems with existing government services, or when an existing problem needs a new solution. Government agencies may deploy, support, and encourage HCD on the front line as well as at management and leadership levels. These steps can help you spread these practices.

Step 1: See how you may support HCD practices based on your level within your agency

Here’s what you can do do right now to help support spreading HCD at your agency, wherever you sit in that agency.

Agency Level How to Spread Human-Centered Design
Front Line Doers - Work with team members who have different responsibilities
- Suggest working with other offices
- Investigate sociological research on specific countries, communities, or populations to influence language and style of deliverables
- Create multiple advertising messages targeted at specific audience values
- Develop many user experience decisions for digital and physical products and services to improve information flow and access
- Make user interface decisions that affect the usability of digital and physical products, services, and applications for users with disabilities
- Research and examine culturally and regionally significant colors for design
- Develop and circulate a list of HCD practices for your specific office
Mid-level Managers - Create a collaboration space for your team
- Support flexibility and ambiguity of your team’s project
- Serve as a buffer for your project team’s work
- Propose policy, guidelines, and standards that institutionalize better usability and accessibility for all users
-Partner with other offices that serve similar audiences
- Create office hours for employees to come learn about your office’s HCD practices
- Meet with HCD leaders at other agencies
- Advocate for dedicated resources to support HCD projects
Executives - Broadcast HCD projects to other offices across your agency
- Support information sharing and developing software that uses HCD principles
- Attend team meetings to show leadership support and stay informed about HCD processes
- Advocate for increased collaboration on multi-agency campaigns
- Advocate for HCD as a business imperative that helps your organization deliver on its mission goals

Step 2: Make the case to leadership

Your leaders will need to approve your implementing an expansive HCD process. Focus your business case on your leadership’s areas of concern. Early federal adopters of HCD have found success with the following strategies:

  • Build a coalition of colleagues interested in using HCD to demonstrate broad interest, different perspectives, and key elements when pitching to leadership.
  • Appeal to a motivating factor, such as budgetary concerns. While HCD may require an upfront investment for training or innovation lab assistance, the long-term savings of an improved program often outweigh the initial costs.
  • Use storytelling to pitch HCD to your leadership. If another group or agency has solved a similar issue or used HCD to solve other complex issues resulting in quantifiable results, use their stories to validate using HCD in your agency.
  • Take advantage of training opportunities. Agencies like OPM offer HCD training. It is currently designing training for federal executives whose buy-in and understanding of HCD are critical to HCD’s success within their agencies.
  • Focus on results. Agencies may hesitate to implement HCD due to uncertainty of how to measure the success or failure of HCD methods. They may hesitate mid-project at the shifting end-goals or success markers that are natural in HCD implementation. Employees and leadership have a natural desire to benchmark progress. You will need to re-brief your leadership on the HCD process throughout the project. Focus on the proven benefits of multiple failures and pivots and the value that the project will eventually demonstrate.

Step 3: Market HCD within your agency

To successfully use and scale an HCD approach, you’ll need to build agency-wide support and interest by effectively marketing HCD within your agency.

One proven approach to marketing is called RAISE: Research, Adaptation, Implementation, Strategy, and Evaluation:

  • Research: Understand your audience through research and analysis, including surveys, focus group testing, interviews, and intake meetings.
  • Adaptation: Create ideas and messages targeted at your audience based on your research. Develop materials like brochures, pamphlets, web pages, or even short videos. Include personal success stories or case studies.
  • Strategy: Develop an implementation strategy to publish your messaging and materials. Training programs and classes, e-blasts, webinars, factsheets, posters and social media are all effective methods.
  • Evaluation: Create metrics and a process for measuring your marketing success. Evaluate the feedback and then tailor your plan and messaging accordingly.

Actions and Considerations

Every HCD project will vary based on the environment, the targeted problem(s), stakeholders/customers, and goals. It will naturally evolve and change as you follow the broad phases:

  • Adopt and embrace multidisciplinary skills and perspectives
  • Develop and communicate a clear understanding of the users, tasks, and environments
  • Make design user-centered and evaluation-driven
  • Analyze the overall consumer experience
  • Involve the consumer in the design and production process
  • Iterate the MVP/pilot to incorporate feedback and continually improve.


Federal agencies must follow various laws and regulations, including the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) and the Privacy Act, when collecting information from the public. You should also know SORN (Systems of Records Notice), as well as rules around personally identifiable information (PII), and laws that relate to your specific method of feedback collection (such as Section 508 compliance for online surveys).

Federal agencies must make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)). GSA offers a robust overview of Section 508 Law and Related Laws and Policies.


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