Five Things IDEO Taught The Feds About Design Thinking

IDEO goes to Washington!

Five Things IDEO Taught The Feds About Design Thinking

Metropolis magazine has a good feature this month about IDEO’s Tet Offensive against Washington bureaucracy. Peter Hall reports that the feds, inspired by President Obama’s push to demystify big government, have tapped the innovation whizzes at IDEO to take on everything from web design for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to greening federal buildings. The ultimate goal: Make government more humane.


Which sounds pretty soft and fuzzy for an army of agencies charged with running an entire country. (What’s the end point: Kumbaya singalongs at the IRS? Trust falls at the CIA?) Well, it seems to be working. As Hall writes, IDEO has helped agencies figure out how to recruit employees, prototype a better SSA website, and develop a proposal for building tenants to design their own efficiency standards. But perhaps the most remarkable influence here is cultural. IDEO is teaching the government to stop acting so insufferably governmental. Here’s how:

Screw science

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) had a problem. It needed “to make working for the government cool again, bringing young, tech-savvy people into the aging federal workforce,” Hall writes. So IDEO came along and convened a day-long workshop that totally ignored the usual process by which the government solves a predicament: polls. ‘The value of that engagement went far beyond the deliverables,’ Matthew Collier, senior advisor to the OPM’s director, said. “The real value has been a shift in thinking.” He admitted that IDEO’s research method was ‘unscientific’ but also “a really good way to extract deep insights.”

Conduct a meeting that isn’t absurdly regimented

When IDEO first held a meeting with the Social Security Administration, the mucky mucks took a seat at the big boardroom table (or sent proxies), while junior staff sat lamely behind them. IDEO loosened things up. They trotted out Post-it notes, mini tables, and mock-ups, and soon, “everyone was sitting with everyone,” IDEO’s Fred Dust said. “The dynamic shifted quite radically. We also had the problem that everyone wanted to come to the meetings.”

Treat people like human beings


This example comes from IDEO’s governmental work in Singapore, also covered in Hall’s story. IDEO helped the government transform its deeply uninviting Employment Pass Service Center, which processes visas, into a friendly space, with a few simple design moves: upholstered chairs, designated areas for families, and screens that call visitors by name instead of number, to name a few.

Talk (and write) like human beings

Again from Singapore: The visa agency’s written communications were so dense, they sounded like legal briefs. IDEO prototyped something leaps and bounds clearer. If your work permit gets approved, you receive a letter that says simply, “You can come to Singapore.”

Think like designers

Design thinking is messy, intuitive, and people-centric. Which was exactly what the GSA needed to address a vexing issue: It had ramped up on the tech necessary to meet Obama’s goal of slashing energy consumption in federal buildings 30% by 2015, but it was still missing its targets, because employees weren’t doing basic things like switching off computers and air-conditioning. The GSA was thinking like a technocrat. It had to think like a designer. One of IDEO’s proposed solutions: Ask tenants to develop their own eco standards. That way they’d have a direct stake in the outcome and be more inclined to flip off the lights at night.

[Read more about the process at Metropolis; Top image: Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.