5 minute read 16 Mar 2022
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How human-centered design from business will define CX in government

By Rob Tannen

User Experience Psychologist, EY Design Studio

Human-centered researcher. Design essayist. Patent aficionado. FIFA gamer.

5 minute read 16 Mar 2022

Governments around the world are improving customer experience. The private sector can be involved in and learn from these efforts.

In brief
  • Businesses have a key role to play in helping governments build and implement new customer experience solutions.
  • Experience design practitioners should take note of new CX policies’ aims, especially as they relate to cross-agency collaboration and equitable service delivery.
  • A recent CX executive order in the US contains best practices useful for other governments engaging in service delivery transformation.

Customer experience (CX) design is critical for service delivery in government and in the private sector. While governments often lag the private sector in CX, many, including in the US, are striving to close the gap.

These efforts have a two-fold effect on experience design and technology providers. Most directly, governments are frequently engaging such teams to develop and implement customer-focused service delivery solutions. More broadly, CX practitioners can learn about large-scale CX transformation and best practices from these government initiatives.

A recent example of government CX transformation can be found in the US, where an executive order was issued on 13 December 2021 to improve CX across federal agencies. It contains recommendations and actions that experience design teams outside of government should consider as a model for their activities.

While the proof will be in the doing, the order demonstrates robust knowledge of customer experience challenges and recommends thoughtful approaches to address them, including:

  • Providing clear definitions of key terms
  • Identifying specific challenges, focus areas and near-term actions
  • Naming the specific roles responsible for carrying out said actions
  • Requiring ongoing, evidence-based feedback and measurement
  • Addressing cross-agency collaboration required to support customer journeys that cut across organizational structures

A great customer experience is not feasible if the decisions and processes behind it were ineffective.

The executive order is comprised of 10 sections. Below are highlights of the first six sections that CX teams will find valuable, as well as a couple of areas of critique. The remaining sections of the order (7–10) are broader and less relevant for CX practitioners.

Executive order section 1: Purpose

The initial section provides the justification and goals for the executive order, and reads like a human-centered designer’s fantasy:

Government must be held accountable for designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve. Government must also work to deliver services more equitably and effectively, especially for those who have been historically underserved. Strengthening the democratic process requires providing direct lines of feedback and mechanisms for engaging the American people in the design and improvement of Federal Government programs, processes, and services.

The use of phrases such as “actual experience” and “direct lines of feedback” prelude the order’s emphasis on empirical inputs and measurement. Service delivery and journey mapping must fit the customer, not the practitioner, and feedback should be easy to transmit and able to be acted upon.

Executive order section 2: Policy

Here, the executive order recognizes that experience issues may have varied causes that must be resolved regardless of whether the source of such challenges is statutory, regulatory, budgetary, technological or process-based.

Often experience design practitioners are limited to solutions at the end of a causal chain (e.g., an interface for delivering an already flawed service). A great customer experience is not feasible if the decisions and processes behind it were ineffective. In theory, at least, the executive order should empower teams to make changes wherever needed to improve experiences.

Executive order section 3: Definitions

Definitions are provided for seven key terms, including “customer,” “customer experience” and “human-centered design.” These definitions may be useful for experience design practitioners, who sometimes struggle to define terms consistently.

For example, the term “human-centered design” is defined as an interdisciplinary methodology of putting people, including those who will use or be impacted by what one creates, at the center of any process to solve challenging problems. Concise definitions for often-used terms like “human-centered design” make the terms more actionable in a CX strategy.

Executive order section 4: Agency actions to improve customer experience

This section of the executive order enumerates the federal agencies and the associated CX improvements each agency is responsible for addressing. Rather than naming the agencies directly, the list is organized by the respective heads of the agencies (e.g., Secretaries of State, Treasury and Veterans Affairs). This provides clear accountability, something that can be missing in customer experience plans and briefs.

While some of the customer experience improvements were relatively broad (update rules, policies and procedures) most were specific, including:

  • Design and deliver a new online passport renewal experience that does not require any physical documents to be mailed
  • Test the use of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits for online purchasing
  • Develop a mobile-accessible, online process so that any individual applying for or receiving services from the Social Security Administration can upload forms, documentation, evidence or correspondence associated with their transaction without the need for service-specific tools or traveling to a field office

While improvements are primarily linked to individual agencies, there is also a subsection for “Joint Agency Actions.” This is critical as customer journeys often cross agencies and their respective systems, definitions and policies. Cross-agency collaboration is addressed more explicitly in the subsequent section.

Executive order section 5: Government-wide actions to improve customer experience

Perhaps the most useful part of the executive order for CX practitioners is the strategy for cross-agency coordination to create effective, integrated customer experiences:

Customers often navigate services across multiple agencies in specific moments of need, such as when they are seeking financing for their businesses or are experiencing food insecurity. In such situations, relevant agencies should coordinate their service delivery to achieve an integrated experience that meets customer needs through the exchange of data with appropriate privacy protections.

Much of this depends on collaboration, information sharing and governance across customer experience journey maps. The section details several near-term actions to get this process underway, including objectives for organizing, prioritizing and measuring improvements.

Governments are big, complex organizations. Private businesses are usually smaller but often exist within ecosystems that can be daunting for customers to navigate. Experience design practitioners can use this executive order — and watch its implementation — to learn best practices and pitfalls of cross-party CX coordination and journey mapping.

Executive order section 6: Ongoing accountability for federal service delivery

Section 6 and the subsequent sections cover the more administrative areas of the executive order related to budgeting and reporting. But even here we see a prioritization of human-centered design relative to more traditional metrics of transactions and dollars:

Identification of designated services should be based on the moments that matter most to the individuals served, as illustrated through human-centered design and other research, and on those services’ public-facing nature, the number of individuals served, the volume of transactions, the total Federal dollars spent, the safety and protection of lives, or the critical nature of the services provided in the lives of the individuals they serve.

There is also a requirement for assessing customer experience through “meaningful measures” that can include methods such as ethnographic research, feedback from public engagement and human-centered design methodologies such as journey mapping.

When private-sector CX practitioners pitch management on experience design plans, they can bolster their arguments with some of the “meaningful measures” explained in the executive order — alongside the more-traditional metrics related to customer retention or growth.


Governments are often criticized for poor customer experience. Many are working to change that — often in partnership with the private sector. President Joe Biden’s executive order contains information that is often lacking or ambiguous in experience design project plans. While serving as a high-level starting point, the order is specific, actionable and measurable. Experience design teams should strive to provide clear definitions, specify responsible parties, require evidence-based inputs and mandate cross-department collaboration in their project approaches.

About this article

By Rob Tannen

User Experience Psychologist, EY Design Studio

Human-centered researcher. Design essayist. Patent aficionado. FIFA gamer.