Teaching human-centered design to policy nerds

Emily Tavoulareas is a civic technologist working with leaders across industries as they navigate the complex endeavor of modernization, digital transformation, and organizational change. She teaches about civic innovation and Human-Centered Design at Columbia University. Find her on Twitter at @EmilyTav


For the last 4 years I’ve taught a class called Civic Innovation + Building a People-Centered Government to graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The basic goal? Ensure that these future policy makers understand the principles of human-centered design (HCD). The skills and perspectives they learn prepare them to work creatively in a policy environment and find new solutions to complex problems in a manner that prioritizes people over politics and bureaucracy.  

In my class, students get a look at the nuts-and-bolts of how to make change in well-meaning but aging, and at times sclerotic, institutions, starting with the very institution my students and I are all a part of: the university. Students start by collectively mapping out pain-points they face at Columbia, and then spend the rest of the class probing and solving one of these problems in groups.

Every year, the same basic process unfolds: Students begin with strong assumptions about the problem, and clear visions for what the solution should be. They then start their research, which sends them on a nose-dive into the inner workings of the university. But ultimately, their research helps them develop a deeper understanding of the ecosystem of the problem, empathy for the stakeholders involved, and a clear view of the complex web of realities that makes a simple solution challenging. For my students this is a moment of insight—one where a feasible solution becomes clear.

As much as the students learn from me, I’ve learned from them. Most importantly, they’ve shown me how to effectively teach the value of incorporating people, research, and design into a policy environment. While these lessons have helped me shape my curriculum, they can also be valuable for those of us who are in a position to bring HCD to people already working in public service. And they are also an inspiration as we look to the next generation of policy makers.


1. Teach HCD as a framework, not a product development process

There are countless approaches to teaching human-centered design: interdisciplinary programs, online lessons, workshops. Stanford’s d.school and IDEO in particular have done a phenomenal job of making design methods understandable and accessible by virtually anyone interested in getting their hands dirty. However, these curricula tend to be focused on the creation of a tangible product, making them harder to apply in a policy context.

In an ideal world, the class would tackle policy problems in an interdisciplinary manner, bringing students from across departments to the policy table. However, this can be difficult to accomplish because of the way universities operate. So in the absence of an interdisciplinary environment, I find that the most effective way to teach HCD to students is through a curriculum that is directly relevant to the day-to-day reality of the people in the room, which is why my students work to solve problems they face.

To a room full of policy people, HCD is less relevant (and less actionable) as a process that results in a product, and more relevant as a framework through which they can approach solving a complex problem. For a government employee, operating in a truly user-centered and/or agile fashion is often at odds with their daily reality at work. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means it will be imperfect. When my students encounter this imperfect reality, they’re often excited by the challenge, and eager to find a solution. Last semester, one group of students made it their mission to solve the problem of multiple, disjointed, and confusing sources of information about events across the school. Not only did they come up with a useful solution—it is still very much in use.


2. Maintain focus on the user

One of my favorite quotes to share with the students is from the writer John le Carré: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” Too often, policy students are trained to value data over the lived experience of the people they aim to help. Policy schools spend tremendous amounts of time and capital teaching research methods, but the focus is heavily on quantitative methods, leaving little, if any, room for qualitative methods.

I want to be sure my students know that any team that is serious about delivering better on their mission should be creating space for the kind of research that gets them away from their desks and into the field, where both the problems and solutions live. Every year this is the part of the course that draws the most interest, which indicates that our policy professionals have every intention to prioritize their “user” as they start their careers, but the environment they enter makes a commitment to the user difficult, if not impossible, for many to achieve.


3. Empower them as they step into the workforce

All of my students want to make an impact, as one would expect from graduate students in a policy school, and many are frustrated by what they view as the system not working as it should. What I tell them is simple. They can do good in any number of places, in myriad ways, but there is only one place where social change can be made at a truly transformative scale: government. From the national highway system and GPS, to the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act, government has proven time and again that it is capable of impacting the lives of people in ways previously unimaginable.

As my students dive into the challenges that impact their daily lives and community through our class, they see the value of a thoughtful approach rooted in the desire to understand the human side of the equation. I can’t claim that they will operate in a human-centered manner when they enter the workforce, but I can say that I see their perspective change, and notice a genuine interest in diving deeper.

Many come away from the course wondering why HCD isn’t standard practice in government. I remind them that no matter where they land, they do have some level of agency as they enter the workforce and they can bring these skills to their work. As an educator, I hope that they carry at least some of it with them as they create the next generation of our public institutions.