Improving IT and operational performance with human centered design, customer experience practices

HCD and CX disciplines put the focus on gaining a better understanding of the people and their processes within an IT implementation project that greatly reduce...

The terms Human Centered Design (HCD) and Customer Experience (CX) are just now starting to be heard within Federal circles. HCD is the overarching practice of designing solutions in the service of people, which is inclusive of CX. CX is all about understanding customers and citizens to help inform decision-making and IT solutions. HCD is the process by which you implement sound CX initiatives through a series of process steps, which are outlined below.

CX has been identified in the President’s Management Agenda as CAP Goal #4: “Federal agencies will provide a modern, streamlined and responsive customer experience across Government, comparable to leading private-sector organizations.” Additionally, in 2018, the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) was signed into law, requiring all federal agencies to make sure their websites are user-friendly and support digital forms. This is partly due to the increasing numbers of citizens seeking to interact with federal government agencies using online services and mobile devices.

These disciplines have been around the private sector for quite some time and widely accepted as a differentiator and critical enabler in how their businesses perform and grow – especially as their customers adopt, rely on, and expect the ease and convenience of online services. Within the federal space, there is a lot of uncertainty on what HCD and CX are, and how these disciplines apply. The most common perception is that CX is something you do for a website redesign. And while some of that is accurate, CX is not just about IT/Digital Services. IT initiatives, however, do play a very big part and often “lead the charge” in identifying associated improvements that need to be made to the rest of the operational ecosystem to include policies, processes, workforce and infrastructure.

HCD and CX disciplines put the focus on gaining a better understanding of the people and their processes within an IT implementation project that greatly reduces risk and improves the chances of successful delivery, initial adoption and ongoing usage. In sum, these disciplines will not just enhance the customer/citizen experience but will also drive marked improvements in IT deployments as well as overall agency operational performance.  

The challenge

On average, the implementation of IT projects runs 45% over budget and 7% over schedule, while delivering 56% less value than predicted.

Depending upon the size and complexity of the project, various areas of the agency could be adversely affected if the implementation process is not performed correctly. Poor project execution shifts vital resources to rework rather than innovation, which has a significant impact on operations and governance within an agency by creating costly disruptions and lost opportunities. Many of the challenges agencies face with IT modernization efforts can be traced back to a gap in communication between the business, IT and end-users (e.g., end-customers and citizens). In many cases, the very people who end up consuming the deployed solutions are not included in the design of the solution, which means that their needs go unaddressed. This oversight results in unusable products and services, missed expectations and delivery of a program that fails to be useful. Since IT implementation can mean different things to different people within an agency, it’s essential to establish and communicate a shared understanding throughout the organization – at all levels. 

How HCD improves the implementation process

Regardless of industry, most organizations have a multi-phased approach when implementing their IT solutions. This is often a very detailed process that involves people from all facets of the organization with varying degrees of involvement and governance. HCD is uniquely suited to help organizations drive process improvement, which then positively influences and optimizes their IT implementation approach. HCD accomplishes this by allowing organizations to gain a better understanding of their customers’ and employees’ needs, defining the current-state processes, innovating on potential solutions, rapidly prototyping and testing a new implementation process to validate the improvements before deployment.

HCD is a highly effective and proven approach used by leading organizations such as P&G, Harvard Business School, Apple, and GE to help solve substantial business challenges. These challenges include reducing risk, lowering the cost of development and accelerating time to market while creating successful products and services that people find both useful and usable. This approach fully integrates business and technology aspects to ensure the outcomes are desirable for people to use, viable for the business economically and feasible from a technology perspective.

How it’s done

HCD is an iterative five-step process that will help put the users at the center of a future state solution.

Step one: Empathize

The foundation of Design Thinking begins with learning about your audience. This includes your customer, students, employees and anyone else who interacts with your website. Learning about your audience involves research, observation and studies to better understand core human behaviors, attitudes, capabilities, needs, desires and goals.

Step two: Define

Using the findings gathered during the Empathize step, a holistic viewpoint is formulated about your audience and the system processes. To help further define the future state needs, we recommend creating journey maps and high-level business requirements that articulate the objectives and scope of the future state system by process and capability. The high-level business requirements in combination with the scenarios provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state with an eye toward the future state goals and objectives. To communicate these processes and capabilities more effectively, a prototype may be created that visualizes the current state of the system.

Step three: Ideate

The next step in the process is to generate as many potential future state solutions as possible by rapidly sketching through ideas about how to solve the identified areas of improvement in the current state model. The goal of this step is to organize, prioritize, and decide on the best approach or potential future state solution to prototype.

Step four: Prototype/Wireframing

The purpose of the prototype is to model the future state solution. The prototype also serves as a universally understood communication tool for the organization to socialize the potential process and capability improvements with everyone from executive sponsorship to management and team members. Prototyping follows a methodical approach by starting at a low level of fidelity and gradually increasing the resolution as the thinking around the possible solution evolves. This highly iterative approach allows us to work in a lean and agile way for rapidly making changes based on feedback from testing.

Step five: Test

At the completion of each prototype iteration, the team performs testing to verify what worked. The team also verifies what did not work and why. At the conclusion of testing and acceptance, the final gap analysis report is created.


Leveraging HCD disciplines is an important first step to identifying a clear roadmap for any IT effort. In order to be successful, an agency must first understand all stakeholder, customer and citizen needs to create the essential ‘building blocks’ from which business and technology goals and objectives are determined. This point of view will significantly increase the chances of success by building a foundational understanding for which the IT solution is being developed. This requires effective communication and collaboration from all areas of the agency to help drive accurate alignment with its mission and goals. HCD provides a holistic design approach to ensure the ecosystem of people, business and technology areas are working in concert to achieve a shared understanding of the future state to drive a successful outcome. Taking an HCD approach to tackle IT initiatives results in:

  • 75% reduction in design time
  • 50% reduction in design defects
  • 38% increase in portfolio profitability
  • 33% reduction in development time

NOTE:  The same HCD practice can also be applied to other business initiatives. These initiatives include:

  • IT enterprise applications/digital services to include Websites & Mobile apps (as discussed here)
  • Change and Modernization initiatives
  • Strategies and Concepts of Operations (ConOps)
  • Business Process Improvements (e.g. Supply Chain, Logistics, IoT)
  • Governance, Policy & Compliance

Robert Grashuis is the chief information officer for OneSpring.

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