Design Thinking

Principles and practices focused on developing products/service/experiences focused on the needs of users
Steven Laconte

Design thinking is a set of principles, practices and processes that are used in developing products, experiences and services based on the needs of the user. Design thinking has been repurposed to help governments develop better policies, programs, and services centered on users’ needs, by having actual users (e.g., citizens or businesses) participate in the creation of the solution. It helps us build empathy with the user, identify gaps, look for solutions that cover off the gaps, and ultimately helps us create more robust solutions through testing a series of iterative prototypes before full scale implementation.

Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols. Running an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration is risky, but design thinking considers over-reliance on the rational and the analytical to be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way by combining feeling, intuition and inspiration with hard data and analytics.

The design thinking process is often described as including five phases: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

These steps are explained in details here.


  • Focuses on users’ experience – making sure that programs, policies and services are developed to better suit people’s needs
  • Solution co-created with issue’s owner and people affected by the issue
  • No design skills or formal education required to contribute to the design process 


  • Is not a linear process, so it’s difficult to predict end-results at each stage
  • Needs leadership support to experiment, fail and re-iterate

Policy Opportunity

  • Useful for creating and developing strong networks between various stakeholders: Design thinking workshops are a great place to bring people together who wouldn’t normally be in the same room. For example, policymakers get a chance to hear from the people for whom they are designing the policy in the early stages of policy development and as it is scaled up for implementation. These opportunities for open dialogue create the potential for both parties to create stronger networks.
  • Can be used to diagnose where opportunity for innovation and improvement lies: In the design thinking process, participants are encouraged to co-create a better solution together. During this process, innovative ideas and improvements are often uncovered once the issue is adequately defined, all participants are fully engaged, and ideas are freely flowing.
  • Can be used to improve the way key public services or policies are being administered: One of the key elements of design thinking is empathy. It’s all about getting a better understanding of which the users really are and what they are feeling, doing, thinking, hearing and seeing. By getting a better understanding and developing empathy it becomes easier to improve the way that public services or policies are being administered. It also helps uncover unarticulated needs which are often left unidentified.


  • The design thinker needs to work directly with the people the solution is being designed for;
  • The design process requires resources. At times, it is necessary to spend quite a bit of time conducting interviews, reviewing documents, seeking expert advices or testing unproven solutions;
  • The design process needs to happen collaboratively which is why the term co-creation is often used when relating to some elements of design thinking;
  • Money, policy, rules must be considered.

Government of Canada

  • Indigenous Policy and Program Innovation (IPPI) (Justice Canada): Using design thinking to explore the issue of Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system and potential opportunities for addressing the issue based on users’ experiences.
  • Modernization of Food Compositional Standards (Canada Food Inspection Agency, with ISEDC Service Innovation Lab): Testing out the use of Design Thinking techniques in two workshops regarding food composition standards modernization.
  • Regulatory Guidance (Community of Federal Regulators and ISEDC Service Lab): Design Thinking process that enabled open collaboration among a diverse range of stakeholders to co-design better government service experiences for the consumers of regulatory guidance.
  • “How can we re-imagine the experience of working together to provide good advice within HR?” (Health Canada Innovation Lab): Five day Design Thinking workshop which was followed by having participants field test and report on the success of their prototypes in the workplace.

Best in Class

  • Ideo is an award-winning global design consulting firm that helps public and private sector organizations achieve outcomes that are human-oriented, and technologically and economically viable. For example, it worked with Clark Realty Capital and the US Department of Defense to design homes adapted to the needs of injured soldiers.
  • MindLab (Denmark) was launched by the government to develop and test policy solutions targeted to citizen and business needs. It cuts across the Ministry of Business and Growth, the Ministry of Children and Education and the Ministry of Employment, with employees seconded from the private and public sector.
  • NESTA (UK) is a charity that acts through a combination of programs, investment, research, and partnerships. For instance, the Dementia Citizens pilot project seeks to create a digital platform that connects people affected by dementia and researchers.
  • MaRS (Toronto) works on developing action-oriented solutions to specific cross cutting social policy challenges such as chronic disease prevention and youth unemployment. Funded through an endowment, this lab brings together all public and private stakeholders, including end-users, to design and test solutions.
  • GovLab (New York University) uses new technology to focus on collaborative problem-solving with governments and other public interest organizations; dissemination of successes and failures of governance innovations; open innovation; and networks of innovators. Among others, Public Projects Canvas were designed to help those working on civic projects to become more impactful.
  • La 27E Région (Paris) conducts action-research programs to test new methods for designing public policy. It mobilizes the capabilities of designers, idea generators, and social scientists, and engages in ground-level actions, prioritizing the experience of civil servants and citizens.