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Building the Case for Human-Centered Design With Executive Leadership

Imag­ine your orga­ni­za­tion has a prod­uct or ser­vice that’s a con­stant chal­lenge to your team. The cus­tomer inter­face hasn’t been updat­ed in a decade. Its infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture is more puz­zling than the Sun­day cross­word. Acces­si­bil­i­ty is an after­thought. Cus­tomers can’t reli­ably find what they need. Your office is inun­dat­ed with ques­tions — often about the same hand­ful of issues — and con­stant­ly drop­ping every­thing to address them is eat­ing up time that your team could be spend­ing on oth­er work.

Person running a meeting at the head of a conference table with five team members.

You’ve done your homework about human-centered design, or HCD — the practice of developing products, services, processes, and systems around the needs of customers — and you know that it could be the solution to your organization’s persistent problems. HCD may even be on your executive team’s radar thanks to Executive Order 14058 and its early success in transforming how the federal government serves Americans. But how exactly do you get executive leadership buy-in to implement HCD? Over the past 25 years, Anthro-Tech has helped dozens of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private enterprises use HCD to improve their products and services. Based on our experience, here are the four steps we’ve found to be essential when building the case for HCD to executive teams.

Real World Use Cases for HCD

Find a Champion on the Executive Team

Cultivating a thriving HCD practice in your organization is about more than securing budget approval. Change is hard, and there are those who may resist HCD simply because it means adjusting how things are done. That’s why you need one or more partners on the executive team who can not only help greenlight projects, but who will establish HCD as the new normal across the entire organization.

In order to identify this human-centered design champion, you need to understand your executives’ working styles. You probably know who on the executive team is most comfortable taking risks and disrupting the status quo — approach them first, and enlist their support in getting the rest of the executive team on board.

Align Your Message to the Executive Team's Goals

Another key to getting buy-in for HCD is understanding what’s important to your executive team. Sometimes, that’s as simple as helping your executive team understand how HCD can support their strategic goals and mission.

Consider what’s on their radar. What products and services will your organization be releasing or promoting this year? What results are the executive team responsible for achieving? Explain how HCD can contribute to the success of these endeavors by helping them make data-driven, human-centered business decisions.

With HCD, the design of everything — from concrete products and interactive tools to management processes and even your org chart — is based on data. Not only does this take the guesswork out of the design and development process, it means that you’re more likely to create products and experiences that work as intended from the start. You’ll avoid lengthy (and costly) redesigns, reduce the volume of customer support requests, and increase trust and customer satisfaction. If you work in the private sector, improving customer experience using HCD can also lead to healthier revenue and lower churn rates.

If your executive team is overwhelmed by competing priorities, connect the dots between HCD and your organization’s overarching mission. For example, if your mission is to provide financial assistance to low-income renters — as was the case for our client, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections — customers must understand how to access the support they need. If your tech systems pose a significant barrier to accessing that help, you’re not fulfilling your mission.

Proactively Address Potential Objections

Even if the executive team is already open to the idea of HCD, it’s likely that they — or other leaders within your organization — may have some questions and concerns when it comes to implementation. At this point, you may want to conduct a discovery phase in order to surface potential concerns, risks, and objections so you can create a project plan that proactively addresses them. Here are some of the most common issues and how you can mitigate them:

Budget: Start with a smaller pilot project that fits budget constraints and use the data from that project to justify expanding your efforts (e.g. redesigning the home page before overhauling your whole site).

Personnel: If resourcing is an issue, be very clear about who will be involved and how much time they’ll be dedicating to the project. If you’re working with an outside agency, like Anthro-Tech, the agency can help complement your staff in order to get the project done on time.

Change: If the source of friction is around changing how things are done, consider adding organizational change management to the effort. This could look like enlisting the help of a specialist whose job it is to help bring the customer along on the journey and to give employees and managers a voice as the project progresses.

Compliance: When legislative constraints are a concern, take the time upfront to understand what’s required to ensure that the final product is compliant.

Prior Tech Investments: If the organization has already invested in a tech solution and doesn’t want to devote additional funding, do your due diligence to understand what the system can and can’t do, and whether it can be configured to solve some of the problems your customers are experiencing.

Establish a Clear Plan of Action

Anthro-tech team working on a project in front of a white board with sticky notes

Having a clearly defined plan of action will go a long way towards helping you secure the buy-in of the executive team by reducing the perceived risk of your HCD initiative. At a minimum, you should include the following eight components in your plan:

  1. Define a pilot project you can use to demonstrate the impact of HCD.
  2. Identify the team members and resources needed to enact the pilot.
  3. Take baseline usability measurements by surveying customers about their experience, tracking the volume of customer service inquiries, and looking at metrics to assess where and how often customers are encountering difficulties.
  4. Conduct research to identify customers’ diverse experiences, needs, and barriers as it pertains to your product or service.
  5. Conceptualize and build prototypes based on what you’ve learned about your users and their needs.
  6. Test and iterate those prototypes to find out what aspects of the solution work well and which need improvement before implementation.
  7. Take post-implementation usability measurements to assess the success of the pilot.
  8. Refine your approach before expanding the focus of your HCD project.

In Summary

To successfully build the case for HCD with the executive team:

  • Find a co-champion on the executive team who can help you build consensus around the need for change and help instill HCD as an organizational value.
  • Explain how HCD will make it easier for your organization to fulfill its mission, achieve strategic goals, or make upcoming launches more successful.
  • Surface and address potential concerns upfront.
  • Create a clear plan of action.
  • Start small and measure improvement before moving onto bigger projects.

Getting the buy-in of the executive team is the first hurdle to establishing a thriving HCD practice at your organization. The second hurdle? Actually designing and implementing your first HCD project. When you hire an HCD expert to help guide you through the process, you not only dramatically improve your organization’s learning curve, you increase the likelihood that the project will succeed. Need a partner for an upcoming research or design project? Want to build or enhance your organization’s HCD practice? Check out our offerings or send us a message to explore how we can work together.

Six Reasons to Hire an HCD Consultant

  1. Benefit from proven, repeatable processes and techniques instead of learning by trial and error.
  2. Get reusable tools and templates that you can leverage for future HCD projects rather than designing them from scratch.
  3. Learn from trainers and coaches who can build your team’s HCD capacity as the project progresses and create an organizational legacy of HCD.
  4. Complement your employees’ strengths with outside experts, creating a multidisciplinary team that is both properly resourced and can move faster.
  5. Create a balanced and impartial project environment — bringing in a third-party expert reduces the likelihood that proposed solutions favor only one part of the organization.
  6. Mitigate the risk of developing an end product that fails to meet customers’ needs and expectations by partnering with an organization with a track record of successfully implementing similar projects.