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How human-centered design is essential to making your data work for you—and your users

How human-centered design is essential to making your data work for you—and your users
By Lindy Dreyer and Neil Desai
Senior Partner Strategy and Transformation
Neil Desai
Partner, Digital Transformation
Jun 13, 2024

Insufficient communication between IT leadership and users of data is one of the biggest data strategy challenges. Embracing a human-centered approach could be the solution.

HCD data users article - callout image

According to our latest research, having data doesn’t mean that people know what to do with it. In fact, 51% of mission leaders most often cite insufficient communication between IT leadership and users of data as one of their leading data strategy challenges. This is partly due to the “last mile” of data product creation, as our human-centered design (HCD) expert likes to call it: The point where the technical team thinks the project is complete because they’ve delivered the necessary data—but that’s only part of the solution. Teams should aim to get the right data to the right people and in the right presentation, tailored to the decision-making process and mental model of key people, including the users.

To address this challenge, agencies and technical teams should embrace a human-centered approach to improve collaboration across IT and subject-matter expertise, combined with a focus on the “last mile.” This comprehensive strategy will turn data investments into value, lead to better insights, and ensure that people get the data they need in the way they need it. It may sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

Examples from the field

Our teams bring HCD to every project based on our learned experience that it’s essential to embrace this approach from the start.

For example, one of our teams was asked to build a website for an agency to help veterans track their disability claims. The premise made sense, but veterans reported low satisfaction because they had difficulty understanding the status of their disability claims as shown on the site. Eventually, we discovered the cause: The way the agency thought the way the data should be presented was not intuitive for veterans. The difference was small, but it had a big impact—had we engaged with veterans from the beginning to understand how they wanted to see the information, the resulting veteran-centered design could have reduced the number of calls to the call center for help, lessened confusion, and lowered the amount of work, cost, and resources the project ended up requiring.

Another team needed to create data tools for investigators. The initial concept was to apply machine learning to all the data available, looking for new types of fraud. However, after talking with the investigators themselves, we found that they didn’t want new types of fraud. Instead, they wanted the types they knew could be prosecuted and won. Our team pivoted, leading to a different product that investigators value and use.

"Small shifts in how data is presented can have a dramatic effect on how the information is consumed, making both the project and product more efficient."

How to know your solution is human-centered

Making your projects human-centered is the goal, so how can you tell if you’re doing it? These points will guide your processes:

  • Know who you’re designing for and directly ask them what data they need, why, and how.
  • Co-design solutions with users and develop prototypes.
  • Test your prototypes with users and use their feedback to refine your solution.
  • Repeat until you’re ready to produce the final solution.
  • Build the solution and collect more feedback to continue to make incremental improvements.

The key is to keep users involved in every step, ensuring the design and solution reflect their perspective from beginning to end.

Looking ahead with AI

It may seem counterintuitive, but generative AI (GenAI) can help create more human-centered data.

Dashboards are the current go-to solution for delivering data insights, whether for an internal or external audience. But that’s not the mental model of the user. A dashboard curates data, but it still needs to be interpreted by the user, and the curation may or may not be correct. Data resonates more when it’s presented with insights and story. Users have a question, and they want an answer. If users could simply ask their question and have AI provide an answer, that would be a far preferable experience—for example, if veterans could simply ask about and see the status of a particular disability, or if a business leader could ask about the impact of a new training program.

GenAI has the power to make this happen. Tools are now coming to market designed to provide secure, custom answers to data-driven questions within an organization.

Making your data projects more human-centered is a multi-faceted undertaking that’s well worth the time, but can be daunting. Thankfully, you don’t need to do it alone: An experienced partner can make the process more efficient and technology-forward, saving you time and cost while helping you make full use of your data. In the end, you’ll soon see your users—whether they’re internal or external—benefit from your new approach.

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Meet the authors
  1. Lindy Dreyer, Senior Partner Strategy and Transformation

    Lindy Dreyer applies a human-centered perspective to improve digital services for citizens and their advocates. View bio

  2. Neil Desai, Partner, Digital Transformation

    Neil has over 30 years of experience driving change, both large- and small-scale, in government and commercial organizations. He has positioned agencies for the widespread adoption of CX practices and culture through a combination of strategic, tactical, and change management efforts. Neil authored the GSA Customer Experience Playbook and has published several articles on organizational transformation.