Designing for the Government

Article by: Patti Kwong. Founder and Director at EthSynPro, Focused on Service Design/Design Thinking/Human-Centered Design

I’ve had the great privilege to design for both the government and commercial sectors. There are many distinctions between the two, from responding to an RFP to budgets and resources. Sometimes it seems like they are polar opposites. When designing for commercial organizations I’ve found its fine to say “ethnography”, “empathy”, and “emotional intelligence”. On the other hand the government likes words like “ROI”, “ROC”, and any other acronym that speaks to “tactical strategy”. Although the government was slow at first to adopt design thinking and human-centered design, the pendulum is on the upswing — lucky for me. I thought I would build a road map of sorts for people/organization who want to spread the human-centered design methodologies throughout the government. Here is what I have found when trying to pitch design thinking and human-centered design to many government agencies:

  1. Use empathy

A lot of times we, as human beings, get wrapped around semantics and the words we use. The term “competitive,” associates a very positive connotation to me, but ask someone else and they deem it negative. When using the terms ethnography, ecosystem, and empathy, it elicits implications towards a soft science. In reality, designers should use terms that the client is familiar with. Instead of saying ethnography phase, the design team should use project plan and interviews. Instead of saying ecosystem, the design team should use the term interviewee’s network. Be familiar with your client and use the same empathy for them that you would for the end user. Services and products proposed later in the process will be better received and implementable.

  1. Emphasize more on Qualitative Analysis instead of Quantitative

Government clients, as do most organizations, take pride in spouting out numbers-even if they are irrelevant. People appreciate seeing numbers such as 1 out of every 5 woman have been sexually assaulted, not because they like the statistic, but because they can compute from a “logical” perspective. When speaking with government clients, the design team must be up front about the importance of qualitative information versus quantitative information. During each “interview” the team captures thousands of qualitative data points, which are then synthesized and help guide the team to create design pillars. Frame the qualitative data points into that of a story. Stories, from my perspective, are ALWAYS more powerful than numbers. Put a name and personal experience to a story and it’s a thousand times more powerful than a statistical number where you aren’t sure if the data collected is accurate.

  1. Produce use cases on similar work efforts

Most design companies use Swiffer, Bank of America, or the iPhone to show how design has proved useful to design thinking as a methodology. Government agencies can’t necessarily relate to a product or far off service design that isn’t relative to what they are dealing with. There are actual use cases within the government that have employed design thinking. I have personally worked on sexual assault, suicide prevention, Veteran employment, NASA strategic envisioning, FEMA, etc. Its best to show government agencies how design thinking and human-centered design has worked for an entity, mainly government, similar in nature.

  1. Show, don’t tell

Each program my company has embarked upon adds to our experience and successes. In the beginning, our team practiced ethnography, seek phase, all the way to prototyping, do phase, without the client. This was NOT a best practice it turns out. I’ve discovered that brining the client in at the beginning is a “best practice” and if they aren’t willing to engage, then this type of approach isn’t for them. The client must discover the ideation phase in order to implement a solution. Co-generation is key to helping a client gain buy-in and ultimately implementation.

  1. Plan for constraints 

At times it “feels” like commercial organizations have unlimited resources and funding. Yes, this may not be the case on the whole, but for government agencies they typically have to “fight” for what funding they have secured. Consulting for commercial organization has helped me to understand that if an idea is truly amazing; resources and funding can be found. On the other hand, many people and organizations come to the government with wonderful ideas, but there are no resources or funding, much less an implementation plan. Be mindful and consult with the client, especially in the do phase, to take into consideration budget, scope, resources etc. What is a wonderful idea if it’s just sitting on the shelf somewhere? 

I enjoy working with the government to tackle wicked systemic problems. What are your best practices for working with organizations to implement positive change?

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