Explainer: What is ‘human-centered design’?

Designers Hadas Ilani and Sarah Auslander practice human-centered design with the Tel Aviv innovation team.

If you’re hearing more people around local government talk about “human-centered design” lately, that’s a good thing. It means a critical innovation tool, one that’s common in the private sector but still new to government, is percolating in your city.

But still: What is it? Here, in the first of a series of explainers, Bloomberg Cities cuts through the jargon to help you understand this important concept and why it matters in City Halls.

What is ‘human-centered design’?

Human-centered design is an approach to creating a program, policy, service, or product that is tailored to the needs of the person who will use or be impacted by it.

That sounds simple enough — until you consider how things in city government typically work: New programs are often developed by experts who don’t always speak with the people the programs are designed for. As a result, cities develop services that don’t address the root causes of the problems city residents face. Then over time, programs get so wrapped up in red tape that they serve bureaucratic or legal interests more than they do citizens. If you’ve ever spent much time at the DMV, you get the idea.

[Get the latest innovation news from Bloomberg Cities! Subscribe to SPARK.]

Human-centered design, on the other hand, is all about understanding the people you’re serving — whether they’re renters or landlords, pedestrians or car commuters, police or the policed, parents or students. In fact, the people you’re designing for are deeply involved in every step of creation — from the initial research into defining a problem, to creating solutions and then testing and implementing them.

“It’s about moving away from the idea that government rolls out services to people,” said Stephanie Wade, who manages the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Teams program, which funds in-house City Hall consultancies that use human-centered design as one of their main tools. “Instead, it’s saying, ‘We’re here to serve you, our customers, and we’ll develop and deliver new services with you. It’s about reframing the role of government.”

Why are cities moving to this approach?

There are several reasons. First, a human-centered design process is conducive to innovation. That’s because it doesn’t start with any preconceived notions of what the answer is — or the limitations of “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” thinking. Instead, it starts with eyes-wide-open research into what the users of a program, policy, or service need.

That inquiry can uncover unexpected insights and root causes of problems. For example, when Austin, Texas, set out to increase its recycling rate, designers from the city’s innovation team interviewed 52 residents in their homes to understand how they approached recycling. That research turned up something city leaders had overlooked: that apartment dwellers struggle making space for large recycling bins. They worked with residents to test out small stackable bins, which turned out to boost their willingness to recycle more.

[Read: Meet the new force shaking up city halls: designers]

This points to another reason why cities are using human-centered design: It offers a more meaningful way of engaging citizens than you often find in local government. Rather than hold a Tuesday-night hearing and offering residents three minutes each to testify, Austin essentially co-created solutions with the very people expected to use them.

All of which gives local governments a path to become more responsive to residents and businesses. That’s what they’re aiming for in Calgary, Canada, where thousands of employees have gone through training in human-centered design. “When you work in a large organization, you can become very removed from citizens,” said Lisa Sierra, the city’s manager of innovation, data, and external access. “We want staff to constantly be asking themselves: ‘Is this the right thing we should be doing for Calgary and its citizens?’ And to be thinking about it from a citizen’s perspective.”

What kinds of city problems can human-centered design tackle?

These concepts first entered City Halls via redesigns of their websites and digital government initiatives. Cities wanted to make it as easy for residents to get a dog license online, for example, as it is to buy something from Amazon. Recently, cities such as Miami and Philadelphia have refined this further to orient their home pages squarely around the most common things residents want to know, like what day the trash will be picked up or whether the trains running on time today. (In a digital context, the term “user-centered design” is often used, but the basic idea is the same.)

Any kind of service delivery is ripe for a human-centered design approach. Washington, D.C., for example, has overhauled a number of services specifically by streamlining the onerous paperwork attached to them. A citizen-driven redesign process, headlined by a public event known as “Form-a-palooza,” re-worked services such as food-truck licensing, child-care subsidies, and driver’s license applications.

The approach also works with big, seemingly intractable social problems. Long Beach, Calif., for example, applied the process to find ways of reducing crime. Tracy Colunga, head of the city’s Office of Civic Innovation, said her team interviewed people with incarceration histories, as well as police and justice officials. One finding: Dozens of the same people were cycling repeatedly through the city jail, in some cases because they could get three meals and a shower there. One solution to flow from that finding was to put a clinician in the jail to connect those people to health and housing services.

Then, there’s Gainesville, Fla., which is applying human-centered design principles to the entire “user experience” of local government. Everything from the waiting rooms of permitting offices to the titles on employees’ business cards has been redesigned to be less confusing and more accessible for residents.

Who does human-centered design?

Anybody can learn these principles and put them to work, but the tactics are the domain of design professionals. More and more local governments are hiring designers, either on-staff or as consultants — nearly all of the innovation teams affiliated with Bloomberg Philanthropies have at least one professional designer on board.

[Read: 5 qualities designers need to succeed in the public sector]

Designers tend to be a different breed than you typically find in City Hall. They’re often extremely curious and keep an open mind about whatever problem they’re trying to tackle. They’re empathetic, in terms of trying to understand the needs of people. They’re rigorous, in terms of seeing that public-sector problems are complex, and look for root causes of problems rather than symptoms. They look at problems creatively and develop solutions in new ways, are practical about doing that within the constraints of budgets and timelines, and are motivated by the urge to make life better for the people they’re designing for.

What tools do designers use?

Designers bring a few tools that are new to many local governments.

One is ethnographic research aimed at learning about a problem or situation from the perspective of residents and other stakeholders. The goal is to build empathy by spending time where residents’ lives are actually happening — in their homes, workplaces, schools, and community organizations.

Next comes a synthesis phase, where designers take the research findings and draw connections between different experiences they’ve heard. This is part of understanding the problem or situation at a very deep level in order to surface the underlying forces at work. Designers then take the results of that synthesis and think creatively, or “ideate,” about what potential solutions could be. This is where they can challenge the role of government and develop ideas that redefine what it can do.

Prototyping is another tool. A prototype is a quick sketch or crude model of an idea — a low-cost, low-stakes way of making an abstract idea real. Designers then test out those prototypes with citizens, in order to get feedback so that the idea can be improved rapidly.This is where cities can go from merely engaging citizens to co-creating solutions with them.

[Read: Unleashing the power of public prototyping]

For example, when a high school in Tel Aviv, Israel, wanted to create a cafeteria — there was no previous school lunch program — they prototyped it with students. They tried out three different food ordering and queuing schemes. They even prototyped the furniture, using cardboard tables and chairs in different configurations to see what the students liked. By the time they invested real money into the program, they had a high degree of confidence it would work. The process reduced risk and saved money.

Finally, of course, there’s sticky notes, which designers tend to plaster all over walls, windows, and nearly any other vertical surface. There’s a reason for that. Whether they’re trying to connect the dots in their research, or brainstorming ideas, designers want to make data visual. Writing everything down on sticky notes, where bits of ideas can be moved around and grouped, gives them a way to see connections that would otherwise be buried in documents or spreadsheets. Those connections are often what yields innovation.

What do cities need to succeed with human-centered design?

They need to be open to what, for many in government, is an entirely new way of problem solving. Instead of formulating answers, city leaders need to get better at asking questions — and being open to answers they may not have expected. It can be a fluid and non-linear process that produces lots of small breakthroughs rather than one blockbuster of an idea. “Designers help us look at projects in a circular way,” Colunga said. “They’re constantly iterating, and then going back to improve.”

And that requires support from city leadership. “The organizations that are successful with this are ones that make it accessible to everybody,” Wade said, “and have a clear mandate for why it’s being done.”


What local government innovation concepts would you like to see explained? Email us here or tweet @BloombergCities with your suggestions.