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10 Ways that Design Thinking Can Save Government

Observing human behavior in order to lead to breakthrough innovations that solve problems.

Have you ever looked at a stand-up toothpaste tube or an ATM that returns your card before starting the transaction and thought, “What a great idea”?

You are not alone.   

In a recent 60 Minutes episode, Charlie Rose interviewed David Kelley, CEO of IDEO on the power of design thinking. His company has created thousands of breakthrough inventions, including the Zyliss kitchen tools that are easy to use, Apple’s first computer mouse, TiVo’s thumbs up/down button, and a better Pringle for Procter & Gamble.

Design thinking is an innovative approach that incorporates human behavior into design by using observation and cross-discipline teams. At its simplest, it is focused on solving problems and discovering opportunities through a threefold approach — technology, business and human values as they look at the feasibility, viability and usability of solutions.

In the last few years, it has gone from a small idea to mainstream — from 60 Minutes episodes to whole conferences dedicated to design thinking. Stanford created a school dedicated to teaching design thinking as a tool for innovation — the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford led by David Kelley of IDEO.

And now it’s coming to government.   

The UK Government Digital Service used these design thinking principles in its technology manifesto, which among its many items, recommends starting with user needs, designing with data and focusing on iteration. The first major release from the Government Digital Service is, a one-stop shop for government services, such as renewing licenses, finding out about pensions, registering deaths and a host of other things. Based on its design process of talking to users and alpha and beta releases, the site has focused on a key goal — absolute simplicity with which information is presented.

Further, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has launched an Innovation Lab with courses on design thinking. The D.C.-based Design Thinking DC group was founded by Stephanie Rowe, former TSA executive and includes co-organizer Jenn Gustetic of NASA.. It has grown to more than 850 members and held 17 meetups in less than two years. IDEO itself has spun off a public-sector group that has worked with numerous agencies from the Social Security Administration to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

So how can design thinking help you save government? At its simplest, it encourages us to focus on the basics of what our citizens need and how can we resolve these needs in the quickest and simplest ways.

So here are 10 design thinking questions that you can use to reimagine government services.

1. Where are people getting stuck in the customer service process?

2. What is the citizen experience on filling out your forms?

3. What hours should you really be open in your buildings to meet citizens’ needs?

4. Does the language make sense to citizens?

5. How can design thinking reinforce employee behaviors you desire (healthy behaviors, customer service behaviors)?

6. Why are people not doing items you want, such as paying parking tickets? Is there a design flaw that could fix the problem?

How are people finding out about you? How can you optimize that?

8. What is the normal behavior of citizens when interacting with government? Alone or with family? If online, at home or at the library?

9. Where are the biggest pain points and frustrations in the process? Where can you decrease it? How can you increase delight?

What assumptions are you making in this government service? Are they still valid in 2013 with your current stakeholders and modern behaviors?

Remember when you had to wait to get the ATM card at the end of your transaction? Every day thousands of folks left their cards in the machine. One small change inspired by observing thousands of bank customers changed the process — now ATMs give customers their card back right away, saving thousands of frantic bank customers hours of getting their cards back.

I can only imagine the possibilities as we begin to use this approach to solve public-sector problems.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Steve Ressler is a serial gov tech entrepreneur and investor. He has held leadership roles at companies including Callyo, GovDelivery/Granicus and GovLoop.