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How Agile Approaches Get to Better Human-Centered Design

Iteratively working with and for customers enables better solutions delivery, both in IT and acquisitions.

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Agile Method
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Federal information technology officials often prioritize better serving their customers’ needs, and creating human-centered design in their products and attribute Agile methodologies as key ways to iterate alongside end users’ shifting requirements.

During GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s IT Modernization event Thursday, leaders from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Health’s IT Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) explained how Agile methodology makes their teams better equipped to deliver services better both in IT and acquisition.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Digital Innovation and Development (DIDIT) applied an Agile approach to its mobile-first contract, said Program Manager Sabrina Parker. Built into that Agile strategy is human-centered design processes, which largely inform the continuous product delivery federal and contractor engineers, designers and product managers conduct.

“The human-centered design process … involves problem discovery, identifying the pain points, followed by solution framing, and then from there, we agree on a solution for the top priorities with our product owners, who represent business,” Parker said. “Then during the design and development phase, we just expect our teams to practice continuous integration and delivery, also to deploy as often and as possible.”

Parker continued, saying that a large part of getting human-centered design integrated into her Agile teaming approach is in building trust and understanding about Agile across the enterprise and how it can benefit delivery teams and customers alike.

“Sometimes that human-centered design process is not completely understood, and there’s a fear factor that we’re going to go out to user interviews and come back and just start building things that our product owners might not want or approve of right away,” Parker said. “There’s still work to be done to make sure that both sides have the relationship, understand why we use human-centered design the way that we do.”

DHS Digital Services Executive Director James Punteney explained the mindset behind using data alongside cross-functional teams and Agile design can also help measure product and solutions impact to mission.

“As we’re making these system changes, but also policy changes that are reflected in the systems, what’s the actual impact that it’s having?” Punteney said. “Are we accomplishing the goals that we’re setting out to do, looking at how we can better measure, track that to make better decisions moving forward?”

Not only are Agile approaches helping in the IT delivery space, but it’s also helpful in accelerating better contracting and acquisition processes. NITAAC Lead Contracting Officer Keith Johnson oversees the office’s CIO-SP3 contract vehicle and will oversee the upcoming CIO-SP4 vehicle iteration. Johnson said that the proposal and review process for CIO-SP4 will be more Agile and quick in turnaround than CIO-SP3, making the upcoming vehicle more Agile and better in user experience for both prospective industry participants and federal customers.

Some of the changes include a reduction in technical proposal page requirements, a tiered approach to proposal review and closer engagement with federal customers. These adjustments that NITAAC made for CIO-SP4 came out of iteratively working with customers, gathering feedback and creating a collaborative environment for improvement.

“We’ve created this collaborative environment where we have incrementally or iteratively built upon our successes and built a pretty good organization, so our customer support is really at the heart of how we do, why we do what we do and really is the definition of an Agile approach, so collaboration is very, very important to us,” Johnson said.

As CIO-SP4 approaches and as the new administration settles in and sets forth new goals, the officials all highlighted how now is a particularly heightened moment for them to be attentive to customer needs as they change, underscoring how continuing to integrate Agile methodology in with human-centered design and the user experience is key.

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