In Brief | Design Thinking

Design thinking is a multi-disciplinary process for meeting people’s needs and desires in product and service delivery in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way.
The following resources will introduce you to design thinking in the public sector.  Feedback welcome here!

The origins of design thinking can be  traced to Simon Herbert and his 1969 publication The Sciences of the Artificial. The ability to iterate, test, and incrementally improve designs is central to Simon's model. Tim Brown from IDEO, though, is thought to have coined the term design thinking. He argues that in the latter half of the 20th century, design got “small” because it concentrated on the object, rather than the users. In this 2009 TED Talk Designers – think big! Tim described the emergence of design thinking, starting with the example of 19th century design thinker Brunel.  Early-20th-century architect Eliel Saarinen’s advice to “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan” offers guidance to understand what this larger context looks like. Other quick overviews of design thinking history can be found here and here.

Design thinkers empathetically observe target groups to define problems and canvas possible solutions. Prototype development and testing are done iteratively in collaboration with the target group to ensure the devised solution is fit for purpose. Key design thinking processes include environmental scanning, sensemaking, mind mapping,  creating prototypes, Issues Trees and  5 Whys conversations. An April 2019 article in the McKinsey Quarterly has concluded that "the most effective integration of design is through the assembly of “squads” that include both data experts (data scientists, data engineers, and so on) and designers (design researchers, visual designers, and others) who are seated side by side—preferably physically in the same workspace. Wherever data and analytics capabilities reside—in a center of excellence serving the enterprise, embedded within the business units themselves, or both—design capabilities should reside as well." 

Among contemporary challenges for the public sector are inter-connected and diffused economic and social patterns, more complex problems, blurred governance boundaries and reduced trust in public action. As Dr Nina Terrey says in her Mandarin article Design Thinking in Government: Solutions for the People  design thinking frames organisational problem solving in a genuinely explorative way that encourages public sector workers to directly interact with service users. Dr Terrey has also written a case study of how the Australian Taxation Office – one of the pioneers of user-centred design in Australia - has developed and applied design thinking to the tax process.

Another example of the application of design thinking in the public sector is in geospatial mapping, sometimes called geodesign. Many digital apps have mapping functionality but the web maps are often overly complicated or “just for show”, which can misinform users.  Australia’s National Map is an open resource project centred on providing an improved data infrastructure and visualisation capability for Australians to government data.

A 2014 UNDP discussion paper Design Thinking for Public Service Excellence provides a synthesis of what design thinking has come to represent in public service innovation. Design thinking techniques such as user research, co-design, rapid prototyping, constant feedback, and experimentation aim to personalise and ultimately improve the citizen’s experience of interacting with government agencies. In this article, The Mandarin identifies four factors for getting it right: design doing, design culture, top to bottom support and closing the design skills gap.

One of the principles and processes of design thinking is user-centred design (UCD). UCD outlines the phases throughout a design and development life-cycle all while focusing on gaining a deep understanding of who will be using the product. The International Standard 13407  is the basis for many UCD methodologies. It’s important to note that the UCD process does not specify exact methods for each phase.

Governments around the world are adopting a ‘Digital by Default’ strategy in service delivery. Initiatives such as MindLab in Denmark, the UK Government Digital Service, the US Digital Service and Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) are leading the way in putting the user at the centre of digital service delivery. Digital by Default underpins the DTA’s Digital Service Standard, which requires digital project teams to build government services that are simple, clear and fast- necessitating a re-orientation towards end-users.

The third criterion in the Digital Transformation Agency’s Digital Service Standard is “Agile and user-centred process.” Under this criterion all stages of service design and delivery of projects submitted to the Agency are assessed. DTA has developed a Service Handbook which provides greater detail on the service delivery and delivery process at the Discovery and Alpha stages.


IDEO can be considered to be pioneers of design thinking, using human-centred design to create products, services and experiences that improve lives through design. Their Design Kit is an online learning platform with practical tips on applying human-centred design in any context. NESTA and IDEO also publish a practical guide Designing for Public Services which is a good introduction to design in government.

IDEO’s Creative Confidence Series  of podcasts features conversations with today’s change makers and industry leaders who believe in creating positive impact through design. Host Suzanne Gibbs Howard, IDEO U founder and dean, speaks with guests about how they approach challenges through creative problem solving. These podcasts are free to listen to in iTunes.

Encouraging the end-user to participate in the design process is sometimes called participatory design or co-creation. Dell’s IdeaStorm and MyStarbucks are examples of participatory design where customers are invited to co-create their own products and in-store experience. By following the adage “the customer knows best” these initiatives led to positive market results, generating both new products and improved public perception. For more examples, go to the Board of Innovation website.

‚ÄčIf you would like a one-minute read on human-centred design, go to the Centre for Public Impact website for a brief introduction to how governments are merging insights from human-centred design to achieve public impact. There is also a recent article in the HBR blog which is critical of the current enthusiasm for design thinking, arguing that: it is poorly defined; that the case for its use relies more on anecdotes than data; and that it is little more than basic common sense, repackaged and then marketed for a hefty consulting fee.

In May 2017, IPAA ACT hosted Delivering Better Services: User-Centred Service Design and Evaluation which looked at whether the user-centred design approach is having an impact on government service delivery. Despite its success in delivery of digital services, design thinking currently remains somewhat separated from mainstream policymaking, but there are strong recommendations in the current APS Review to develop open government platforms, co-design and citizen engagement mechanisms to improve the policymaking process.

 A 2016 article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration uses examples from Australia and New Zealand to illustrate how design thinking strategies are incorporated into policy making efforts, while noting that design thinking in the public sector is still “varied and scattered”. KPMG’s David Glenn thinks that business succeeds at transformation more broadly if there is organisation-wide buy-in for putting users first. 


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