In the last article, we outlined why human-centered design is critical for researching, designing, and delivering the critical products and services DHS provides to meet our mission objectives. When we understand customer needs (and again, we mean both external customers and internal customers), we can design more effective, efficient, and equitable services that meet those needs. One result is greater satisfaction on both ends - with those that deliver the services and those that rely on them.
Increasingly, product teams include UX researchers and designers, mostly on the contract side. But federal roles are largely absent. We left off last time posing these questions: why is that the case and what benefits will federal designers bring to the government?
Let’s start with why federal UX research and design roles are largely absent from product teams. The reasons for this are many and include:
- Overall, the federal government is slow to modernize. It may not come as a shock, but the federal government often lags behind private industry, particularly when it comes to modern practices - IT and otherwise. This includes not having a modern design approach and employing design practitioners. However, we’re slowly moving towards a world where design is valued and an integral part of how we do business. Like all change in government, this process will take time.
- There are misconceptions about what UX researchers and designers actually do. Too often, government stakeholders assume designers are only there to visually design (or “pretty up”) user interfaces. In reality, research and design are much more than that. The field of UX design has greatly matured over the last 10 to 15 years and now includes quite a few specialized roles (as we mentioned in the last article), many of which are critical for uncovering the challenges that customers have with our services and being able to design solutions that improve our service delivery.
- The federal hiring classification system lacks modern design roles. If you look at the OPM Handbook of Occupational Groups and Families, there are entries for roles such as sewing machine operators, broom and brush makers, and even bowling equipment repairing, but not modern design roles such as interaction designer or design researcher. That generally means that if anyone is hired at all, candidates are brought on using the catch-all Information Technology Management Series (GS-2210), even though there’s more to design than technology. Most DHS services are supported by technology and, to some extent, delivered by technology. However, they exist within a larger customer journey that includes non-technical interactions. And all of these interactions, technical or otherwise, should be designed. So, even when we’ve identified the need for design roles, they simply don’t exist within the hiring spec. And yet, all is not lost.
- Job advertisements for federal roles on USAJobs can be vague and minimally searchable. Because of the use of options like GS-2210, advertisements for design-focused roles don’t even remotely resemble the types of jobs candidates typically look for when doing a search. That means qualified candidates, particularly those coming from the private sector, don’t recognize openings as roles they would be interested in. These issues place more of an emphasis on how we might actively recruit candidates to apply for these roles, which leads to…
- For the most part, agencies don’t know how to recruit or hire UX researchers or designers. Agencies may come to the realization that they need design roles, however, they don’t generally have expertise to plan and execute a hiring process focused on design roles, particularly interviewing candidates to assess their ability to deliver on the qualifications outlined in the position description. Fortunately, there are recently created options such as SMEQA, where subject matter experts (SMEs) review candidate applications to find qualified candidates.
Those are some of the challenges with establishing federal design roles. While they may seem insurmountable, there are ways to work within the current system to recruit and hire federal designers. More on that in the next article. Next, let’s talk about why these roles will be critical moving forward:
- Federal designers are the key to greater understanding of customers’ needs. The key to delivering effective services is to have a dedicated and continuous user research and discovery process. Having federal design researchers on board to perform these tasks is the best way to ensure that we most effectively gain a solid understanding of customer needs (again, internal and external) across business lines and can apply these insights back to the iterative improvement of our services. Additionally, design researchers are uniquely skilled to gather data, then synthesize it in ways that make it easy to communicate findings across the agency.
- Federal designers can help push for design standards and design tools across the Department. Often, our services (particularly applications) each offer different and confusing experiences, in part because few standards exist for contract teams. They end up choosing their own path when it comes to the UI, authentication, design patterns, tools, and more. That’s why it’s critical to define, implement, and establish design best practices (e.g., user research, design in agile, iterative design prototyping and/or evaluation, service design artifacts, etc.). It’s also critical to evaluate the ever-shifting landscape of design tools so that we’re able to get the right tools into the hands of those who are designing our products and services. Having federal designers in your agency is the key to addressing all of these needs.
- Federal design roles help retain knowledge within government. Contracts and contractor designers come and go as deliverables are met and deadlines pass. But federal workers (particularly those in career roles, and we expect designers to be no different) tend to stick around for a while. That means that the government retains institutional knowledge and lessons learned built over time, project by project, and we can ensure that past failures and challenges with service delivery aren’t repeated.
- Federal designers can help improve contracting. As we mentioned in the last article, design roles and requirements are increasingly found in federal contracts. However, programs without federal design roles end up relying upon product managers, business analysts, or even contracting folks to determine what role design should play in each contract. We need federal designers to be integral parts of these contract vehicles - from competes to recompetes - as subject matter experts in defining statements of work (SOWs), evaluating proposals, and as key roles on contract evaluation teams, where they help shape how we best evaluate offerors so that we bring in contractors who not only understand human-centered design, but have a track record of supporting and delivering this work in the federal space.
- Federal designers can help hire additional federal designers. As we begin to build design capacity across government, the ability to reach out to design communities and recruit talented designers into government will be critical. The best people to do that will be those already serving in the federal space. Then, when the hiring process gets moving, the same designers can play a critical role in writing position descriptions, assessing talent, and ensuring that we get the best candidates for new design roles.
That’s just a mere sampling of ways having federal designers can move government service delivery forward. Hopefully, these reasons are compelling enough that you’re asking the next question: how can I establish design roles, recruit designers, and build a customer-centric organization? The next article will dive into that topic. Stay tuned!