Why human-centered design is key to successful organizational transformation

Why human-centered design is key to successful organizational transformation
Jun 23, 2020
To provide a better experience for both their employees and customers, organizations should turn to human-centered design. 

The United States prides itself on its “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” However, in light of today’s climate, many government organizations are taking a closer look at how well they meet those standards—and cannot help but notice shortcomings. Many leaders in the public and private sector alike are wondering how to evolve their organizations to best serve all constituents and stakeholders.

The answer is organizational transformation. Specifically, it’s reshaping organizational structure to engage those who traditionally have had less of a voice. And it begins with the concept of human-centered design (HCD).

As it sounds, HCD puts the focus on the people themselves—in this case, vulnerable or less-represented populations—to examine how effectively an organization engages (internally and externally) with those populations. Through HCD techniques such as focus groups, expert interviews, and user testing and feedback, organizational leaders can refocus their internal strategy, structure, business process, and external interaction with grantees, partners, and the public.

The resulting empathetic, holistic, human approach can mean a 60 percent improvement in project management—which leads to more effective customer interactions.

So how do you get there?

Start with the strategy

Inclusive engagement starts on day one, when organizational leadership defines priorities. Using the principles of HCD, those not in positions of authority help shape the overall strategy. The resulting, and inherently inclusive, initiatives will lead to a more successful rollout.

One approach is gamestorming, a strategic initiative design process ICF used for the CDC Management Information Systems Office (MISO). Unlike brainstorming, this HCD technique uses games to elicit participation, exploration, experimentation, and competition to define and prioritize strategic initiatives. In our work with the CDC, we used different styles of games to ensure representation of each persona—leaders, extroverts, introverts, risk takers, and guardians of the status quo. In a matter of weeks, employees and leadership co-created a common set of goals—and a sense of ownership—for strategic initiatives.

Lightning Decision Jams are another inclusive engagement method, and one we used to retool the National Habitat Conservation Planning (HCP) Coalition’s annual conference. Jam sessions use a structured set of activities to focus participants on a specific task or project. And each activity is designed to yield a diverse set of strong ideas, inspiring active engagement as participants collaborate to develop their concepts.

Build the structure to support the strategy

Once you have your strategy in place, it’s time to develop the structure. Keep in mind the inclusive nature driving the strategy. In this spirit, it’s important to identify (and invite) stakeholders most likely impacted by any potential structural change, especially those not typically part of the decision-making processes. Giving them a voice will help them understand the motivation driving the change. It will also go a long way in helping those individuals feel supported and encouraged—guiding the initiative’s ultimate success.

In addition to managing the people side of change, you will need to make improvements to business processes—everything from financial management to human resources to programming. HCD principles in this context can involve inviting teams to share impediments to their work and better aligning project needs with clarified strategic goals.

Use data to strengthen the structure

While examining business process improvements, organizations often open the door to data transformation. Accessing, analyzing, and using data are critical aspects of decision-making in every field—and effective organizational transformation must be anchored in strong data that represents the voices of your many constituents. It may come from ongoing surveillance, intermittent surveys, performance monitoring of objectives, or program evaluations—and it will help you understand what worked, what didn’t, for whom, and why.

This is another opportunity to engage a diverse audience, as data are generally collected externally. That said, it’s important to weigh the needs and limitations of the data providers as well as those who use the data.

For example, to start a Data Reporting for Evaluation and Monitoring program for CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation—which ICF developed and designed—we invited end users to identify limitations and needs. Through those stakeholder interviews, we learned how someone might use the system, potential technology and resource constraints, and both concerns and aspirations for it. We then tested prototypes with those users to fine-tune the final product, which became a system that was constructive and well-received.

Ready the workforce

To maintain momentum, the workforce must be prepared to welcome the organizational transformation. Through HCD-inspired training and technical assistance, employees learn to adapt to the strategy and meet its objectives. Discussion groups work well here, to assess needs and confirm the most effective means for building capacity.

This is the approach ICF took with the Project Officer Work Study Assessment for the Health Resources and Services Administration. We interviewed senior leaders to determine their perspectives on challenges facing the organization. We conducted interviews and focus groups with supervisors to understand what practices were working well and which ones needed revision. These interviews—plus a workforce assessment survey—engaged every staff member in the Bureau. The resulting workforce plan was grounded in the experiences of the whole organization.

Bring customers and constituents into the process

But the workforce is only part of the equation. The end user—the grantees, partners, and public audiences an organization serves—also needs to understand and support the changes happening and the reasons behind them. And, again, this presents a perfect opportunity for a diverse audience to help develop the best possible tool. To this end, organizations often identify a small group of end users to generate ideas for—and then test—an initial prototype.

For example, ICF turned to small and large business end users—as well as state health departments—to test the Workplace Health Resource Center for CDC’s Division of Population Health. These users provided insight regarding the practicality of such a resource, topics they wanted to see addressed, and features for searching and navigation. Thanks to their input, we developed case study videos and topical briefs that spoke to the key issues business owners found most important. We also developed an organizational structure for keyword searches. And today, this robust resource center remains regularly used.

None of these successes would be possible without an inclusive and empathetic approach to organizational transformation—two qualities that are inherent to human-centered design. Organizations that adhere to these principles will be positioned to evolve their operations and transform their enterprises in a way that serves every constituent well, and leaves no one behind.


Meet the author
  1. Nicola Dawkins-Lyn, Senior Partner, Social Marketing

    Nicola is a behavior change expert with more than 25 years of experience helping clients effectively promote public health. View bio

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