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Design thinking

Design Thinking

Design thinking is also known as human-centred design, co-design and participatory design.

On this page:

Design thinking for policy
Why you should use it
What it involves
What you will get out of it
Ideal circumstances for use
Tools or concepts
Centres of expertise
References, guides and key readings
Community of practice

Design thinking for policy

  • Design thinking focuses on solutions, starting with the goal of a better future rather than a problem to solve.
  • Design thinking is a creative process to build up ideas. It is a different mind-set to analytical thinking which is used to break down ideas. Design thinking is more creative than traditional problem-solving approaches.
  • As a process, design thinking can help public service providers get closer to customers, uncover their unmet needs, and develop innovative products and services to meet those needs. It is particularly useful for addressing ‘wicked’ problems, for being more person-centric and for encouraging innovation.
  • Design thinking has been more commonly applied to public services design, but has good potential for policy design when thoughtfully applied.

The mind-set for design thinking:

  • takes a human-centred rather than a system-led approach. The focus is on human values and needs. Design thinking requires you to have empathy for the people affected, seek user feedback, and reflect it back into design.
  • makes experimentation an integral part of the design process. Expect to explore ideas, develop lo-fidelity prototypes, communicate through meaningful items, and test ideas and thinking rather than jumping to solutions. The aim is to fail fast and early to create more relevant and durable solutions.
  • involves the design team collaborating with people from various backgrounds and respects different viewpoints. There is an expectation that insights and solutions will emerge from the diverse perspective.
  • is curious and optimistic. Design thinking is integrated and holistic, looking at the bigger context for the customer.
  • embraces ambiguity, exploring the issues with a beginner’s mind-set rather than an expert mind-set. It takes time to ensure you focus on the right questions and not what you assume them to be.

Design thinking and the policy process

  • Effective design thinkers want to help participants find the ‘sweet spot’ between what is viable, desirable and achievable. They have tools and methods to help that dialogue.
  • Design-only approaches (or design thinking that is restricted to ‘ideation’) are not sufficient for policy analysis and advice. For example, policy advice still needs to confront trade-offs, scale and costs.
  • It can be powerful when used in combination with other inputs (for example data and evidence, systems thinking) and when used as an input to analysis for decision-making and policy design.
  • To use for policy, it must be supplemented with additional expertise that fits the public sector context (for example systems thinking, evaluative thinking, specialist expertise relevant to the challenge, business modelling, and applied data and evidence).

Why you should use it

Design thinking helps you to:

  • reduce risk and increase the chances of success by understanding problems from the perspectives of citizens, and run prototypes that inexpensively test solutions at a small scale.
  • align diverse stakeholders by using methods that bring ‘the system’ into the room, and to support more effective conversations among diverse stakeholders. These diverse perspectives help produce solutions with greater integrity and resilience.

For example, design thinking methods were used to understand the experience of children and their families who had contact with NZ's child protection system. The approach now underpins the design of Oranga Tamariki’s services under their new approach to supporting vulnerable children.

What it involves

  • Thinking through policy and service challenges from a customer or citizen's perspective.
  • Involving stakeholders and citizens affected by the policy in its design.
  • Moving iteratively through the process of development (rather than confirming everything up-front), to allow the process of learning to influence design.
  • Considering the role of policy developers as being more like facilitators rather than creators or experts.

What you will get out of it

  • Policies that are both informed and designed by customers and citizens.
  • Greater confidence that the policy meets user requirements before launch, including that 'bugs' have been worked out.
  • Greater certainty on the likely effectiveness of the policy.

Ideal circumstances for use

  • Design thinking is most effective for human-centred problems, when you don’t have existing data or information to guide you. This may be because you are confronting new issues, or because of the issue’s complexity.
  • The available resources match the complexity of the project, and the selected design approach can be delivered rigorously within budget.
  • The intent and desired outcomes are clearly defined. Ambition and scope are clear. You know what the gaps in your knowledge are. All policy initiatives need this level of definition – design thinking projects in particular can struggle without it.
  • A design approach will be supplemented with other policy skill sets and lines of enquiry.
  • There is willingness to innovate and active sponsors and champions.
  • There is willingness to look at problem sources or solutions that cross agency boundaries.


  • Capability for design thinking is still developing across the public service. We need to think carefully about how to build capacity internally as well as generating quality results. Design thinking applied to policy is still in development and case studies are in short supply.
  • Design approaches take time, but the insights gained are invaluable. Agencies might consider how they can use design thinking methods to invest in their knowledge base about the experience of citizens as customers.
  • Design thinking is highly iterative and this is not always a good fit with more traditional linear approaches. Constant and rapid iteration means that a level of financial tolerance for risk is required. You will be less successful if the conditions and capabilities for innovation are not in place. It is worth securing sponsorship and champions before proceeding.
  • Because design thinking focuses on people’s experiences and not systems, solutions often cross agencies and portfolio boundaries. You should think about what this means early. For example, find out whether or not your agency would be prepared to advise on a solution that would be implemented in another agency.
  • Don’t use when the commitment to consult and engage people and stakeholders who represent other parts of a policy or service system is constrained.
  • Don’t use if the project is too complex for the resources available, or when the chosen design approach is too expensive to deliver reliably through all stages.

Tools or concepts

There are many tools for design thinking.

They include:

Journey mapping

Role play


Experience interviews



Policy by Design Seminar - Co-hosted with the Auckland Co-design Lab to explore the current state and opportunities for co-design of policy that improves its efficacy and outcomes for all New Zealander.

Design thinking - NZ Agency Policy Capability Leads Workshop - Documentation of a Policy Project hosted workshop with Jeanne Liedtka.

People-centred Policy – Government Economics Network Conference - Documentation of a Policy Project and GEN workshop on people-centred policy methods, including design thinking.

Centres of expertise

Auckland Co-Design Lab - Organisation funded by NZ government agencies to facilitate co-design of social services with users, based in South Auckland.

References, guides and key readings

Designing public services practical guide - From NESTA and the European Design Council, focused on applying the design mind-set.

Design thinking tools - Stanford Design School’s toolbox of design thinking methods and approaches.

Open Policy Making toolkit - UK Cabinet guide to co-design with customers and citizens.

Design thinking for public service excellence - UN Global Centre for Public Service Excellence guide to design thinking.

What is design thinking? - A video from Jeanne Liedtka, one of the world-wide leaders in design thinking - not public sector specific.

Community of practice

Help share knowledge and build capability around design thinking in government. Help support each other and develop best practice. An informal network (at this stage) that meets monthly. The network provides the opportunity to discuss and workshop different topics, plus the chance to make connections and have visibility across work. 

Service Design Network
Email Ben Briggs at to be included in future Service Design Community of practice emails and events. 


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Last updated: 
Tuesday, 5 July 2022

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