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December 17, 2019

HCD: Focusing on People to Solve IT Problems

By The Customer Experience Center of Excellence Team

Unfortunately, some federal agencies can’t identify their most important customers or describe those customers’ most important needs. Federal IT projects traditionally rely on requirements that describe what the system needs to do in the finest detail. But many of those projects fail, even when they come in on-time and on-budget. Agencies are looking for a more effective approach.

Human-centered design (HCD) defines and solves problems from the perspective of the people who use the product or service being developed. GSA’s Centers of Excellence (CoE) are helping agencies better understand and serve the people who depend on them through the use of HCD.


When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted a deeper understanding of what producers go through to get farm loans, they partnered with the CoE. We traveled across the country to interview dozens of producers, more than 40 subject matter experts and Farm Service Agency employees.

Our research provided new insights for employees at USDA Headquarters. We found, for example, that the local service center staff often developed innovations that could be adopted elsewhere if scaled properly. We discovered that producers wanted self-service options to augment, rather than replace existing services, a vital insight as the agency prioritized its initiatives.

We also ran workshops with USDA stakeholders, created a comprehensive customer journey map that tracked the experience of producers and loan officers throughout the application process and recommended holistic improvements for the customer experience.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is building the capability for designing customer experiences. To demonstrate the value of HCD for HUD’s needs, CoE focused on the experience of very low-income seniors. As we analyzed interviews of very low-income seniors, intermediaries and HUD representatives, powerful insights like these emerged:

  • The system benefits those who become experts in navigating the complexities of HUD programs.
  • The distributed nature of HUD’s response to citizen inquiries ends up creating a burden on employees who aren’t trained to handle them, and don’t have a systematic way to detect and address endemic problems.
  • Tenants have difficulty resolving challenges with property managers, leading to escalation at HUD offices.
  • Intermediaries such as public and private housing site managers, landlords, public housing authority staff, and housing counseling providers on the front lines feel inadequately prepared to deal with the physical and mental decline of senior residents.

HCD expands the understanding of these kinds of human needs, which results in more successful solutions and more usable systems.


Federal retirees are an important customer for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Today, OPM staff are using reliable, but outdated software to determine the benefits of every federal employee when they retire. OPM wanted to do more than just replace the current software; they wanted to develop it with users at the center.

The retirement benefits expertise of OPM’s Legal Administrative Specialists (LAS) is essential to the adjudication of cases, but making up for the current software’s shortcomings forces them to squander time and focus. Historically, OPM’s approach to software development centered on systems and system functionality, but they asked CoE to find and manage a vendor who will instead take a HCD approach. The primary purpose of the new software will be to optimize the expertise of the LAS.

Customer Experience (CX) Center of Excellence

CoE’s CX leads use HCD strategies and tactics to define and address our partner agencies’ problems. It starts with an honest appraisal of how an agency defines and cares for its customers. It involves interviewing and observing customers and the staff charged with supporting them. And it can involve the analysis of an agency’s policies, culture, history and future planning. It is all in the service of a simple concept: The best way to define and develop solutions is to put the people dependent on those solutions at the center of your process.

Learn more about our CX work and offerings by visiting

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