Applying Design Thinking to Government Experimentation

Let’s unpack what experimentation is, and how we can do more experimentation within the public service by applying design thinking.

Design Thinking is a methodology that is being increasingly adopted across the public sector. It encourages organizations to look at challenges and opportunities from an end-user perspective to truly understand the end-users’ needs and wants. The end-user can be a client, consumer, citizen, or an internal group and are those that will be using your product, service, policy, process, program or regulation.

Design Thinking has 5 phases – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—and uses a methodological human-centered approach. As we know from our own experiences, one-size does not fit all, which further emphasizes the need to understand our end-users when creating policies, services, programs and products. In order to empathize, we need to better understand our end-clients and gain a better understanding of their needs, and we do this by categorizing end-users into personas. Personas capture the essence of the various end-user groups, highlighting their unique goals and challenges.

Experimentation is something most of us do on a daily basis, often without realizing it. From taking a different route home to trying a new cooking recipe, experimentation is about finding new ways of doing things – and is very similar to prototyping. The difference between experimentation and prototyping in the design thinking realm is that when prototyping you are looking for further insights about your end-users, whereas with experimentation you are looking to test out an outcome.

Within Canada, there is currently a move to encourage public servants to experiment more. The Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) has created a direction on experimentation. The TBS definition of experimentation is: Testing new approaches to learn what works and what does not work using a rigorous method. This stemmed from understanding that there is a need to find ways to address ‘persistent problems that traditional approaches have failed to solve.’

In order to fully unpack what experimentation means for every department, and every part of each department, we need to look at and understand the people in the organization before determining what experimentation does and can mean for each of them. When we are looking at who will be experimenting, we are identifying the clients of the experimentation policy.

If we step back and apply design thinking to experimentation, we will see that what experimentation means is quite different for everyone in your organization; from policy makers, to regulators, finances teams, administrative groups, managers, researchers, and program managers. These groups are the end-users for the experimentation direction. To understand how regulators can experiment we need to better understand what they do and what their current journeys are like, then work with them to develop an understanding of how they can experiment in their areas of expertise. We also need to work with end-users to understand what rigorous methods means for each category/persona.

Once we have a clear understanding of who our end-users are, we can define the problem or opportunity for each persona, and then come up with ideas on how experimentation can be done for each persona. Not all methods of experimentation may work, so we will select some of the ideas to prototype and test. As we prototype and test each of the methods, we will learn more about the end-users and how they can experiment more, and effectively, in their organizations and departments.

If we take time to go through what experimentation means for each persona/category in the public service, we will come up with more impactful outcomes for experimentation rather than outputs. At the end of the day, we are encouraged to experiment to find solutions for persistent problems and create added value for us, our departments, and our citizens. This added value can be achieved if we take the time to look at things from an end-user perspective.

Individually, how do you start experimenting? Look at what is happening in terms of experimentation in your department and in other departments. There is experimentation happening at all levels and scales. Are there some ideas you can extrapolate? Take a few minutes to think about how you can vary the work that you are doing and do it in different ways. Think both big and small—even how a document is presented can be experimented with. What is one thing you can do today to experiment at work or with your work? Observe the outcomes as you experiment.

Interested in learning more? Join us July 15-16 for Design Thinking and Customer Experience for Public Sector Leaders.