When to Use User-Centered Design for Public Policy

Stephen Moilanen at the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, technology company executives regularly sounded off on what, from their perspective, the administration might do differently. In 2010, Steve Jobs reportedly warned Obama that he likely wouldn’t win reelection, because his administration’s policies disadvantaged businesses like Apple. And in a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Peter Thiel expressed his disapproval of the political establishment by quipping, “Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East.”

Against this backdrop, one specific way Silicon Valley has tried to nudge Washington in a new direction is with respect to policy development. Specifically, leading technologists have begun encouraging policy makers to apply user-centered design (otherwise known as design thinking or human-centered design) to the public sector. The thinking goes that if government develops policy with users more squarely in mind, it might accelerate social progress rather than—as has often been the case—stifle it.

At a moment when fewer Americans than ever believe government is meeting their needs, a new approach that elevates the voices of citizens is long overdue. Even so, it would be misguided to view user-centered design as a cure-all for what ails the public sector. The approach holds great promise, but only in a well-defined set of circumstances.

User-Centered Design in the Public Policy Arena

The term “user-centered design” refers simply to a method of building products with an eye toward what users want and need.

To date, the approach has been applied primarily to the domain of for-profit start-ups. In recent months and years, however, supporters of user-centered design have sought to introduce it to other domains. A 2013 article authored by the head of a Danish design consultancy, for example, heralded the fact that “public sector design is on this rise.” And in the recent book Lean Impact, former Google executive and USAID official Ann-Mei Chang made an incisive and compelling case for why the social sector stands to benefit from this approach.

According to this line of thinking, we should be driving toward a world where government designs policy with an eye toward the individuals that stand to benefit from—or that could be hurt by—changes to public policy.

An Imperfect Fit

The merits of user-centered design in this context may seem self-evident. Yet it stands in stark contrast to how public sector leaders typically approach policy development. As leading design thinking theorist Jeanne Liedkta notes in her book Design Thinking for the Greater Good, “Innovation and design are [currently] the domain of experts, policy makers, planners and senior leaders. Everyone else is expected to step away.”

But while user-centered design has much to offer the policy development, it does not map perfectly onto this new territory….(More)”.