How Design Thinking Can Improve Public Sector IT


With its push to provide faster, more predictable and higher quality software, public sector IT organizations may have discounted the need for design.

Eleven years ago, an Office of Management and Budget memo pushed the concepts of Agile and DevOps into the mainstream government consciousness by stating that “the Federal Government has not taken full advantage of this transformation due to poor management of its technology investments.” The promise of Agile DevOps was to get value from digital solutions faster, enable flexibility to support changing priorities, and adapt to future business needs.

Since then, most public sector agencies have created at least a handful of digital products using Agile DevOps methods and toolsets, which largely have delivered these benefits. But, even with adoption of Agile DevOps, some large public-sector digital programs are still experiencing the problems identified by OMB so thoughtfully back in 2010.

Obviously, there is still something missing that could help achieve the benefits described by OMB eleven years ago. Research shows that adding design thinking into IT implementations is the answer.

With its push to provide faster, more predictable and higher quality software, public sector IT organizations may have discounted the need for design. The Agile Manifesto’s principle of “working software over comprehensive documentation” helped move IT implementation to focus on functionality and minimum viable products but also had the negative consequence of suggesting that any kind of focus on design is a wasteful effort that slows down delivery.

On the contrary, methods like design thinking have been shown to save significant time and money in both IT development and post-launch IT support costs. According to Clare-Marie Karat of the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, the earlier design problems can be identified, the lower the cost of delivery and long-term maintenance of the product. Her analysis showed, that for every dollar spent on design, $100 was saved on the total cost of large IT development projects. While this cost-benefit is remarkable, saving money is not the only benefit of utilizing a thoughtful approach to design in IT development projects.

In his book, “Why Your Startup is Failing,” author Henry Latham suggests many organizations prioritize being efficient at the expense of delivering actual value to their customers and to their business. In other words, while Agile DevOps focuses on “delivering software right,” design thinking focuses on “delivering the right software.” Design thinking can uncover friction and pain points in the experience users have while utilizing new technology—called the “user journey.” Insights gained during a design thinking session can help prioritize digital features that truly reflect the wants and needs of the end-user community.

In addition, having direct input into the digital process supports user engagement, allowing for tweaks and changes to the solution before a final version is released. It also helps to encourage participation with agile story prioritization, testing, readiness, and adoption of the product. All these things contribute to the ultimate goal of creating technology solutions that truly help achieve the mission.

Additional benefits of including design in IT modernization efforts include:

  • Increase collaboration between stakeholders. Design thinking focuses on first empathizing with users but also understanding the interactions of other stakeholders in providing the product or service. By taking a user-centered view of the problem, agencies can better understand the barriers and siloes causing user friction and stakeholders can work together to find an integrated solution.
  • Drive-high impact, actionable decision-making.  Design thinking helps to clarify and define a problem from the user’s perspective. The greater the user’s friction, the greater the need. Many of these opportunities to improve user experience do not require expensive or complex IT requirements and should quickly move to the top of the priority list or product backlog.
  • Encourage user-led innovation. Once a problem is defined, design thinking inspires ideation of innovative solutions through techniques such as crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing encourages the user and/or stakeholder community to submit solution ideas and vote for their favorite. Crowdsourcing is a great way solicit new ideas and also encourages users to participate in the design process.
  • Reduce development cost and time. Design thinking promotes “starting small” and “failing fast” to minimize the cost and effort of solution development. Agencies can use low fidelity wireframes to obtain user feedback and iteratively prototype more sophisticated solutions until a minimal viable product, or MVP is ready. The cost of developing the MVP is much lower than the final solution and saves significant time by reducing rework caused by poorly defined user requirements. Essentially, if a “picture is worth a thousand words,” then a “prototype is worth a thousand requirements.”
  • Increase user adoption rates and satisfaction. Users are often asked to provide inputs into requirements early in the lifecycle and then must wait to see what the completed product looks like. Design thinking solicits user feedback in almost every step of the process, so they are frequently providing feedback and feeling like part of the solution lifecycle. Users are much more likely to adopt a new product if their voice is heard before it is rolled out.

The case for focusing on design during IT digital modernization and transformation efforts is clear. The return on time or money invested in design thinking is exponentially higher than the cost, and the added benefit of user outreach and engagement makes the value even greater. Government agencies should make sure to include design thinking as an integral part of IT procurements to help save money, create better products and delight their users.

Rob Buhrman is a principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector LLC.