How Design Thinking Can Benefit Government Agencies


The approach calls for agencies to be empathetic toward people’s needs while being open to continuous learning and a willingness to fail—fast.

Michael T. McHugh is president of the Government Digital Solutions Group at DMI. 

Consumers today expect instant online access from anywhere and at any time, and this expectation extends to government interactions. Agencies must rethink their approach to serving their constituents in technology-enabled, proactive and interactive ways. This is easier said than done, but it is possible. It requires a dedication to imagining new possibilities and a willingness to be flexible and to change.

In the pursuit of greater efficiency, innovation and service, design thinking is a highly effective and helpful model. Federal agencies are beginning to use design thinking to creatively address mission objectives and improve processes.

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An Innovative, Agile Approach

What is design thinking? It is “a multidisciplinary process that builds solutions for complex, intractable problems in a technically feasible, commercially sustainable and emotionally meaningful way,” according to Gartner. Design thinking as an approach puts the focus on people—their likes, dislikes, desires and experience—for designing new services and products. It encourages a free flow of ideas within a team to build and test prototypes by setting a high tolerance for failure.

The approach is more holistic, as it considers both human and technological aspects to cater to mission-critical needs. Because of its innovative and agile problem-solving technique, design thinking inspires teams to collaborate and contribute toward driving mission goals.

Design Thinking in Action

As agencies tackle thorny problems, work to increasing the adoption rate of a new service or streamline a process, design thinking calls for agencies to be empathetic toward people’s needs while being open to continuous learning and a willingness to fail—fast.

A fail-fast model enables agencies to detect errors during the course of finding a solution, in which they learn from the possible mistakes and then proceed to develop a more suitable solution that is likely to add value to the user.

For instance, inspector productivity was being negatively affected by a federal agency’s legacy inspection application. By leveraging an agile approach, the agency built a mobile inspection solution to streamline and automate the inspection process. The methodology involved multiple iterations based on observations and findings from inspector actions. Here is a step-by-step synopsis of this methodology:

  • Present the problem: Determining what problems the inspectors faced.
  • Empathize with users: Gathering information about inspectors’ needs and challenges.
  • Define the problem: Based on input from inspectors, redefining the problem.
  • Collaboration: Discussing and brainstorming a variety of solutions.
  • Create the prototype: Building viable design solutions.
  • Constituent testing: Releasing the prototype and testing it with inspectors.
  • Gathering feedback: Incorporating feedback from pilot testing and making required changes.

The agency designed a secure platform called a Mobile Inspection Tool based on the insights drawn from each step, optimized for tablets with a smartphone companion app for enhanced mobility. Packed with features like rich media capture with video, speech-to-text and photographs, the Mobile Inspection Tool dramatically reduced manual labor and sped up the on-site inspection process. It delivered significant efficiencies by improving processes, increasing productivity and enhancing the visibility of information. Additionally, its integration with legacy systems helped leverage existing investments, therefore justifying the innovation, which was based on a tightly defined test and learn cycle.

Reinventing Operations, Step by Step

How well the federal government incorporates tools of technology for optimal service delivery will determine its ability to effectively and efficiently provide online services. Agencies must innovate and reinvent their mode of operation in the following manner:

  • Embrace a fail-fast model to address constraints regarding existing legacy systems.
  • Use rapid prototyping to maximize learning and minimize risks.
  • Develop solutions that resonate with the needs of end users and drive better and quicker ROI.
  • Contact an organization that uses a design thinking approach to solve problems by sharing a collaborative, participatory and responsive relationship with clients.

As agencies follow this action plan, they will be empowered with a design thinking mindset that will enable their operations to become more agile, responsive and effective.