Inside Defense Digital Service’s User-Centered Approach

Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

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. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.