How can public services successfully use product design to innovate?

When people talk about innovation and product design, they often think about large corporates, cool start-ups and everything in-between. The public service sector rarely comes to mind, and almost no one talks about the power that using product design to innovate would have within the public services environment. This is regrettable and undeserved. If there’s one industry that could benefit immensely from a strategic product design or design thinking approach, it would be public services.

Public services are generally perceived as bureaucratic, old, rigid, not customer friendly, and so on. Unfortunately, this perception is true in most cases. But public services have been upping their game in recent years when it comes to being more human-centric. Efforts are being made to refocus on their citizens and simplify their processes. Some governments — largely due to the global COVID-19 pandemic — have gone digital. These advancements and improvements provide hope that public services are moving in the right direction.

The difficulty with public services is that they are created for the public and their services can have a huge effect on a large number of citizens. Making choices or changing processes needs to be done carefully. Another challenge is the fact that different citizens have a large variety of different needs. Some are older and less digitally fluent. Others are digital natives who want their driver’s license delivered together with the pizza they ordered from Uber Eats.

A product design approach, which is based on design thinking and strategic product design methodologies, can help the public service sector to increase their ‘innovative’ capabilities, become more human-centric, and provide better services for their citizens. At the same time, a product design approach creates a low-risk environment to test, experiment and validate ideas to make sure that the needs of different citizens (which can be starkly conflicting) are met.

No one is left behind

A product design approach (or design thinking approach, if you prefer) starts with human-centricity. We design products, services and experiences for humans. Even the rise of robots, artificial intelligence, and other highly-technological evolutions are created to be of benefit to humans. This is one of the most important aspects to keep in mind.

In order to ensure this, stakeholders are mapped carefully at the beginning of projects, design sprints and workshops. Different participants are then chosen based on this mapping. The result is that a workshop could be organised with both higher public officials as well as public servants who are in contact with citizens on a daily basis.

The second aspect of a human-centric approach considers and looks at the subject we are designing for: the citizens. As mentioned above, citizens come in all shapes and sizes, with each having different needs, pains and wishes. A human-centric approach ensures that no one is left behind and that products, services and experiences meet these different needs.

Experiment and validate

To avoid situations where solutions and changes are implemented without considering their consequences, a strategic product design approach promotes running multiple experiments and validations. Through strategic design and design thinking, you can eliminate the most critical risks or assumptions that require validation before proceeding with investments. This is done by creating prototypes and putting them in front of what we call ‘users’. These users can include a broad variety of people: they can be stakeholders, actual users of a product or service, citizens, etc.

There are also many different methodes to create prototypes. The most well-known method is to create digital prototypes when products are being digitalised, but the catalogue is much broader and more extensive than this. Public services can choose a best-fit method of prototyping for their needs, budgets and desires.

We’ve observed that these prototyping methods are used most often in public services:

Concierge: the concept behind the prototype is done manually (fully or partially). It is also made clear to the users participating in the test that all processes behind the scenes are done manually. This is a good prototyping method that only requires minimal investment in order to set everything up. It also provides clarity and transparency, as the users are aware that they are interacting with humans behind the scenes.

Wizard of Oz: this is similar to the concierge prototyping method, except users are unaware that it is a prototype. To them, it looks real and they are unaware of what is happening behind the scenes. This avoids their experience or opinion from being influenced by any knowledge of the fact that it is only a prototype. It’s a great choice for prototyping if you plan to use technology or automation behind the scenes.

Mash-up: this method uses a combination of existing processes and services to provide a new service. This is especially useful and possible in public services since users are more task focused. This way, they can be involved in setting up a new experience quickly and you avoid having to invest in training or hiring new people to prototype.

Role-playing: involves taking on different roles and acting together. By doing this, it’s possible to see or experience how a specific set-up will work out and avoids having to involve external people.

Life-sized prototype: this method is especially useful for large experiences. It involves setting up and building everything in a separate location, just like it would appear and be in real life. It can be used if you have to make a drastic change in an experience or when a new interior is a part of redesigning a service (which is often very important in public services). By creating a separate life-sized prototype, you can avoid making any changes or influencing current activities in an existing environment until the innovation has been experimented on and validated.

Yes, you can do the fancy stuff too

A strategic product design approach also allows you to use fancy testing methodologies, such as A/B and beta testing. For instance, you could do A/B testing both with experiments or with the current process as a control group. This way, you can measure which version has the best results without actually having to change everything and risking the negative consequences.

Here’s an example: let’s say a city wants to improve its application process for liquor licenses. Through the strategic design process, they’ve found out that the current process won’t work, but redesigning the process will result in a completely different approach. With A/B testing during the experiments, it’s possible to validate which of those new solutions would work best. Before putting it into practice, the city can temporarily set up a concierge experiment for a limited number of cases. This way, they don’t have to invest heavily in the new process and can already see how it would work in a real situation. Both approaches provide them with much more and better information so they can take more appropriate and accurate decisions.

Similarly, public services can use beta testing to see how a new service or experience may work in real life. Not only digitally, but in real face-to-face interactions too.

Design sprints to gain speed

Design sprints are short but intensive tracks that use design thinking to bring you from an idea to a validated solution fast. This approach can help public services to come up with new ways and approaches to improve their services and experiences quickly, without having to resort to long tracks and large budgets. Design sprints are fantastic and beneficial because they help you to avoid long public procurement tracks that overkill the outcome.

Consider working with external studios

We suggest this not because we are one ourselves, but because external studios work across a variety of industries and for all types of organisations. Rather than working with companies only, we work with other governments, charities, NGOs, public services, international organisations, you name it. This allows us to bring in a lot of expertise and a wide range of experiences that aids in bringing ideas to a higher level.

Builder, designer, innovator, entrepreneur, husband and father.