Scaling the impact of human-centered design in the public sector

By Crystal Yan, designer at U.S. Digital Service

Over the past few decades, private sector organizations ranging from small startups to Fortune 500 companies have embraced human-centered design methods to innovate and bring new ideas to market quickly. Within these organizations, designers have scaled their impact by moving from being only responsible for visual design to driving product and company strategy. As a result, designers have secured a seat at the table with many leading technology companies appointing VPs of Design and Chief Design Officers to their executive leadership, and many venture capital firms appointing Design Partners to support their portfolio companies and ensure a better return on investment.

Meanwhile, in the public sector, organizations like the United States Digital Service, Code for America, and 18F, have started a civic technology movement to bring technologists (engineers, designers, product managers) into the public sector. Because the public sector is motivated by more than profit, the way designers can scale their impact is different. Also, because it’s purposely designed to not change as quickly, it’s even more important for design to play a role.

U.S. Digital Service designers at a design team offsite.

In the public sector, human-centered design can have impact in several ways:

Service design and delivery, contracting, design education, and policy. Design can often play a more influential role in the public sector than in a software company, and by scaling impact, designers move from improving implementation to directing strategy. As you lead design in the public sector, whether it’s within a government agency or at a nonprofit, here are four strategies you can leverage to scale the impact of your human-centered design work:

1. Design better services

When designers conduct formative user research and evaluative usability testing to better understand what Veterans, immigrants, and refugees need, from updates to the status of their applications for public benefits, it’s an opportunity for design to improve the way the government delivers public services. It’s also a chance to see the impact to our society if people have better access to those services.

2. Hire strong teams

Most organizations in the public sector today do not have many in-house technology employees and instead rely on contractors. When designers work in partnership with contracting officers (the employees responsible for making decisions on how to hire contractors) they can make sure the contractor selection process is designed to hire for the right skills, from designing digital products or leading service design to delivering exceptional customer experiences. Integrating those contractors into the product development process is important so that their skills are used effectively.

3. Build better interdisciplinary teams

When designers educate people outside of the design team on the value of human-centered design methods, this creates an organizational culture where career public servants feel comfortable identifying their role in designing part of a public service program — not everyone may be a designer, but everyone designs. We work in partnership with our colleagues who come from different disciplines (whether they’re doctors or lawyers or soldiers) to help them realize that when they write the text in a call center script or decide that there should be three systems or one, they are designing.

4. Design human-centered policy

Finally, designers can work in partnership with policy, the colleagues responsible for translating legislation and regulation into policy. Together, they can use paper prototyping and journey mapping as tools to understand how a potential policy change can impact the end user experience — and then question if it should even become policy at all.

The status quo of service delivery, government contracts, and career public servants are often around for the long haul and policy is difficult to change once it becomes law. Bringing human-centered design to the table is imperative. To do so ensures what we all want out of our government — that decisions of relative permanence in the public sector are made with the needs of government service beneficiaries in mind.

The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.

We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at and visit




The United States Digital Service is a group of technologists from diverse backgrounds working across the federal government to transform critical services for the people.

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United States Digital Service

United States Digital Service

The United States Digital Service is on a mission to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.

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