Inside Defense Digital Service’s User-Centered Approach

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Designing with users—not for them—has been a key to the agency’s innovative success.

The Defense Digital Service practices a principle that’s proven to be integral in driving digital transformation across the Pentagon and executives think it could propel modernization across all agencies: Design with the technology’s users, not for them. 

“What we like to say is that changes are made by those people that show up,” Chief of Staff Katie Olson said at an FCW workshop in Washington Wednesday. 

As an agency-specific team of the U.S. Digital Service, DDS rapidly responds to a variety of technological challenges across the Defense enterprise and runs projects that aim to transform federal systems and processes. The agency is made up of “a SWAT team of highly skilled nerds,” Olson said, who serve two-year terms. Their diverse backgrounds span across design, engineering, product management and other versatile skills.

“It’s important that we are not just a team of software developers,” she said. “But the fact that we have bureaucracy hackers on the team—who are really sort of mining the process for what's happening behind the scenes and we also have designers who, again, can sit side by side with the users to make sure we are coming up with a comprehensive solution—this is really important to the work that we are doing.”

Since it was stood up four years ago, Olson said DDS has run 29 projects and 22 “rogue squadrons,” which are 2-week sprints to implement new technology. And on top of working to create new technical capabilities within Defense, the service has also asked for 33 waivers to put different types of commercial technology in place in the department and has run 17 bug bounty programs to date.

“What’s really, I think, a testament to our team and the success we’ve had so far in some of the major transformations we’ve had is that we think about who we are designing this with and we’re not just thinking about this as something we’re just dropping off and handing over,” Olson said.

She also highlighted some of the projects that illustrate how insiders practice the principle of designing with and not for their users. 

One example came in the development and rollout of the website, move.mil. Olson explained military personnel often face monumental challenges when they must move across the country for their service. The process was originally a sort of “black box,” she said, and many service members did not get the support they needed in transferring their families around the world. DDS was asked to revamp the system. 

Through conversations directly with service members and their families about their needs, the agency ultimately opted to create a front-facing website that would allow users to plan their moves in one streamlined place. Today, service members can go in and see all the moving resources that are available to them—and soon it will evolve into a portal where they can access their orders, find moving insurance and figure out all that they need to manage their moves. 

“We worked directly with users to do that,” Olson said. “So, this is a case where if we would have just had engineers, we probably would have just fixed the backend and fixed some inefficiencies to make the orders more readily available and streamline the process, but because we are so embedded in working with the users, we were able to create a front-facing website that is now going to serve over 400,000 families as they move around the world.”

Another project that she said embodies this principle around transformation is their work to remake Army Cyber Command’s Army Cyber School curriculum to train the nation’s top cyber soldiers, through their Digital Dojo program. The DDS team went to the school and sat in on classes “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the students they’d be designing for to help instructors boost the curriculum.

“We’ve actually shortened the amount of time that it takes, and we think, have made the curriculum much more effective in terms of what they’re learning,” she said. 

Olson noted that it’s an example of how the agency is not just dropping off new technology to those that need it, but installing permanent capabilities that can be used without their help going forward. She added that the agency always takes a phased approach to transition. Initially, DDS officials were teaching the new curriculum, but this fall the Army will take over, though the digital service will check-in and continue to help out as needed. 

“It’s really important to be embedded with the people who are ultimately going to be using the technology to make sure that we’ve gotten not only the product itself right, but also the supporting processes as well,” she said. “This idea of designing with and not for users—I cannot underscore it enough.”

Also at the event, Olson’s colleague who serves as USDS’ Procurement Expert, Florence Kasule further reiterated the point. Kasule shared the Digital Service’s Maturity Determination Tool, which can be used by federal insiders to determine whether their organizational culture supports modernization. She said as teams work alongside users in a collaborative process, it’s also critical to ensure everyone involved in digital transformation feels like they have the opportunity to speak up and participate.

“The best way I’ve seen for digital transformation to happen is when the organization is set up for everyone to win, for everyone to have a voice, and for there to truly be a culture of delivery,” she said.