Human-centered design: the game changer for transformational effort

In enacting vision and strategic plans, state agencies have moved to considering people’s needs first, then making changes to support them.

In brief
  • Start any transformation process with a vision and strategy checkup.
  • Human-centered design builds from the ground up, and the inside out — listen to users and employees when defining problems and solutions.

I joined the state office of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2007 as the Quality Control Bureau Chief in the middle of a large technology implementation. I was new to the organization and not yet familiar with all the key stakeholders, but I jumped in with glee and zest to be a part of this innovation. At the time, Florida DCF was a pioneer state of innovation, and I was grateful and thrilled to be a part of it. Over the course of my first couple months, the testing was completed, and the launch occurred. I joined my state office colleagues in celebration, and we immediately started planning for the next big change. But something peculiar was occurring; we were getting complaints, lots of complaints, about the new shiny system we had just implemented.

How could this be?

After analyzing the feedback and watching the adoption of the system tank, attending numerous uncomfortable executive meetings and several million dollars later, we came to realize one major and costly error — we failed to include those who were using the system in its design. We had not asked them what they needed, how it should look and feel to make their jobs easier, what metrics they hoped to track (any good system change must have the ability to track success) and they rebelled, so much so that we ultimately ended up ripping out that implementation and starting over. Those were some uncomfortable conversations and hard days.

All is not lost, though, when such a costly and people-impacting mistake is made. That experience set the stage for what is today known as human-centered design. We did not call it that when we were in the midst of correcting our blunder and seeking a new way of transforming our agency. Because we had impacted so many (frontline workers, their supervisors and managers, the clients we served, our partners, and our taxpayers), we began a new culture in our organization that adopted the “slow down to speed up” approach by revisiting our vision and checking in on our strategy each time we made plans to innovate.

Human-centered design: vision and strategy first, every time

Stage agencies develop long- and short-term strategic plans based on their vision. They serve as internal roadmaps and external communication methods for the legislature and budget planning. When long-term plans are established, they provide a North Star for the agency, yet sticking so tightly to the plan can be deadly to a state agency in a world of change.

A vision is necessary, but the latitude to adjust and being flexible to change is necessary in this ever-changing world, especially as quickly as technology changes. Short-term plans must be nimble and capable of accepting those unexpected changes and projects while keeping the North Star as the guide. The government services we provide don’t change, but the way we deliver those rapidly changes. So, for each transformation effort, or even small innovative changes, the alignment to the vision must be validated or updated, and the health check on the strategy either confirmed or realigned to enact the vision.

Human-centered design starts with a health check of the agency vision and an assessment of the strategic plan to enact the vision. Agencies need to ask themselves:

  • Has the vision of the agency changed, or does it need to change?
  • Does our strategic plan need to be updated to help us get where we want to go?

I can say that the failed implementation did align to the vision and did fit in the strategic plan. We were solely focused on speeding up processes, virtualizing the government space and maximizing digitization. We accomplished the technology piece of the transformation, but we failed to incorporate the human experience which makes or breaks a truly successful initiative.

Use human-centered design to priortize people's experience and build from it

Focusing on addressing problems in services and processes, human-centered design prioritizes the experience of the people who use it.

As a former state administrator of public assistance benefits, this meant two things:

  1. Designing processes and systems to make resources and services more easily accessible and removing barriers for those who came to us in need.
  2. Designing processes and systems for those who serve, our workforce, making everything easier and quicker so that they may serve better. 

Federal and state regulations can add layers of requirements in policy and process that can work against human-centered design, but to be a truly innovative state agency, it’s seeking paths around or through the red tape, or even challenging the red tape to get to the heart of the matter, serving those most vulnerable with the greatest sense of urgency. Regulations are not enacted to make service to government support more challenging but given the complexities that have been created over time, it’s often the outcome. The relentless pursuit of challenging impacts to humans serving, or humans served, is key.

During that failed launch and after scratching my head as to why that system enhancement was causing such a stir, I drove over to one of our county offices to see what the problems were really all about. I asked to shadow their best worker to understand what I was hearing. I was flabbergasted at the additional effort, time and frustration we had added to our workforce, all in the purest form of trying to truly help them. We had lost touch with the needs and desires of those on the front lines. We had inadvertently strayed. This moment was an inflection point in our process of innovation. At the beginning of every change, we began asking those impacted for their guidance and input, and we took that feedback and aligned it to our vision, incorporated it into our strategy, and built business requirements from it. We embedded our people, all people, into the design of our organization.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


Government transformation is oftentimes seen as daunting and feels like a constantly moving target. But by understanding the needs of those we serve and those who serve, change suddenly seems less monumental and more essential because we are making change together, it becomes a unified effort. With an assessment and update of the vision and strategic plan and keeping people at the center of any change or design, state agencies will have the foundation of an effective strategy that moves it toward its long-term goals. 

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