Why employment programs need Human-Centered-Design

Source: Livework Studio

Good customer experience is not just important for private sector companies, but also for public and social sector organization. Human-Centered Design is a problem-solving approach that emphasizes the user perspective to improve products and services. Employment promotion interventions can leverage this approach to tackle implementation challenges such as low attendance or high dropout rates.

By Kevin Hempel and Gaston Ferrin | October 2021

Have you ever been to a job center in your home country? If yes, chances are you have some story to tell about how unpleasant the experience was. If you haven’t been, take a minute and check out some online reviews of the job centers in your country. You may find something like this review from London:

Of course, online reviews are not necessarily representative. Still, poor customer experience is a common complaint among those accessing public employment services. But the problem is not unique to job centers. Government services in general have a weak reputation in many countries (McKinsey, 2019).

In the private sector, successful companies take customer experience very seriously – and it pays off. For instance, another McKinsey study found that companies who are customer-focused leaders in product or service design show faster revenue growth than their industry. Similarly, improving customer experience can also drive better outcomes for government agencies, including through higher trust, lower costs, and happier employees. Good customer experience is therefore not just nice to have, it is crucial for success.

It is not just what services you offer that matters but also how you do it. The quality of service delivery matters, from supermarkets to banks to labor market programs. If we want to maximize the impact of employment promotion initiatives, we must invest in good customer experience and make policies and programs (more) people centric.

What is Human-Centered Design?

To improve user experience, private sector companies and other organizations commonly adopt a process referred to as “Human-Centered Design” (HCD). At its core, HCD is a problem-solving approach that emphasizes understanding the user perspective and actively involves them in designing a solution for the problems they experience. According to IDEO, one of the pioneers in the field, HCD is about “building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.” As such, HCD is similar but not identical to “design thinking”, which can be referred to as a human-centered approach to innovation (see here). HCD also has many similarities to “behavioral science”, which refers to the systematic analysis of human behavior and decision-making to improve policies and programs.

In practice, HCD follows a structured and iterative process (see figure 1). While there are several frameworks out there, for instance by IDEO.org, Stanford’s d.school, Design Council, or Design for America, they all share similar steps and features. In practice, the process leverages various, mostly qualitative tools, such as shadowing, personas, journey maps, or role-playing to foster a people-centric analysis and improvement process. 

Figure 1: Key phases of the HCD process

Source: d.school; own illustration

Applying Human-Centered Design?

How could HCD be used to improve service delivery at job centers? To start, try to really understand job center clients’ perspective. Leveraging tools such as extreme user interviews or shadowing, one can gain a deeper understanding of the job seeking process and jobseekers’ common complaints. This initial analysis can then be complemented with additional tools such as journey maps, personas, “how might we?” and role-play to articulate the key problem and inform the ideation process (figure 3). Prototyping and testing would follow based on the shortlist of potential solutions.

Figure 2: Overview selected tools for the “define” and “ideate” stages

Source: own analysis

Case studies of HCD in the context of employment promotion

Case 1: The city of Sunderland in the Northeast of England was heavily affected by a decline in heavy industry leading to one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. The city council wanted to find better ways to facilitate the journey to work for “hard-to-reach” unemployed, especially those with complex reasons for their unemployment such as bad health or substance addiction. Initial research by the service design agency involved in-depth fieldwork with a small number of unemployed individuals. For example, the team shadowed them in their day-to-day routines to understand how they lived and focused on the interactions they had with services such as healthcare, social services, job centers and voluntary groups. Among other things, the field work revealed that the long-term unemployed were not able to think about finding a job until their more pressing needs – health, housing, etc. – were met. It also showed that while support programs were available, there was a lack of interagency coordination and the unemployed found the re-employment process too complex to navigate. By leveraging additional tools, such as journey mapping, the team then developed a new blueprint for the “journey to work” around which the different social service organizations could organize (see figure 3). For instance, it involved an easier registration process and information sharing among agencies to reduce barriers for attendance and enhance case management. To demonstrate that the blueprint also worked in practice, the team then designed a small pilot that would apply the new process on a small scale before offering the service city-wide. (You can find more information on this case study here and here.)

Figure 3: Redesigned journey to work for the long-term unemployed

Source: https://www.liveworkstudio.com/blog/service-design-the-bottom-line/

Case 2: Another example comes from Kenya, where the social enterprise Juhudi Kilimo wanted to find better ways of providing agricultural training to farmers. Field research with farmers, including through interviews and immersion, revealed that getting information on how to run different income-generating activities was cumbersome and that the information obtained was typically biased and untimely. It also revealed that farmers strongly valued experience from successful peers. Based on these initial findings, the HCD team built and tested prototypes of two different agricultural training techniques: 1) instructional video featuring members of the farming community, and 2) a call center. To not build a whole call center, the team compiled questions that came in over the course of the week and then had an agriculturist return the calls and answer the questions. The testing phase showed that the call center was not the best way to disburse technical information and allowed the social enterprise to learn more about how to better communicate with farmers. In the end, Juhudi Kilimo developed a library of training videos for their farmer clients, following the principles and best practices identified in the prototyping exercise. (You can find more information here and here (p.120).)


HCD has become increasingly popular both in the private and public sector. Yet, it is of course no silver bullet. By its very nature it tends to focus on (narrow) service delivery aspects rather than other important (big picture) questions that require systems thinking and strategic, evidence-based planning. The HCD process also must be managed carefully to minimize issues related to, for instance, a biased selection of participants and power asymmetries between program/design staff and beneficiaries.

Despite its limitations, there is a lot that can be learned from HCD. Too often, government and social sector services are still largely designed in closed offices with limited understanding of the people the policy or program is meant to serve. By spending more time with “end beneficiaries” to understand how they interact with programs and policies, the difficulties they face, and actively engaging them in findings solutions, Human-Centered Design can be a valuable tool for program managers to achieve better outcomes.

In the context of employment promotion and labor market integration, there are ample opportunities to leverage HCD. In particular, interventions could benefit from such a people-centered approach when trying to overcome common implementation challenges such as limited take-up or high dropout rates. Overcoming these implementation issues is a key condition for maximizing the overall impact of a policy or program.

Is your employment promotion program doing enough to ensure a good customer experience?

About the authors:

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Gaston Ferrin is the head of Business Intelligence at United Brands. He was previously an intern at Prospera Consulting. He holds a M.A. in International and Development Economics from HTW-Berlin. You can contact him through LinkedIn.