Customer experience and human-centered design

The mission and the how-to
Jan 18, 2024

As a designer working in a customer experience shop, I’m frequently asked how customer experience and design work together. After all, the two seem similar, but they’re not quite the same. Both center on humans and the human experience, but their core applications seem to vary. How do they relate? Where do they interact? Does one encompass the other?

This is how I respond to those questions:

  1. Businesses rely on customers for their existence.
  2. The experiences of those customers determines the longevity and/or impact of the business.
  3. Design can be framed as “the scientific method for business”[1] as it allows businesses to explore, test, and tinker to create and improve offerings and customer interactions.

Taking these three things together, it’s clear that creating and supporting excellent customer experience is necessary for any business, and design is the how-to that helps organizations achieve success.

Happy and unhappy paths

In user experience design, there is a concept called the “happy path,” which refers to user flows that “were conceived and architected with best-case scenario[s] in mind.”[2] Although conceived in the user experience world, this concept can also apply more broadly to customer experience. Providing excellent customer experience along a happy path is easy: a customer comes to an organization knowing what they need, and finds engagement with the organization clear and navigable. The customer and the organization are both able to fulfill their needs, and everyone goes home satisfied — that’s a great customer experience!

Unfortunately, that’s not always how situations unfold, especially in complex business spaces. In the public sector, for example, customer experience excellence requires that organizations anticipate and design for unhappy paths, and help customers who find themselves on them. There are many situations in which customers and organizations might find themselves on unhappy paths, including:

  • A customer comes to the organization unwillingly.
  • A customer is unclear about what they need.
  • The customer’s requirement can only be partially fulfilled by the organization.
  • The organization’s business process(es) are very new, very old, or only partially built, and they can’t yet fulfill the need.

These situations carry substantial risk[3] for the organization. If the interaction is a struggle—even if the customer gets the outcome they desire—the customer will perceive the interaction as a poor customer experience.

In the government context, unhappy paths can sometimes even seem inevitable. Government agencies must often engage with customers during their most challenging moments, such as receiving a diagnosis of a chronic illness, or being notified of a high tax bill. Clearly, engaging with a government agency during such an experience will be challenging, but through intentionally designing for these unhappy paths, agencies can make these situations less painful than they might otherwise be.

What to do: Design for everything you can

A flow chart showing the design process in four steps; discover, design, deliver, measure. Repeat each step as needed.

This is where design, the how-to of customer experience, comes in. Throughout the government, agencies use human-centered design to help customers and agencies progress along both happy and unhappy paths. The human-centered design process centers on human perspectives and contexts. It is cyclical and produces replicable results. Perhaps most useful in a business context, it can simultaneously show concrete, determinate outcomes, as well as generate new directions for the organization, while de-risking to produce innovative results. This is why design can be characterized as “the scientific method for business.” It allows organizations to frame experiments, run them, measure their effectiveness, and find new opportunities in the process. Given this structure, human-centered design is an efficient, meaningful tool to use in traversing both happy and unhappy paths. It helps an organization evolve their offerings to anticipate future customer needs and inclinations, and mitigate the risk of unhappy customer paths occurring.

Loose engineering

Customer experience teams use human-centered design to address current customer paths, as well as to loosely engineer future ones… but the term “loosely engineered” is an oxymoron. There’s no such thing as “loose engineering”—engineering is strictly practical and always firmly fixed in the possible, controlling all variables. When something breaks, engineers isolate variables and experiment until they address the issue. But you can’t engineer the future, because you can’t control all the variables.

So, why should teams go through the work of design if it won’t result in a perfectly controlled, positive customer experience? Unfortunately, because an experience will be different for each person, it’s impossible to deliver a perfectly controlled customer experience in all situations. But that is one of the most compelling reasons to work on customer experience in the public sector. It’s a challenge, but it is one to embrace, not to run from.

Case study

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and GSA’s Centers of Excellence to better understand and improve the direct farm loan experience.

To learn more about how customers navigated through the loan process, they employed customer journey maps to show a typical farm loan experience from the viewpoints of both a loan applicant (a producer like a new farmer or rancher) and an FSA loan officer:

Note that processes, tools, and methods may look different at your agency, depending on many factors, but research to better understand how real people use your products and services is always worthwhile.

Crafting customer experience through the design process means embracing the feedback loops built into the process, and understanding that uncertainty—and both happy and unhappy paths—are part of an evolving public sector and ever-shifting public needs. More use of customer journeys and more conversations with customers provide intelligence on not just what’s going right or wrong in current paths, but will also inform organizations about what customers will be looking for in the future, and what to offer in anticipation. Even in unhappy paths, there are opportunities to learn from customers and to build relationships of trust with them, as well as to establish and grow organizational resilience when faced with unknown unknowns.

The goal is not to create cookie-cutter experiences for every diverse customer in every possible future state; it’s to anticipate enough paths to encompass a wide range of customer experiences, make them as positive as they can be, and use all of those experiences to build trust.

What can I do next?

Check out the Human-centered Design Guide Series and 18F Methods for a collection of tools to bring human-centered design into your project.

Also, explore USDA’s research plays. Modify them to uncover customers’ pain points, goals, and behaviors. Then, use this knowledge to create better experiences for your customers.

Disclaimer: All references to specific brands, products, and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.


  1. High Resolution. 2017. Review of Episode #7: GV Design Partner, Daniel Burka, on Prototyping Your Way to Massive InfluencePodcast. Hosted by Bobby Ghoshal and Jared Erondu. YouTube.
  2. Weaver, Jesse. 2022. “Resilience Is the Design Imperative of the 21st Century.” UX Magazine. August 17, 2022.
  3. In addition to risk, anticipating and designing for unhappy paths presents an opportunity for resilience as well. If an organization does not anticipate negative possibilities, it “...has little to no resilience in the face of behaviors that diverge from that [happy path] scenario.” This means that “...if and when the system breaks down and[/or] people use it with ill intentions, [the organization]...will be slow to respond or possibly incapable of recovering, as [it tries] to react to a circumstance they’ve hardly considered.”