When Norman Delap interacted with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the past, his experience felt intimidating and opaque. Calling the VA to obtain information about his disability claim was “overwhelming and confusing,” says the 72-year-old Vietnam veteran. But today, at the Worcester, Massachusetts Claims Clinic–a kind of Apple Genius Bar where veterans can meet VA staff, ask questions, and get answers to their claims on the spot–something feels different. “It feels like they really care,” he says. A similar connection is felt by a VA staff member: “It’s really nice to have a face with a name.”
Placing customer needs at the center of your missions is something that companies like Apple and the Ritz Carlton have long understood as being vital to their brands and essential to creating products and services that consumers want to keep using. Human-centered design–a process popularized by Stanford d.school, that emphasizes designing with the needs of users in mind–has been credited with inspiring intuitive and elegant products like the iPhone and the Oxo peeler. And while human-centered design has been employed for decades to develop these kinds of consumer products, it’s only recently that the same process has proven effective for more complex social problems like migration and child poverty. The fundamental principles of design–placing users at the center, building empathy, and iterative problem solving–are proving to be uniquely suited for tackling some of the most thorny, complex, and “wicked problems,” problems that defy resolution, problems like the disability claims process at the VA.
The VA–like so many agencies across the U.S. government–has been at the forefront of employing human-centered design as a means of shifting the default mindset from one of process centered to people centered in recent years. Sarah Brooks, the VA’s first director of design and insight, has been helping lead these efforts within the VA as part of creating a more “veteran-centered” agency. One such example, she says, is a map for veterans: “It has changed the tenor and outcomes of the strategic planning process at VA, of conversations on the Hill, and conversations between employees across all levels of the organization. It begins to create a shared language where there hasn’t been one . . . to prompt a shift in quality of thinking from problem solving to seeing potential.”
Creating a shared language is just one of the outcomes an integrated design process can produce for government agencies dealing with decades old challenges. When President Obama announced the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative to accelerate the pace of cancer discoveries from 10 years to 5 years, in his final State of the Union last January, there was no mention of design. But design has been an integral part of the process from the start. Since the announcement in January, a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs) and experts from the National Cancer Institute joined efforts to help patients and their caregivers engage with clinical trials–something experts agree is critical to moving cancer discoveries forward, as well as providing life-saving opportunities for the patients that would otherwise not be possible. As part of this process, Kate McCall-Kiley, a current PIF recruited into the government for her design strategy skills, led the user research to more deeply understand and “steward the patient perspective as honestly and vigorously as possible.” “As we think about what the future of cancer research could look like, we do it through their lens and what they would want their new path to be,” she says.
New hires like the Surgeon General’s recently appointed Chief Design Officer Ann Kim and armies of design researchers and strategists in the current administration’s “digital coalition” like PIF, 18F, and the U.S. Digital Service are deploying design methods as an essential problem-solving tool for challenges as diverse as the Flint water crisis, SNAP benefits, opioid addiction, and the broken foster-care system. In this context, design is not just about making things look pretty, but about fundamentally reimagining the way Americans interact with the government products and services so integral to their lives.
Of course, design is not a panacea, something made clear at the first Interagency Design and Public Policy meeting at the White House last week. “Government has always faced grand design challenges: Our customer is over 300 million unique Americans, and there’s no segment we can choose to ignore as “not our target customer,” said meeting organizer and Executive Secretary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team Amira Choueiki.
That is, government agencies don’t have the luxury of “failing fast” or “breaking things,” of taking the same liberties startups and private sector companies can (and do). There is a different kind of social contract between a government and its citizens and a company and its users. It’s not simply about going back to investors with a mea culpa: it means stewarding taxpayer dollars and impacting services that are integral and essential to a family, a veteran, or a child–be it SNAP benefits, a disability claim, or a mailed letter. Still, design offers a powerful set of tools for better understanding the needs of citizens, building empathy, and testing assumptions that may be wrong–ultimately reducing waste, improving efficiencies, and creating better services for veterans, families, and children. And when we are able to more elegantly and thoughtfully design products and services for all Americans, we are all better off.
Kyla Fullenwider is faculty in the Products of Design department at the School of Visual Arts and in the joint MBA/MA program at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute of Art where she teaches social design and entrepreneurship. She is also a 2016 Presidential Innovation Fellow.
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