Design Principles that Put People at the Center

Sharing what guides our work towards people-centered systems change
  • Design Manager,
    Code for America
  • Design Manager,
    Code for America
  • Staff Product Designer,
    Code for America
  • Service Design Director,
    Code for America
  • Senior Product Designer,
    Code for America
  • Principal Service Designer,
    Code for America
  • Principal Product Designer,
    Code for America
An illustration of several screens filled with brightly colored post its. Illustrated chat boxes are connected by a dotted line over a periwinkle background

Since Code for America’s founding, human-centered design has been central to our goal of making products, digital services, and technologies that ensure government services are simple, effective, and easy to use. The design practice is fundamental to the success of the products and services Code for America makes—from collaborating with our research teams to deeply understand an experience to spotting opportunities for intervention, and from quickly prototyping and learning to communicating complex topics in digestible formats, we work to carefully craft the touch points of a useful, equitable, and respectful experience.

Over the past few years, the design practice at Code for America has expanded along with the changing responsibilities and specializations of the larger design, UX, and civic tech industry. To codify that growth, our team came together to formalize the key principles that guide our work. We offer the principles and examples below to help others on their own design journeys, to join and celebrate a civic design and design community that holds itself accountable, and to share openly what underlies our work.

We come to communities with humility, free of judgement, honoring their expertise, and ready to learn. 

Principle No. 1: Work with community

We recognize impacted communities as our most valuable advisors and decision-makers. Their voices define the problems we seek to solve, shape what we create in response to these problems, and inform the specifics of how interventions should work and evolve over time. We do this to intentionally interrupt the unequal power dynamics at play in government, technology, and philanthropy—and to investigate and address the unintended consequences of our designs before they create harm.

We start every project by building relationships. We come to communities with humility, free of judgement, honoring their expertise, and ready to learn. Our work is not possible without community partnerships, and it’s our priority to make sure they are included, respected, and heard.

A screenshot of a form asking participants to fill out their conviction history

Integrating lived experience early in the design process

On Clear My Record, designers and researchers created activities where they involved consultants who were directly impacted by the criminal legal system. Consultants co-designed prototypes for a tool that would provide helpful information about job seeking with a conviction history and then collected feedback on the prototypes from friends and family also living with convictions. This enabled the designer and researcher to iterate and improve the design based on deeper and more authentic collaborations with impacted community members.

Designing with 

This past year, the GetYourRefund team built a custom case management tool to help community tax preparation partners process returns more efficiently. VITA—a nationwide, free, community-based tax preparation service for people with low incomes—was our partner in this. Design and research worked closely to conduct virtual brainstorming and strategy sessions with VITA partners. We received feedback throughout the design process, enabling us to create a tool that centered their needs.

Principle No. 2: Serve everyone with respect

Good design makes people feel respected, included, and informed. It honors people’s unique experiences and circumstances. It looks for creative yet practical ways to meet people’s needs without introducing more trauma and stress. Most importantly, good design works for everyone, especially the most marginalized. We advocate for the resources to achieve good design with care.

Improving designs for people with disabilities

In 2019, a new California state policy meant people who get supplemental security income could apply for CalFresh, the state’s food assistance program. When we recognized that the affected population would be largely adults with disabilities and seniors with low incomes, we designed improvements for the process that reduced the overall cognitive load of the application. By reordering some screens and reducing the amount of questions asked, clients could apply through an easier and more straightforward flow.

Language matters

Throughout our products and digital services at Code for America, we use plain, inviting language, help text that clarifies questions at key moments, and screens that explain the processes in steps so that people feel informed and welcomed. 

Principle No. 3: Change the system

We design experiences that push the boundaries of existing systems and inspire others to rethink what’s possible. Throughout our design process, we seek to understand policy, historical context, and traditional bureaucratic processes so that we can create thoughtful improvements—not just accept the status quo. While we recognize the bureaucratic pressures on government and policy, we know it is within our power to push them forward and inspire new ways of serving the public.

Our work proves that government services can and should be better. We know that the constraints of government and policy often uphold white supremacy and disempower communities at the margins. We use design as one of our many tools to question, test, and change systems for the better.

Integrated Benefits

With the goal of increasing access to safety net benefits, we worked with the state of Minnesota to design a mobile-friendly application that enables people to apply for several benefits programs in one place, all in under 20 minutes. We used simple design prototypes and evaluative testing to show the state that one of the best ways to increase access was to remove sign-in requirements. By evaluating federal policy and understanding the core needs that log-in fulfilled for the state, we were able to use design to show what’s possible when you lower the burden for people to apply for the benefits they need.

GetYourRefund

Seeking to put tax filers with low incomes at the center of our services, we designed a free, easy to use, and mobile-friendly tax filing product. We worked with the IRS to develop GetYourRefund.org, allowing taxpayers to connect with tax specialists who help claim refunds and credits due to them. Because of the pandemic or other circumstances, we were able to lower the burden on taxpayers receiving this money by scaling our virtual services across the country and simplifying the identity verification process.

While we recognize the bureaucratic pressures on government and policy, we know it is within our power to push them forward and inspire new ways of serving the public.

Principle No. 4: Start today

We believe design can create the conditions for sustained, systemic change while also delivering immediate material value to communities. We work in two parallel tracks: what can we change right now, and how can we build a movement that creates change for generations to come?

We do this by being vocal about the changes we believe are possible. We prototype our most practical and our most radical ideas. Then, we socialize and present them to inspire government and policymakers to think outside of what they believe to be traditionally possible. Our work is not just human-centered design—it’s storytelling, it’s activism, it’s future casting, and we believe it’s all possible if we start right now.

Post its cover a large white paper

Service mapping benefits delivery

Our service design team convened county leaders from across Los Angeles to understand how CalFresh benefits applications are processed and align on the barriers clients face in connecting to caseworkers for their interviews. This laid the foundation for further collaborations on a new approach to interviews.

A screenshot of what a caseworker would see when helping people apply for DRAI

Getting pandemic benefits to immigrants 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, California set up a new cash aid fund for undocumented immigrants. They reached out to partner with our design team, and we quickly crafted the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants experience, which community organizations across the state used to distribute the aid. Our ability to deliver designs quickly and sensitively allowed us to serve people right away and collaborate with researchers to further advocate for essential service improvements with state stakeholders.


With gratitude

Our journey in creating these principles has been shaped and influenced by those who have been leading in the design field for years. We’d be remiss not to mention the inspiration we’ve found from folks like Creative Reaction Lab and their Equity-Centered Design Guide, Design Justice Network’s principles, and the writings of George Aye of Greater Good Studio. We have also been inspired by countless others who are pushing the design industry forward in a more equitable way.  Whether you found these principles helpful or have questions about how we created them, we’d love to hear your thoughts! We look forward to sharing more resources and guides as we continue to shape the design practice at Code for America.

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