Government Services Look Radically Different in the Customer’s Eyes

Well-intentioned policies don’t always translate into meaningful and effective services for the community, but applying design thinking to government programs can help bridge this gap.

What do you see when you look at the photo above?

I see a universal public safety program addressing one of the country’s leading causes of injury and early death.

But, if you haven’t spent a few years trying to hack bureaucracy, you probably see the obvious: long lines, red tape, and the rest of your afternoon completely wasted.

We’re both looking at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I work at the global design and innovation company IDEO helping our clients in the public sector create better citizen services. We’ve found a tension between the goals of government and the services citizens experience. As most everyone knows first-hand, more often than not, those services are frustrating and hard to navigate.

We’ve found a tension between the goals of government and the services citizens experience.

When government tries to make things better for its citizens, it starts with a policy. That can take the form of a new law, such as the Affordable Care Act; a regulation to, for example, make the terms of your mortgage easier to understand; or an administrative action, such as creating a path to citizenship for people brought to the country as children. The bureaucracy translates this policy’s intent into new and updated processes. Those processes define the way citizens experience the policy.

What government says versus what people experience

People see it in exactly the opposite way. As the government’s “customers,” they first experience a service. Underneath that service experience lies a process. And, maybe if they squint, they can discern the policy’s intent. Most people believe the DMV’s purpose is to issue driver’s licenses, since that’s what they experience. But in fact, the reason we all have to spend an afternoon every few years at a drab, government-run customer service center is because it makes our roads safer. The DMV tests your knowledge of the rules of the road and your vision to ensure you can safely operate a car, and only registers those vehicles that meet certain safety standards.

At IDEO, we bring a designer’s mindset and tools to our work to help governments become more human-centered and deliver better customer experiences. We’re deeply curious about people and use a variety of research techniques to go beyond what people say and do to get at what they think and feel. Research doesn’t just happen at the outset of a project, either; we’re constantly engaging potential users of our designs by getting their feedback on prototypes and asking them to co-design with us. And we believe in the ability of people to tell powerful stories, and for those stories to inspire us to create new ideas or move us to adopt new behaviors.

Here are three key techniques we use in our work with governments. Each one opens the door to a new perspective.

  1. See the Experience Through the Eyes of Your Customers

The mass adoption of smartphones means customers have a powerful design research tool in their pockets: a high-resolution camera that can take, store, and share thousands of pictures and videos. Select a small sample of customers and give them a few simple instructions for documenting their service experience and sharing it back with you. Then spend an afternoon with your team pinning up the customer photos, labeling them, and looking for patterns, unexpected perspectives, and anything else that makes you think of new ways to improve the experience. Another tactic is to try “secret shopping” your customer experience, or, if you have a call center, to make the whole team listen in on a few calls.

What you’ll uncover are emotional and functional pain points: moments in the customer experience that are difficult for your users to navigate. That could be because they don’t understand the language you’re using to describe a set of options, or because they don’t know which option applies to their situation. Customer satisfaction scores are great tools, but developing deep customer empathy is an even better way to see a system that looks completely different from the outside.

2. Use Design Sprints to Keep Problems from Getting Too Big to Solve

A design sprint is a fixed period of time when a dedicated team is focused on solving an agreed-upon problem. This process was developed by Google Ventures and there are lots of great resources out there to help you get started. But just as with service designs, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Try your first design sprint, reflect on what did and didn’t work for your organization, and then evolve the way you construct your sprints.

Because design sprints are time-bound, the energy and focus of your team stays high. And an iterative approach empowers your team and keeps solutions elegant by forcing the problems you’re solving to stay small and manageable.

3. Test Ideas and Get Feedback from Customers

The practice of prototyping forces you to consider details and interactions that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, and a rough prototype lets you have a tangible conversation with customers and employees early in the design process. And prototypes aren’t just for your digital team. At IDEO, we prototype everything, from service interactions to communications, and we aim to do it as quickly and roughly as needed to get actionable feedback from users. If you can take an idea and make it tangible enough to test, you’re making a prototype.

Passing new legislation and rewriting regulations is a long, arduous process. But just because a major new policy only comes around once in a lifetime, doesn’t mean you only have one chance to implement it. If you embrace a prototyping mindset, you can be continuously improving your service delivery.

Just because a major new policy only comes around once in a lifetime, doesn’t mean you only have one chance to implement it.

For example, before committing to build a new app or section of your website, make a paper prototype of the three to five most important screens. Share your low-fidelity prototype with a few potential customers by asking them to walk you through what they think they’re seeing and how and when they might use it. Planning to revamp the process of applying for a benefits program? Storyboard the new application on paper with hand-drawn sketches of the key moments and use that to test the new process with a handful of users.

Prototyping takes the risk out of the decisions you have to make in implementation. The longer an idea stays on the drawing board, the more likely you are to uncover a surprise that makes the concept much more expensive or even unworkable. In addition to ensuring that your service delivers on real user needs, prototypes reveal critical constraints early.

Using these tools in the public sector couldn’t be more important. IDEO’s work with the city of Gainesville, Florida to help local authorities design a user-centered city shows how some of these tools can be used to radically transform the citizen experience. The potential for impact is enormous. It’s our government — it’s how we do together what we can’t do individually. But everyone who works in government plays a part in making it work better.

Peter Jackson works in IDEO’s San Francisco studio where he co-leads the firm’s public sector portfolio. Learn more at