Harvard Students Learn Human-Centered Design

Nick Sinai
Published in
5 min readApr 30, 2020
Students in Tech and Innovation in Government conducting a brainstorming exercise

Student teams in my Harvard field class, Tech & Innovation in Government, spend a semester researching, designing, and testing solutions with real government clients. I was excited to kick off the class in late January with the clients coming to class, at the Harvard Innovation Lab.

DPI-663 student teams meeting with their government clients, Spring 2020

This year’s clients and their framing questions were:

  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: How can the VA help Veterans better connect with VA products and services?
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services + Social Security Administration: How might we improve the experience of Americans enrolling in Medicare?
  • City of Boston, Elections Department: How can Boston residents better understand unofficial election results?
  • City of Boston, Inspectional Services Division: How can Boston residents better proactively interact with City inspectors?
  • U.S. Air Force: How can Kessel Run, the leading U.S. Air Force software factory, build and integrate new capabilities faster and better?

In just thirteen weeks, students work to make real change. The goal is for students to learn — through hands-on experiences inside and outside the classroom — user-centered design, product management, and public-sector entrepreneurship. The class has three parts:

  1. Problem-definition and research
  2. Prototyping and testing
  3. Presentation and delivery

While students are provided “framing questions” from their clients, they must conduct research to refine their problem statement and develop potential solutions. This piece is often the most challenging part of the course — narrowing in on the exact problem you are trying to solve. This is where human-centered design comes into play.

Human-Centered Design

The first part of the class, where students scope their problem and conduct field research, is where students learn about human-centered design (HCD), also called user-centered design. “Users” generally refer to the end-users of a product or service, but for internally facing tools users can be internal government employees.

As context for people without a background in design (most of us!), human-centered design has its roots in industrial design, the discipline that crafts physical products like phones, guitars, and potato peelers. It leverages the qualitative research methods honed in the social sciences — such as ethnography, contextual inquiry, and targeted observations and interviews — to better understand people and interactions. HCD also considers environments, processes, systems, and tools outside of the digital realm.

Practitioners often map out customer “journeys” to understand customer experiences across an entire system or ecosystem, not merely a single interface or piece of software. Practitioners of human-centered design iteratively develop solutions to the challenges they uncover, and they rigorously test their solutions with real “users.” Students in the course need to use these methods to better understand their users and scope their problems.

Anyone can learn human-centered design! The students in DPI-663 had four world-class designers join the class this spring, to share their discipline. They brought best practices and stories from the field. Here are some of their key lessons:

Guest Lecturer Mary Ann Brody listens to the students during the stand-up

Week 2 — Interviewing End-Users

Learning how to interview users is a bit more complicated than bombarding strangers, and guest speaker Mary Ann Brody introduced students to fundamentals of user research. Mary Ann, Head of Member Experience + Engagement at Devoted Health, previously was the User Experience (UX) Lead for the U.S. Digital Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She talked about the bias and ethics of interviewing while reminding students that some interviews are better than none! Students told us that they felt Mary Ann’s work was a good reminder to think outside the box when conducting user research and appreciated the power of open-ended interviews.

See more: Week 2 Presentation

Week 3 — Making Sense of Interviews

Students returned to class on week three with revised problem statements and a bit of user research experience under their belts, but students still had more questions than answers about their problem and users. Guest speaker, Nava designer, and former DPI-663 course assistant Angel Quicksey offered students a broader picture of human-centered design to help put their research methods in context.

Angel Quicksey visiting with one of the student teams in DPI-663

Angel explained journey maps (how people are experiencing a particular service) and shared specific examples from her experience in government. One summer she mapped the entire procurement process for the City of Boston! Angel also led students through an exercise to analyze their interviews — taking raw notes and systematically turning them into themes. For many of the students, this was their first time analyzing qualitative research notes so they found the exercise extremely useful for the work they would be doing in the weeks ahead!

See more: Week 3 Presentation

Angel was a part of the initial design and launch of the course, so she is familiar with the challenges students encounter throughout the semester. Students enjoyed asking Angel questions about the challenges they were already encountering in their research.

Angel Quicksey talking about best practices in user interviewing

Week 4 — Design with the User in Mind

We rounded out week four with a conversation about applying research findings. After students updated the class, it was clear many teams were still working through scoping their problem statement, finding users to interview, and synthesizing their research. Guest speakers Stephanie Nguyen and Dana Chisnell, former U.S. Digital Service designers, were able to leverage their experiences to help teams think through ways to tackle these challenges. Stephanie and Dana also spoke about the ethics of research and how to navigate competing narratives and opinions while synthesizing research. Students were inspired by the creative methods Stephanie employed to interview people and picked up new tools from Dana for conducting interviews.

Stephanie Nguyen guest lecturing

See more: Week 4 Presentation

For many students, this course is their first exposure to human-centered design. We were fortunate to kick-off the first part of the course with the help of four world-class designers. The stories of their experiences and their practical tips are immensely useful, but can’t replace the students getting out into the field are learning the hard way — this course is fundamentally about learning by doing!



Nick Sinai

Senior Advisor at Insight Partners; Adjunct Faculty at Harvard; former US Deputy CTO at White House; Author of Hack Your Bureaucracy