• Opinion
  • August 23, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

Human-centred design: the challenge of putting people back into policy

Opinion: “There’s still this myth that innovation means a crazy scientist in the lab”

This opinion piece was written by Virginia Hamilton, the senior lead for design thinking and innovation at the American Institutes for Research. If you’re interested in becoming an opinion contributor, take a look at our opinion page


Most people go into public service because they want to improve things for the people they serve. But often they simply don’t know how — there’s still this myth that innovation means a crazy scientist in the lab.

Teaching ordinary public servants new methodologies can show them that they too can really change things, and that there are pathways to do so. Human-centred design, which involves taking the perspective of the people being served by policies or services at all steps of the problem-solving process, is one such methodology. It is a systematic, creative method for understanding the problems of the people you are serving and for building better experiences for better outcomes.

My years specialising in human-centred design for the US government have shown me its transformative potential. But there are also challenges — from persuading decision-makers, to encouraging cultures of experimentation. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

Get away from groovy

The first step to persuading others, including senior decision makers, to invest in a design thinking process is to stop talking about a groovy process called human-centred design — that simply doesn’t resonate.

“There’s still this myth that innovation means a crazy scientist in the lab”

Instead, start talking about the need for a process that improves customer experience and outcomes. Can you say, for example, that customers who come into your job centre will get the education, skills-building or jobs they need more frequently than people who go into centres that haven’t taken a design approach?

A colleague in design once told me that they felt they were seen as the cool kids, resented by other employees because they got to spend hours each week playing with playdough and sticky notes.

So including as many people as possible in a small piece of the design process is also very helpful. A colleague runs a job centre in Los Angeles. Every Monday at 8am, there is a line around the block. That’s so uncomfortable for the customers — especially given the courage that it takes for many people, including non-English speakers, to walk into a government building in the first place to ask for services.

“Stop talking about a groovy process called human-centred design”

So the manager announced that every staff member — whether they knew anything about design thinking or not — could join a weekly hour-long session to think about how to increase customer dignity.

And it wasn’t just the cool kids that showed up, but people who simply cared about customers. They brainstormed, used stealth design thinking techniques and prototyped ideas.

They tried opening an hour earlier, but everyone just lined up earlier. Then they tried handing out coffee to people in the line, which had a huge effect. The staff started talking to people in line when they gave out coffee, and people in the line started talking to each other. The receptionist noticed that when customers came in they less anxious and grumpy.

“Just that greeting changed people’s experiences; that’s the power of easy, small-scale experimentation”

Telling stories about small changes like this that make big differences is an important part of convincing people to use design principles.

Even just having signs that work can free up a whole staff person to do something else. In Oregon, when people walk through the door to career centres the first thing they used to see was a giant red hand on a stop sign. The staff prototyped putting a little sign above saying, “Hi, Welcome! You’re up next”. Just that greeting changed people’s experiences; that’s the power of easy, small-scale experimentation.

It has also become clear to me that the users we should design for are not only end-customers but also frontline staff.

If you map out the journey of a customer from awareness of a program to getting enrolled, and plot any pain points, make sure to ask staff what was painful for them, too. Where do employees have to fill out forms for two hours, for example? This gives staff much more of a buy-in to the design process: while solving problems for customers they’re also solving problems for themselves.

Live in the problem

Another lesson that’s really important — and hard — in human-centred design is to live in the problem space for longer than you feel comfortable.

We are trained from a young age to solve problems by immediately pointing to answers. But what’s critical is focusing on the beginning: developing empathy and really understanding customers before jumping to solutions. As the founder of Waze said: “If you fall in love with the problem the solutions will follow”.

“We are trained from a young age to solve problems by immediately pointing to answers”

The US free school lunch program for low-income families was losing millions of dollars a year to over-payments and errors. So the design team sat for a few days in lobbies where people were filling out signup forms. They discovered immediately that many customers from Central and South America had hyphenated last names that didn’t fit into the boxes, causing names to be confused by the computer in payments.

So, the team designed a new form which, they project, is going to save a billion dollars in the next five years — a very small change, initiated by understanding, observing and interacting with customers.

Encourage experimentation

The last lesson is to find ways to give public servants permission to experiment, prototype and test. A lot of it is just shifting the mindset from being an organisation focused on compliance to one that celebrates innovation.

Typically, we also believe that if you provide a government service one way in one place, you simply need to provide it the same way in another — which is rarely true. Now, Finland has passed a law that gives the government explicit permission to prototype different policies and services.

“A big part of the innovation battle remains just telling public servants they have permission”

In my five years at the US Department of Labor, we trained over 2,000 local government and NGO people in design thinking through a free seven-week class. And today, experts all over the world, from Denmark’s Mindlab to Berlin’s D School, are using human-centred design to transform government — its visibility is growing day-by-day.

But a big part of the innovation battle remains just telling ordinary people that they too have the permission — and the ability — to use new tools, change the rules and better serve the public. — Virginia Hamilton

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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