March 10, 2016

Human-Centered Design in the US Federal Government

When you think of human-centered design, you may not immediately think of the US federal government utilizing such a progressive approach, but it is starting to take hold.

Human-centered design is the process of improving the delivery of services or a product by focusing on the needs of the customer. Problem-solving is therefore approached from the point of view of the users. Human-centered design was previously associated only with products in the private sector. However, this process has now evolved and expanded far beyond product development and is now part of the new thrust of the US government to foster innovations as a national economic growth catalyst. 

Notably, President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation (first issued in 2009; updated in 2011 and 2015) puts forth human-centered design as one of the core innovation methodologies to be employed by government, using Innovation Labs.

Innovation Labs in the federal government are hubs for federal employees to learn human-centered design techniques, which then empower them to champion necessary changes in the civil service to support innovation across government. Innovation Labs, as described in the Strategy for American Innovation, “provide the resources and support for employees and members of the public to develop, test, and scale new approaches to meeting agency goals, resulting in significant improvements to the effectiveness and efficiency of the Federal Government.” Given the overall mandate regarding government innovation, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has taken the lead and is now advancing human-centered design and the use of Innovation Labs.

The case of the US Federal Government Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management

The OPM is the agency of the federal government responsible for the recruitment and retention of the public-sector workforce. In its work of providing training and development programs and other management tools for federal employees and agencies, it is the office best placed to spearhead human-centered design initiatives in the federal government. The OPM in 2012 established an Innovation Lab ([email protected]) which uses human-centered design and rapid prototyping techniques to produce improvements in the federal government’s delivery of programs and services.

The far-reaching impact of the OPM’s leadership in creating a public-sector innovation lab has gained prominence since its inception, due to the lab’s numerous pioneering projects. Katherine Archuleta, in 2015, reported in the Director’s Blog (May 21) that one of the recent projects at the [email protected] was assisting the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) with its free and reduced lunch program. The result was a redesigned lunch application form, and true to the human-centered design model, the new form (only a page long with important changes) was tested with families before it was later approved by school officials and subsequently launched by the USDA.

Another recent [email protected] project was improving, the much-maligned federal employment portal. As reported in an article by Billy Mitchell in 2015, the OPM redesign team was using agile development to make significant upgrades to the website. Using this human-centered approach, the designers generated new ideas from user interviews to gain better insights into improving the overall user experience. The process involved rapid prototyping and user testing of a new design. Recognizing the need to externalize the data, sticky notes were used to record quotes and other observations to, in turn, reconcile the actions and the verbal responses of users.

The [email protected] has undertaken various projects since 2012. An article by Jolie Lee featured some of the lab’s early projects including one on how to increase participation during open season, when federal employees can switch to a different health care plan; and a second aimed at improving the way OPM trained and integrated veterans into the federal workforce.

The [email protected] is located in the sub-basement of the OPM’s headquarters. Jolie Lee, in the above editorial, wrote that the OPM in the early stages hired the Pittsburgh-based LUMA Institute as a consultant specializing in human-centered design to develop training and workshops for the agency. Further, the lab space designers deliberately incorporated features in the proposed layout that would increase collaboration in the $750,000 remodelling project. For, instance, the design enabled employees to assemble in the middle of the room and quickly break up into groups, easily rearranging the wheeled tables, chairs, and even the whiteboards.

Some Key Takeaways for National Jurisdictions

After reviewing the work of the Obama administration and the OPM, it is clear that human-centered design is an effective tool for government innovation that can be fostered in any country. For this to occur, the following seven lessons from the American experience are applicable:

  1. Create the overarching policy framework (duly endorsed by the premier of the current political administration — president, prime minister, etc.) to guide the innovation initiatives locally.
  2. Establish Innovation Labs. These labs can transcend borders, e.g., USAID Innovation Lab; governments, e.g., US OPM; academia, e.g., Harvard I-Lab; and the private sector, e.g., Google Innovation Lab.
  3. Utilize the civil service commissions to lead innovation activities in the public sector.
  4. Invest in lab facilities at the civil service headquarters equipped with the tools and resources to foster innovation.
  5. Empower and train public servants to become champions who will spearhead change initiatives across government.
  6. Foster innovation labs in academic institutions and, where possible, partner with education and training institutions to develop innovative approaches to problem-solving for the society.
  7. Partner with and provide support, where possible, to the private sector to establish and scale innovation labs.


Human-centered design (and the use of innovation labs) is a growing phenomenon across international, regional, and local boundaries. This is both an innovative approach to solving some of society’s most pressing problems as well as an avenue for better public engagement and partnerships. Nations should consider using this measure to facilitate better delivery of public programs and services. To begin, there must be the endorsement of the current government administration, supplemented by a policy directive. The resulting mandate should be given to the office best positioned in the public service to carry this initiative forward, which is the office with oversight responsibilities for human resources in the civil service. Indeed, human-centered design is one of the platforms that can move nations forward.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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