Human-centered design is key to successful organizational transformation

Jun 23, 2020
To provide better experiences for both employees and customers, organizations should turn to human-centered design.

Last Updated: 02/26/2024

The U.S. prides itself on its “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” However, as government organizations take stock of their role in people’s lives and reconsider the status quo, many now examine how well they meet those standards—and cannot help but notice shortcomings. Leaders in public and private sectors alike wonder how they might evolve to best serve all constituents and stakeholders.

The answer lies in organizational transformation. Specifically, this entails reshaping organizational structure to engage those whose voices are traditionally left out of the conversation. And such transformation begins with the concept of human-centered design (HCD).

As its name suggests, HCD focuses on people themselves—in this case, vulnerable or less-represented populations. This approach uses insight into an audience’s needs, desires, behaviors, challenges, and surrounding contexts to help envision potential solutions and then works with representatives of that audience to quickly develop and test changes. HCD examines how effectively an organization engages—internally and externally—with specific populations.

How Human Centered Design benefits organizational change

Using a human-centered approach during organizational transformation helps leaders refocus their internal strategies, structures, business processes, and external interactions with grantees, partners, and the public. Leveraging a HCD strategy enables leaders to:

  • Create a more inclusive environment: People like to be asked what they think and are more responsive when you engage them in decisions about change.
  • Improve workforce retention: Engaged team members results in reduced turnover. Having staff who feel connected to the organization increases their sense of loyalty and satisfaction.
  • Increase efficiency: HCD streamlines the design of systems and processes, making it possible for the organization, and its people, to accomplish more of the things that matter most.
  • Boost user confidence: Because an HCD approach uses the lens of the user to understand how others experience the services provided, changes made can align your services closer to customer wants and needs. As a result, both internal staff and external clients can experience less stress and greater satisfaction when interacting with the organization’s services.
  • Provide end-to-end support: With HCD, problems tend to be addressed at the core rather than at surface levels. Taking an orientation of empathy and asking “why” repeatedly can reveal the root causes of challenges your staff or clients have with a service or its supporting processes and systems. Understanding root causes can help you design services that are as supportive as possible. Ultimately, this can help improve the lives of those you serve.

HCD’s empathetic, holistic, human approach can result in a 60 percent improvement in project management—which leads to more effective customer interactions.

So how do you get there?

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Start transformation with an inclusive strategy

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

Transforming an organization can be challenging for everyone, from the leadership to employees and customers. Outside of the standard focus groups, expert interviews, and user testing and feedback, a number of methods can be used to best engage employees in a HCD approach.

“Gamestorming” is one strategic initiative design process we 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 the 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 a structure that supports the transformation strategy

Once you have your strategic initiatives 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 who will most likely be impacted by any potential structural change—especially those not typically part of the decision-making processes.
  • Give those constituents a voice. That inclusive and empathetic move helps them understand the motivation driving the change and goes a long way in helping them feel supported and encouraged—which ultimately guides the initiative’s success.

In addition to managing the people side of change, organizations need to improve 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 transformation strategy 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 constituents. It may come from ongoing surveillance, intermittent surveys, performance monitoring of objectives, or program evaluations—and will provide insight into what worked, what didn’t, for whom, and why.

This is another opportunity to engage a diverse audience, as data are generally collected externally. When considering data, it can be challenging to decide how much of it to collect. More data points provide greater revelation of each constituent’s realities. But providing data can become burdensome for those constituents, and leaders can become overwhelmed when swimming in data. A clear process and criteria for deciding which data to collect, from whom, and how, can help. We work to collect data that will weigh the needs and limitations of the providers as well as those who will use it.

For example, to start a Data Reporting for Evaluation and Monitoring program for CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation—which we 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 resulted in a constructive and well-received system.

Ready the workforce for transformation

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

This is the approach we took with the Project Officer Work Study Assessment for the Health Resources and Services Administration. We interviewed senior leaders to determine their perspectives on the 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.

Remember to engage customers and constituents in the transformation process

The workforce is only part of the equation. The end-users—the grantees, partners, and public audiences an organization serves—also need to understand and support the changes happening and the reasons behind them. And, again, that presents a perfect opportunity for a diverse audience to help develop the best possible tool. When working with end-users, it can be challenging to appropriately interpret data to develop tools that will meet evolving needs. We work with organizations to identify a small group of end-users to generate ideas for—and then test—an initial prototype.

For example, we 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 are 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