Good project management practices that prioritize agile, human-centered design have been key to every successful technology project that I have worked on over the last 20 years. This August marks a new chapter in my career, as I transition into a new job as a U.S. Copyright Office project manager. I wrote this post to talk about why I’m excited about the job, and how I plan to use my background in human-centered design in my new role.

Photograph of a Workman on the Framework of the Empire State Building by Lewis Hine

A Workman on the Framework of the Empire State Building. Construction of the Empire State Building was completed under budget and to great fanfare in just 410 days. In the book How Big Things Get Done, Bent Flyvbjerg attributes the speed and success of the project to the time the team invested in planning. His book provides extensive data that shows that thoughtful planning supports fast delivery.

Successful planning includes experimentation and design

Modern software development practices that are inspired by startup culture and a ‘move fast and break things’ mentality tend to dismiss project management as inefficient and bureaucratic. I think this attitude toward project management is based on a narrow and biased view of the nature of planning.

In the book How Big Things Get Done Bent Flyvbjerg describes planning as an active process of experimentation. Planning is doing. Flyvbjerg’s in-depth research provides extensive data that shows that experimentation during planning reduces costs and enables fast delivery. Planning is cheap and safe when compared to the expense and risk encountered during delivery.

Flyvbjerg’s research tracks with my experience. My most successful projects have been the ones where project managers and designers are active participants in research and discovery. Unfortunately, not all of my projects have worked this way. I have also been part of projects where project managers passively track schedules and outputs without concern for outcomes, and UX designers are narrowly viewed as user interface designers.

When teams confuse outputs for outcomes, all of the metrics used to track the project are distorted. No detailed tracking of budget, progress, and risk by the project manager will overcome this bias. Who cares if a project is on time and under budget if it does not serve a real-world need?

When user experience design is narrowly viewed as user interface design, designers can get stuck in a build trap where influence is limited to defining the behavior and presentation of pre-defined features. There is time to build but no time to research. Making sure that the features a team is building are usable and well designed is critically important, but serves little purpose if what is being built is not useful.

I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing teams on many successful projects, and something that all of my successful projects share in common is learning through iterative experimentation. I wrote a detailed project management guide in partnership with the NPR training team titled Hypothesis-Driven Design for Editorial Projects that discusses this topic in detail. A significant portion of the guide describes how I bring experimentation and design into the planning process. I have brought this knowledge and experience with me to my current role at the Library of Congress, where I have seen that some of my most impactful design work has been in the research and discovery phase of projects.

My introduction to civic technology

I got my introduction to work in the federal government when I joined the Library of Congress as a senior user experience designer in January of 2020. In this role, I have learned about the challenges and opportunities of achieving user-centered outcomes in government digital service delivery.

As Jennifer Pahlka has described in her book Recoding America there is often a gap between policy and the delivery of government services that can make achieving user-centered outcomes difficult. Large government modernization efforts that invest in technology without investing in change to policy and practice are set up for failure.

I am inspired by individuals like Yadira Sánchez, a career public servant featured in Pahlka’s book, whose long tenure at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has given her the credibility and expertise to bridge the gap between policy and delivery. The examples in Recoding America that show how Sánchez has worked with her team to enable the implementation of policy is the unsung heroic work of civil service. It’s a model that I aspire to follow. As a project manager, it is my goal to help public servants at the Library of Congress who, like Yadira Sánchez, are working to enable sustained development and meaningful change in digital service delivery. I think that bringing experimentation and design into the planning process is key to supporting their efforts.

Building a culture of product management

In the book A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide Cyd Harrell identifies product management expertise as one of the most underdeveloped skill sets in government, and while I think that is slowly changing there is a lot of work left to do. There aren’t enough product managers with the skill set required to strategically define user-centered product visions, and the product managers that do have this skill set are often working in structures that discourage learning and iteration in favor of sticking to a pre-defined delivery plan.

One of the most important jobs of a product manager is aligning a multidisciplinary product team around a shared vision. This is not easy. On top of competing priorities, individuals on a team will naturally have different skill sets and experiences that influence their thinking. To build a shared vision, product managers must balance business goals, user needs, technical constraints, and a wide variety of conflicting opinions.

I believe that some of the best methods for building a shared vision are found in human-centered design. Sketching sessions, affinity mapping, and journey mapping that place the user at the center of the discussion provide a way for a diverse group of stakeholders to bring their unique perspectives and skill sets together in support of a common goal. The focus on collaboration in human-centered design sets it apart from a lot of other planning methods. Skilled product managers that utilize human-centered design methods to establish a shared product vision build trust by establishing a transparent process that gives each team member a voice, and makes the process of building a product more democratic.

At the end of Recoding America Jennifer Pahlka shares a quote that is attributed to Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” In the first chapter of a Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide, Cyd Harrell shares a similar sentiment when she says “I subscribe to the definition that government is what we do together.” Both quotes sound like human-centered design in service of the public to me.

The human-centered design methods that I have learned while working as a UX designer are some of the most valuable professional skills that I have developed, but learning these techniques and hiring civil servants with an understanding of these methods takes time. I try to remind myself of this when I get discouraged and feel like the progress I have made has done nothing to change the status quo. This is work that will take all of us working together in an iterative way.

Bringing design thinking to project management

When I take a step back and look at the work that I have done as designer, it is the research and planning work that I have done that has been the most engaging. Starting projects in discovery and working iteratively to build a shared vision has been some of the most gratifying work of my career. When I look at my design work though this lens, it does not feel far from the kind of project management work Bent Flyvbjerg describes in How Big Things Get Done.

My hope for this new project management role is that it puts me in a position to draw upon my background in human-centered design to bridge the gap between policy and delivery. I hope to help the teams that I work with focus on the things that matter, and build a government that works for everyone. If I can play a small part in improving how government works, I will consider my time in this role a success.