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Sanford Offers Cutting-Edge 'Human Centered Design' Course

January 22, 2016

Tyler Gamble is working toward his master's degree in public policy. In early January, he and some classmates spent a morning talking with a woman who lives in subsidized housing in Durham, N.C.

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  • student conducts interview with bus rider

    Insight into public transportation

    As a part of a new course, Innovation in Government by Design, Duke students rode public transportation and talked with the people they met. In this image, Master of Public Policy student Katherine Tamer is recording an interview with a Durham, N.C. resident. The stories the students collected were added to those collected by other teams, and analyzed for trends. The course was led by the federal Office of Personnel Management Innovation Lab. (Image credit: Adi Pradana)

"One of the things that struck me is it's a lot of work to be really poor," Gamble said. "The kind of bureaucratic procedures and administrative hurdles she faced to get benefits are significant. For someone who lives in abject poverty, it's difficult to plan for the long-term in ways we can't understand."

Their conversation was part of an innovative course, one of the first of its kind in the nation.

The course, Innovation in Government by Design, challenged students to think about how to best deliver government services by learning and applying human-centered design-based (HCD) approaches. The course is unique because of its content, and because it was taught by Stephanie Wade, director of the Innovation Lab at the federal Office of Personnel Management.

Students learned HCD methodology through a hands-on approach in which they worked alongside Durham city and county managers to tackle two important local issues: public transportation and public housing.

Traditionally, policy decisions are made primarily by looking closely at data. However, as a part of the course, students headed out in teams to talk to people who ride public transportation and live in public housing to hear about their concerns firsthand.

Gamble said he used techniques he learned in the class, like asking open-ended questions, to gain insight into how the system was working.

Gamble added that listening to a single person's story can add nuance to the large amounts of data he traditionally deals with when analyzing the information required to make a public policy decision.

Chris Burnett joined Gamble on the visit to the housing project. Burnett said meeting someone who was using city services added "a different perspective to problem solving. Looking at stuff from the user's perspective, keeping the end-user in mind, helps."

City and County Managers Students, Too

postit note says "overcoming problems"In addition to graduate students, city and county managers were invited to attend the course. Their perspective lent authenticity to the assignments and conversation.

Michael Davis, strategic initiative manager for Durham County, N.C., talked about the course in succinct terms: "We are looking at big hairy problems and applying human-centered design principles to them."

Mattie Sue Stevens also participated in the course. She is a management analyst for the city of Durham. She was pleased to hear a positive assessment of the bus routes from many of the passengers. The class "reminds us of what we're trying to do for the community and gives us tools for how to do that," she said. "It's a good way to start the year."

students at board sorting through data

Students in the course, sorting through the information they collected. Image: Carol Jackson