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    Text Summer Design School 2018 with a bright modern background and the Lab at OPM logo

    By: Erin Siminerio, Acting Lead, Insights, Veterans Experience Office, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

    As part of the Federal Executive Institute within the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), The Lab at OPM is a practice that fosters innovation through human-centered design. Our goal is to teach human-centered design across the Federal Government and to help deliver innovative solutions that address complex public and cross-sector challenges. One way we do this is through courses and workshops. One of our newest courses is our Design School, which we deliver seasonally. We ran a Spring Design School earlier this year in March. Below are some of the reflections from our partner at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We’ll be running our Summer Design School June 18-22, 2018 in DC. Follow us over the course of that week on twitter @LABopm to learn more about the experience. You can learn more about The Lab at our website as well.

    Have you ever been to a training and left inspired and ready to change the world? Then, Monday morning hits. You’re back to the deluge of email. Before you realize it, you’re back in your routine, and everything you learned goes right out the window. It’s not your fault; the course was likely poorly designed with regard to being actionable.

    I recently wrapped up an incredible week-long experience at Spring Design School (SDS) with The Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (The Lab at OPM). The Lab at OPM builds a human-centered design capacity in the federal workforce through a mix of project-based work with partner agencies (including VA) and education programs, like Spring Design School. With the unique perspective of being embedded within a federal government agency, The Lab understands first-hand what it’s like to apply human-centered design in the government context. It uses that knowledge to design educational offerings that support participants in their return to their office. As such, Spring Design School was intentionally designed to ensure that participants have “studio time” to apply what we were learning in real time while it’s fresh, so there is no risk of leaving without knowing how to practice what has been preached all week. The Lab also encourages people to come to SDS with real problems that need to be solved, so that the time spent can contribute towards solving a real problem rather than a manufactured one.

    I’m a designer-in-training and direct a portfolio of research and design work in the Veterans Experience Office (VEO) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Our work is enabling the VA to improve the customer experience for Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors with data, tools, technology, and engagements. Although much of the content delivered through SDS was familiar, I haven’t had much time in my day job to practice the art myself. I’ve been primarily focused on directing the work rather than doing the work. Spring Design School provided me the space and time to dig into human-centered design (HCD) without distractions.

    When we arrived the first morning, we were asked, “What would be the craziest thing that could happen after a week at Spring Design School?” One of my colleagues answered that human-centered design become a part of everything we do at the VA rather than something a separate group does for select projects. That is my hope as well, and we are working toward infusing this method of problem solving across the VA. In fact, we used Spring Design School to kick off our efforts to build the capacity for human-centered design in our approach to problem solving in VA. A total of 13 staff from VEO (including me) participated in this week-long course in March. Here is a brief reflection of what we learned.

    1. Human-centered design cannot be fully learned in one week.

      During the kick-off of Summer Design School, we were reminded not to expect to be an expert at HCD by the end of the week.  There isn’t a finish line when it comes to learning how to be a creative problem solver and how to put user needs at the center of designing solutions. There also isn’t a cookbook recipe for how to train someone on human-centered design.  It takes a certain mindset plus a combination of education and training on the process, exposure to the methods through project work/case studies, and application on actual projects. It’s a muscle that we are building that will help us be more creative problem solvers and, most importantly, ensure we design effective solutions that meet people’s real needs.

    2. Convening a diverse set of stakeholders expands the world of possibility.

      When we were initially encouraged to break up and mix with others across government and the private sector, some of us were questioning that approach.  Who knows how to solve VA problems better than VA staff? What we learned by trusting the process is oftentimes you learn the most from people who aren’t as close to the work and who can provide a fresh perspective.  This was an invaluable and important lesson learned about getting outside your inner circle/echo chamber, or your comfort zone, and inviting fresh perspectives to expand your thinking.   

    3. HCD compliments and amplifies the expertise that already exists in an agency.

      On Day 1, we heard from a panel of experts across government – some formally trained in design and others not –about their efforts to drive innovation in their respective agencies and what they’ve learned about the ingredients for success—such as reframing problems, working collaboratively and the importance of recognition. The big takeaway for me was that we have much of what we need already within us, we just need to get out of our offices, get some fresh perspective through HCD, and start asking questions to start reframing problems, so we make sure we are solving the right one. 

    4. A number of different disciplines contribute to HCD.

    The week was essentially an immersion into the different disciplines that contribute to creative problem solving.  On Monday, we learned about human-centered design and its close cousin design thinking. On Tuesday, we learned how behavioral economics can help us understand what biases affect what people do and how we can leverage that understanding to design more effective innovations.  On Wednesday, we did a deep dive virtually (due to snow) on ethnography and heard from an anthropologist at George Washington University about the dynamic between the participant and the researcher.  Then, Thursday we explored systems thinking and diagramming and got a little more comfortable sketching and drawing.  For someone who can only draw stick figures it took some getting used to, but it was a reminder that pictures can communicate so much more and that we should start drawing whenever we get stuck.  Friday morning we focused on designing for policy and how design is not about simplifying but rather clarifying.  Friday afternoon was focused on final presentations of the problems we brought; the approach we took to solving it; and we presented and received a constructive critique on what else we might want to consider. 

    After a week-long immersion at Spring Design School, I feel better prepared to solve complex challenges.  This is not a race, since there is no finish line.  The craziest thing that I hope will happen now is that more people will get an opportunity to build this problem solving muscle and that this way of thinking will continue to spread across government. I believe we will all be better off as a result of it. 

    Erin Siminerio, Acting Lead, Insights, Veterans Experience Office, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs presenting during final presentations


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