Taking a Design-led Approach to Digital Modernization

Building GSA’s Enterprise Digital Experience team
Oct 7, 2022

How does an 11,000-person organization with a large portfolio of websites and dozens of lines of business manage its digital footprint?

Digital modernization in decades-old federal agencies can be daunting. It can be a struggle to get modern workflows to take root, particularly when teams are challenged with antiquated tools and slow contract cycles.

Agency leaders often address modernization challenges with triage teams who come in, make improvements, and get out. But those interventions can be surface-level and frequently lack institutional buy-in. By taking a design-led approach, however, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has built a major digital modernization effort, using the talent and data the agency already has.

GSA’s Office of Customer Experience stood up an internal Enterprise Digital Experience team in 2021, responding to the call (from our Executive Board and Digital Council) for a team to take on the task of cataloging, evaluating, and pushing customer-centric changes to all of GSA’s digital products.

Using a design-led approach meant optimizing for a team of folks who had deep knowledge in a few key areas, including service design, policy, human capital, and engineering, as well as a collaborative mindset. We drew from our existing talent pool and cross-trained each other by working together on projects, while also trying to bring more talented folks in to join us.

This new approach aligns to Priority 1 of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), to “attract, hire, develop, and empower talented individuals who are well suited and well prepared” to face government challenges. Our team of GSA experts work well together because we value each other’s expertise, and bring those specialities together to work toward a common goal of improving digital experience.

The results are encouraging. After less than one year, and with a relatively small team, we have built a rubric for our internal web teams to better evaluate the true value of their digital assets. It covers six areas:

  1. Customer-centricity
  2. Accessibility
  3. Performance
  4. User behavior
  5. Implementation of hyperlinks required by policy and law
  6. Implementation of the U.S. Web Design System

In our first year, we evaluated over one-third of GSA’s inventory, sharing the insights about 50 unique data points with each website team. We held conversations with the teams to help them see how their site performs for customers, and against federal and agency requirements.

That may sound easy; data is everywhere, especially in an agency with such a broad, government-wide mission such as GSA. But taking a design-led approach means that we cannot just push data and recommendations to teams; we must be empathetic to the challenges teams face in how to really understand and act on that data.

That’s why we created brief (approximately 200-word) plain language narratives in which we explain the data, contextualize it, and provide recommendations for action. The best part is, the teams we’ve advised have been very appreciative, often fast-tracking recommendations so that they can enhance their websites to better serve the actual people - our customers - who use them.

Thank you so much for sharing the report. I am excited to review and bring this back to my team so we can improve our site. I appreciate the work the Enterprise Digital Experience team is doing! I’ll be sure to update your team as we make progress towards your recommendations to meet agency goals.—GSA web manager

Building an interdisciplinary team and building on what you have is tough. Working on modernization efforts in the federal conte xt is even tougher. But it’s possible with an empathetic and collaborative approach. We call it design-led, and we know it’s possible in every agency.

If you’re at a federal agency and want to learn more, contact GSA’s Enterprise Digital Experience team at CustomerExperience@gsa.gov.


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