Bringing Design Thinking Into Government

When most people hear about “design thinking,” they immediately conjure up an image of fashion design, or a sleek, new tech toy like the Nest thermostat.

But design thinking is so much more than a physical product. It is a way of thinking. For example, if you were asked to design a new vase, you might come up with myriad product designs.  But if instead you were asked to design a new way to display flowers in your home, you would likely focus instead on creating an experience, not a product.  Design - Hyena Reality

Background.  Jon Kolko, the director of the Austin Design Center, shares his insights about design thinking in the September issue of Harvard Business Review.  He says there is a shift in large organizations to put design thinking much closer to the center of what the enterprise is doing.  The shift isn’t about the aesthetics of products, like the sleek design of the Nest thermostat, bur rather it is applied to the way people think and work – and how they experience the world.  He says: “Think about how much tougher it is to reinvent a health care delivery system than to design a shoe.”

Design thinking involves creating empathy with users, using a discipline of prototyping, and having a tolerance for failure.  He says:  “people need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable.” While that may aspirational and may never happen with the tax code or environmental regulations, it never hurts to try!

How School Lunch Program Uses Design Thinking. Kolko approaches the use of design thinking from a private sector perspective, but his insights apply in government as well.  For example, the National School Lunch Program at USDA worked with the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab to improve children’s access to healthy meals in school by using “human centered design” practices.  According to USDA’s Jeff Greenfield, in an interview with Tom Kalil at the White House, “Applying this design process uncovered insights into unique experiences, systemic challenges, and unmet individual needs that hinder program enrollment.”

The design team identified best practices used by states and localities to reduce errors that families made when applying for the school lunch program.  They interviewed key stakeholders, such as school meal program operators, on ways to improve the application process.  And they tested different prototypes of applications with parents who were applying for the program.  The application’s design and format went through a series of iterative improvements based on research findings and focus group feedback.

As a result of this design project, USDA believes that it can reduce the application error rate for the school lunch program – and the level improper payment errors – from 15.8 percent (totaling $1.9 billion) to no more than 10 percent.

The Five Key Principles.  Kolko says there are five key principles behind creating a design-centric organizational culture:

  • Focus on users’ experiences, especially their emotional ones. Kolko says that design-centric organizations don’t denigrate emotion-laden language as “thin, sill, or biased.”  For example, a traditional approach is to promise utility:  a Lexus will provide safe, reliable, and comfortable transportation.  But a design-centered approach would create an emotional feeling that a Lexus will make you “feel pampered, luxurious, and affluent.”  In a government context, this might not be the goal of the IRS during tax season, but the IRS could ensure that completing your taxes would be straightforward, with clear instructions, and relatively painless in terms of completing and filing required forms.
  • Create models to examine complex problems.  Kolko says design thinkers tend to use physical models to understand, describe, and communicate.  He notes that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation has used “a design artifact called a customer journey map to understand veterans’ emotional highs and lows in their interactions with VA.”  He says that this has helped VA employees to better understand how to change the organization to be more veteran-centric, and how to communicate this shift to frontline employees.
  • Use prototypes to explore potential solutions.  Design-centric organizations, Kolko observes, often have prototypes, diagrams, and sketches of new ideas scattered throughout their workspace as a way of communicating ideas: “The habit of publicly displaying rough prototypes hints at an open-minded culture, one that values exploration and experimentation over rule following.”  The walls of innovation labs in different federal agencies reflect this advice!
  • Tolerate failure.  A design culture doesn’t necessarily encourage failure, but it does promote an iterative process, rooted in continuous learning.  Kolko says that GE has moved away from the model of detailed product requirements to a model where team learn by piloting, testing, and revising their initiatives.  He points to successful corporations, like Apple, that have their share of failures, such as the Newton tablet and the Copland operating system, which were quickly dropped, but provided learning for future successful products.
  • Keep it simple.  Kolko says that deliberate decisions about what a product should do need to be clearly defined, and not clutter it with extraneous features: “By removing features, a company offers customers a clear, simple experience.”  He points to the Nest thermostat – complex internally but externally very sleek with few outward-facing functions.  Offering fewer rather than more options can oftentimes be more helpful than multiple, complex options.

What Are the Challenges of Using This Approach? Creative design teams cannot be isolated in a unit to one side of the organization chart.  Their approach has to be embraced as a core competence by the entire organization, says Kolko.  He says this requires changes that challenge any bureaucracy – public or private.  This involves becoming more willing to accept ambiguity while designing new approaches, embracing some level of risk to try new approaches, and to temper expectations that “design thinking” will solve all problems.  Fortunately, the White House is encouraging this kind of thinking these days, and agencies are beginning to embrace it, so find your agency’s design thinking champion – oftentimes in your agency’s innovation office — and try it out!


Graphic Credit:  Courtesy of hyena reality via

Senior Fellow and Associate Partner - US Federal Team

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