Unlocking digital transformation using human-centered design
by Anneliese LaTempa, Fearless Scrum Master
“That’s just how it is,” — a phrase we are all too familiar with when engaging with the government workforce. From software practices, process and communication endless feedback loops, and even down to the way the building feels when you walk inside of it — that’s just how it is.
When Fearless was awarded a human-centered design contract with a federal government agency, there was a clear Discovery phase identified in the contract and statement of objectives. What we found when we arrived — there were projects and products that needed our immediate attention, and the team was asked by the customer to “put some HCD on it.”
For those that are unfamiliar, human-centered design is a way of problem-solving that incorporates a variety of processes and tools to create the best possible experience for a user. “Putting HCD on a project” is a tall order without the luxury to perform thoughtful research. The team began tending to the immediate needs of projects and products- but we still needed to do the “Discovery” work.
Here’s what we did:
- Be agile about it. Accept that the trusty framework you prefer may not work right now. Instead, start listening, and be flexible to meet the needs of your customer.
- Become part of the team(s). There is no better way to get acquainted with a product, project, and/or product owner than to be on the team — involved in the day-to-day work, ceremonies for planning, and review of the work that has already been done. In this case we were embedded in several multi-contract, multi-vendor teams.
- Start delivering. There is no better way to gain trust with your product owners and fellow team members than to start producing work. From wireframes, and quick prototyping, to heuristic evaluations, the team was able to quickly turn around work efforts that would both educate the customer on human-centered design, and identify and inform the next areas of work to iterate.
- Communicate. A crucial part of the agile lifecycle is frequent communication — what works, what doesn’t work, what can be improved. In many cases this is a retrospective — sometimes it’s just a heart-to-heart.
While the team embarked on these steps, we experienced frustration from the customer about work not being done. What the customer saw as a delivery problem, we saw as a communication problem, but either way there was a problem that we had to identify. A large part of this human-centered design initiative required identifying what the customer needed, and creating deliverables that could solve the problem. The reality is, sometimes the customer doesn’t know what they need — but it is our role as HCD practitioners to be active in the process of helping them figure it out.
What we found is that the work was being delivered, but there was a break in the chain of communication. In order to mend this break, we developed a high value deliverable — a short blog email we called, “The Daily Digest.” This email shared high level updates for each work stream (of which there were many!), so that there were no questions from the customer on the work being done. This communication was a turning point in the relationship between Fearless and the customer — because our product owners trusted the team was doing the work, and had quick access to key outputs for each product to pull ad hoc when requested from their managers.
From then to now — a trusted partnership
Between the 6 month period of instituting the daily blog and present-day, Team Fearless has moved from “the new contractor” to a trusted partner. This is the key of digital transformation — the cultural shift that occurs when the customer begins using your language, asking for your expertise before making big decisions, and wanting you to be part of the change. Human-centered design is an elegant vehicle to institute this type of cultural change, because even just using the terminology becomes a frequent reminder that everyone involved in these projects, products, and programs are human. This keyword helps not only center products to the user experience, but also supports fundamental agile concepts and team dynamics.
It is important for vendors and partners to recognize their role as teacher for organizations and agencies that are implementing human-centered design practices. While the initial contract or conversations may highlight the desire and need to implement these practices, more work needs to be done than a simple snap of the fingers. When both parties, vendor and client, recognize that the implementation process is a process, everyone is better set up for success.