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!

Tim Brown from IDEO 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. Other quick overviews of its history can be found here and here

 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 is currently developing a Service Handbook which provides greater detail on the service delivery and delivery process at the Discovery and Alpha stages.

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.

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 separated from mainstream policymaking.
 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.