From machine-centered to human-centered: Adopting an empathy-first approach to digital modernization

As technological capabilities evolve, so does the potential for user-friendliness. Across industries, companies that experiment with human-centric design have b...

As technological capabilities evolve, so does the potential for user-friendliness. Across industries, companies that experiment with human-centric design have benefited from creating more effective products and solutions that serve the needs of users.

But while the federal government offers fundamental “consumer” products at a massive scale, many agencies lag when it comes to delivering quality services. Given how essential these services are, substandard products mean citizens’ needs are not adequately being met. As the public sector embarks on digital modernization initiatives that future-proof legacy systems and improve operability, agency leaders must start implementing human-centered design principles at its earliest phases, with a focus on “empathy-first” services.

Leading with empathy is key to building effective, scalable and nimble digital solutions and creating frictionless experiences for end users. However, embarking on this journey takes recalibration. Mission and IT leaders looking to adopt an empathy-first approach must reshape around three key pillars: user-centricity, agile creativity and business needs.


At its core, an empathy-first approach considers the end user and their needs, emotions and wants at every step of the design process. Instead of thinking purely about automation core functions, agency teams must consider how experiences will interact with the humans they’re built to serve. Mission and IT leaders must keep users at the center of all decision making, from market research to interface design, paying special attention to ease and efficiency of use, and how users will feel across various touchpoints.

To do this, team leaders can implement tools like customer journey maps and empathy surveys, which allow agencies to test for accuracy, efficiency, functionality, accessibility and usability — core benchmarks for empathy-driven products. In doing so, mission and IT leaders can identify potential pain points, whether unclear language or lag times, that cause users stress, frustration or confusion.

Agile Creativity

Creativity and empathy also go hand-in-hand. Mission and IT leaders looking to embrace digital modernization must cultivate a workplace where creative problem solving is encouraged. Digital modernization often means solving for complex user needs and sparring with cycles of trial-and-error. Agency leaders should enable teams to dream big and fail fast. In the end, creative, innovative thinking is key to building solutions that can adapt to evolving user needs.

For this to work, teams must utilize agile software development tools, like Salesforce, that are scalable and employ reusable logic. This allows for rapid, flexible prototype development, enabling teams to experiment with different solutions before they’re deployed, and providing a reflexive, responsive lens into how a product will work.

Digital modernization should be viewed as a journey, not an overnight transformation. Agency leaders should adopt a “crawl, walk, run” approach to initiatives, starting small and building a strong foundation with buy-in from key stakeholders before moving on to more ambitious projects. To start, leaders can deploy an internal “digital maturity” self-assessment to develop a benchmark of where their agency is. From there, they should develop digital modernization and organizational change roadmaps that outline how to entice and educate the workforce, and continually reflect their feedback with modernization efforts. Center of Excellence groups can be particularly helpful in gaining and utilizing this cross-functional support and synergy. This deliberate approach to designing services embraces an empathy-first framework because it enables agencies to provide more effective services to the public that can adapt to real-time changes.

Business needs

Of course, leaders need to incorporate business needs into digital modernization planning, as their services still need to be economically viable. When designing with an empathy-first framework, however, their focus must first adjust from “How will this service be cost effective for us?” to “How can we provide a public service that’s valuable and sustainable in the long run?”

The benefits of an empathy-first approach also extend to the federal workforce, as this approach creates an improved total experience for the employee. Cultivating an empathy-driven agency creates an open and supportive environment for employees to explore their interests, collaborate efficiently, and build more meaningful digital solutions.

Empathy-first for a changing world

Digital modernization can be a daunting task on its own, so factoring in an empathy-first approach can seem all the more intimidating. But agency leaders should also know that it’s an undertaking for their entire organization and one that will best position them for future success. Digital modernization is a massive opportunity to rethink how agencies can best serve the public, and bringing in an empathy-first mindset to this work is key to unlocking new possibilities and building stronger services.

Tahera Zamanzada is vice president for digital transformation at ICF.



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