The key role of human-centered design in improving government services

GSA, IRS and VA leaders discuss new digital services that help customers navigate government services.

Human-centered design plays a key role in various digital services, including an upcoming new app from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

COVID-19 has accelerated the transition to digital services, as many paper-based processes needed to be made accessible online. Last week, federal leaders in GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s Digital Services Series: Customer Experience noted how their agencies have harnessed the power of technology to drive improvements in the overall customer experience.

Karen Howard, director of the IRS Office of Online Services, said her team needed to pivot quickly to provide more services and applications online.

“The pandemic has dramatically accelerated our plans, and like all organizations, the IRS has had to pivot and prioritize strategies and resources,” Howard said. “We launched new online services to help taxpayers make their Economic Impact Payments and Advanced Child Tax Credit Payments.”

Amid this shift, technology leaders have leveraged human-centered design to develop best practices, design standards, and ensure ease of use. Barbara Morton, assistant director of veteran experience at VA, said the approach stems from the agency’s 2018 relaunch of va.gov.

“We wanted to continue to apply the human-centered design methodology and mindset as part of the website redesign strategy,” Morton said. “When you see it today, you’ll see a much more user-friendly website…and you’re designing and iterating through to users.”

The IRS takes a similar approach with its platform, irs.gov. As part of the Taxpayer First Act, the agency accelerated its efforts to create a seamless experience for taxpayers, strengthening digital services and improving accessibility.

“We’re looking for navigation, we’re looking for ‘content as king’ and ‘engagement as queen,'” Howard said. “There are a lot of other things that really help the taxpayer engage with us the way they want, when and how they want, without having to go to field offices or even call. C is a unique and tailor-made situation.”

The General Services Administration is in a unique position to work across government and create shared digital services, said Nico Papafil, director of 10x. His team recently launched a new project called Benefits Eligibility Awareness Resource Service (BEARS) to bring together services from multiple federal agencies to help the public navigate government and better understand benefit eligibility.

“What if a person only needed to go to one place…to see what their options were?” What if we didn’t have to navigate them through government? [BEARS is] a great example of a cross-agency tool,” Papafil said. “We look at it more holistically. It’s like a “federal gateway” for certain elements of what the public may need.

As agencies ramp up digital services, many leaders are taking a “fail fast, fail forward, fail small” approach to testing services on a small scale, learning lessons, and then implementing best practices on a larger scale. . Papafil said this iterative approach allows agencies to be nimble and pivot as changes occur, such as new technologies, leadership or priorities.

“We say let’s spend $20,000 to verify and validate the problem. Let’s really understand this problematic space,” Papafil said. “Taking this user-centric approach, being agile, being lean, allows us to fail small and really push forward more promising projects for the right solution.”

Especially in the customer experience space, privacy and security are top of mind as agencies improve digital platforms. Howard said safety is a fundamental part of human-centered design. To maintain its focus on privacy, the IRS partners with security teams to define problem sets and understand the nuances to protect taxpayer data.

“We can provide a fantastic journey for our taxpayers, but along the way, if we compromise their information, it’s for nothing,” Howard said. “When it comes to the Office of Online Services, taxpayer privacy and the protection of their data are critical to the taxpayer experience.”

Going forward, the GSA and IRS are strengthening fairness in software development and delivery.

“We have such a diverse American culture… We have huge initiatives around accessibility,” Howard said. “We have resources really dedicated to user stories and community outreach to understand what languages ​​we need to…translate…because there’s a difference between interpreting and translating.”

VA is currently working on a new mobile app as part of the agency’s digital strategy and recently soft-launched the app to approximately 50,000 users. Morton did not share additional details about the app, but said it would help VA increase its reach with veterans and improve accessibility to agency benefits and services.

“As we continue to develop the feature, there will be more visibility on this, but it’s a really amazing improvement, and we’re pushing the technology forward with human-centric design,” Morton said.

Ashley C. Reynolds