Government by Design

November 8, 2016 in Human-Centered Design
Bridget Deely
Marketing Specialist

Aligning an organization’s vision for the future is important when implementing change, but when you have to take into account many different voices, moving in a single direction is difficult. This election, change has been a driving platform for every candidate, but what happens after we vote? How do we effectively put the changes we voted for into action?

Human-centered design (HCD) and design thinking have been widely adopted by businesses to introduce innovation into their organizations. They have been used as a fundamental element of the decision-making and problem-solving process, especially when developing strategy initiatives or improving usability. These design approaches are used to support how people work, and are accepted as valuable tools to optimize business functions and tame complexity.

President Obama introduced the White House to design in 2015 with the implementation of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. Source: sbst.gov

Although government has been slower to adopt design, President Obama has recognized the impact of design thinking, and in 2015 signed an Executive Order directing Federal agencies to use behavioral science to improve how government serves the American people. The White House has also introduced its own design team, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), in order to incorporate more innovative practices to improve usability among government programs. By expanding on these design initiatives already in place, HCD can improve how government organizations seek alignment by incorporating feedback from people into decision-making—improving the responsiveness of government as a whole.

Designing for Consensus

So how does designing for alignment work? It all starts with identifying key issues. “Before you plan a workshop, it’s important to meet with and conduct brief interviews with key stakeholders to uncover what issues exist, where people might have differences of opinion, and how bridgeable (or not) those differences might be.” MAYA Senior Designer and Researcher, Bridget Monahan, explains, “It’s important to elicit stated desired outcomes [from the client owner]. All the planning for the workshop is then geared towards working backwards from [desired] outcomes to figure out how you can achieve those [goals].”

After you establish an end goal, it’s important to keep a few things in mind as you continue to design:

  1. Identify whose voice needs to be heard. Understand where agreement needs to come from. Whether that’s a user who will be directly impacted by these decisions or a stakeholder who is investing in innovation, it’s important to recognize who the key players in your team are and what’s most valued in your organization.

  2. Understand how consensus affects the people in the room. Who has the most to lose or gain by coming to agreement? Empathy can help teams understand others’ motivations and better identify the weight of a decision.

  3. Design activities that elicit people’s opinions. Everyone needs to feel like they’ve been heard. Reaching a consensus relies on designing activities that bring people to agree on possible avenues of merit by visualizing the vote and prioritizing the issues with an importance/difficulty matrix.

  4. Prototype possible solutions. Using prototypes to test hypotheses on a small scale can help validate good ideas and eliminate others from the decision pool.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and The SmartPGH Consortium work together to establish core values in an alignment workshop designed to help transform Pittsburgh into a model Smart City. Source: MAYA Design

Aligning with Outliers

Designing for consensus seems easy enough, but what happens when you have a highly opinionated team member stuck on a certain idea? According to Bridget, this isn’t uncommon among groups. “A lot of how it plays out has to do with how much power that person holds. People may just agree because he/she is in charge.” But power isn’t the only factor that can influence outliers. Results of an outlying team member can be influenced by how persuasive their arguments are (Are they ranting more or less to themselves or making valid points?) and what the underlying context for their beliefs are—in other words, why are they stuck? “This last point,” Bridget points out, “is where your design facilitator needs to be able to read people well so they can identify that person’s motivations and work with [them] and the rest of the group so the workshop isn’t derailed.”

p4 Conference participants use a creative matrix to generate and discuss solutions to pressing issues in the Pittsburgh community. Source: MAYA Design

Fostering Ideas to Overcome Constraints

Often times, government teams have more constraints and limitations to consider. Whether it’s budget, time, or resources, it’s important to acknowledge and understand those constraints in order to arrive at agreeable solutions. Constraints don’t necessarily mean something won’t work, so encouraging open mindedness among your team is important to avoid writing-off good ideas. The job of the designer is to layout all options so everyone can visualize what you have to work with and what you are working towards.

At MAYA, we see design as a fundamental element for the decision-making and problem-solving process. We believe using human-centered design and design thinking as tools to improve our government is the best way to implement ideas for results that benefit “we the people”.

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