From your computer mouse to city hall – the importance of design thinking

From your computer mouse to city hall – the importance of design thinking
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Design thinking has transformed a number of fields, from computers to city government, simply by emphasizing two important tenets: it puts the needs of the user first, and equally important, redesigns the processes and structures associated with a product or place.

Despite its effectiveness, few in policy and planning understand the adaptability of design thinking, as well as its potential to revamp inefficient systems (or build new ones). In fact, design thinking’s versatility lends itself to creating unorthodox, effective solutions for a wide range of problems.

What is design thinking?

Despite its name, design thinking is more of a problem-solving workflow, a hybrid philosophy that blends fields like psychology, design, and ergonomics. It emphasizes mental and organizational flexibility, and as a result, has expanded outside the realm of design.

As pioneer David Kelley realized, effectively redesigning a product or experience was impossible without redesigning the organization, structures, or culture that accompanies it. Instead of relying on new technology as a panacea for all of our ills, it’s important to understand that oftentimes, the real roadblock is an emphasis on process and the status quo over the psychology of users.


One of design thinking’s greatest triumphs, and perhaps the best example of its hybrid philosophy at work, is the computer mouse. Before a multi-disciplinary team of designers, psychologists, and ergonomists refined the concept of the mouse in the 1970s, computers weren’t controlled by cursors linked to human hands. Instead, users had to type commands into a computer. Programs were accessed through code on a black screen, not by clicking on icons and Start menus.

Creating the mouse allowed manufacturers to show files and applications as icons – thus allowing users to interact directly with the computer. This also transformed computers into a mass-market product. Rather than forcing a user to funnel their intentions through command prompts and code, the mouse is a shortcut directly from the user’s mind to the computer’s screen. Now, anyone could use computers – and four decades later, almost everyone does.

Case study: the Gainesville city government

At times, it seems that the design thinking is more psychology than technology, but that’s a good thing.

Look no further than Gainesville, a Florida city of 130,000 (and home to the University of Florida). Faced with a brain drain of new graduates, the city government partnered with design firm IDEO to brainstorm ways to stem the outmigration.

The most dramatic change was to orient the city not around process (the conventional way of government), but outcomes, such as opening a business or renovating a house. For the vast majority of citizens, interacting with government means jumping through a series of smaller, ever-more frustrating hoops as they’re shuttled from one bureaucracy to the next. Want to add solar panels to your house? Fill out this form, file it here, and be shuffled around like a deck of playing cards.

IDEO and Gainesville, on the other hand, realized that convoluted, confusing procedures were the problem. To ease the pain of red tape, they created a unit centered wholly on users: the Department of Doing. At this one-stop shop, residents can file paperwork, start businesses, and even leave suggestions for improvements – rather than bouncing from one department to the next for permits.

That’s not to say that the Gainesville redesign was purely process. In one playful touch, the city replaced crosswalk buttons with foam fists for residents to fist-bump. But the point is that design thinking helped Gainesville become a smart city not only through new technology, but also through altering processes and mindsets.

Innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum

While innovation is important, being responsive to the needs of residents is perhaps more so. Colin O’Donnell, CIO of urban tech company Intersection, explains that the problem is that most change is incremental. A city might add a new technology and layer it on top of an existing bureaucracy (such as giving the subway countdown timers) – rather than redesigning the process and flow of the existing bureaucracy. As a result, residents see little improvement and don’t understand what has changed; worse yet, the existing, unresponsive structures remain, even as we face problems on an unprecedented scale (like global warming).


O’Donnell makes an excellent point. Innovations like the computer mouse, which completely reshape and reinvent the ecosystem, are few and far in-between. Instead, when using technology to solve problems, we often adapt such technology to work around existing systems, rather than redesigning the whole environment to optimize the new product and the user experience.

To pull this off requires a willingness to question everything one knows, especially principles considered universal truths. In fact, most people reason by analogy: they put a slight variation on what others do, all while accepting the structures already in place.

Imagine if the computer mouse had never been paired with a graphical user interface of program icons and file folders: We would still be typing lines of code to access files, making computers less attractive (and popular) than they turned out to be. The world would be very different.

A more successful approach is to redesign with the user in mind. It is interesting to consider what the world might look like if we expended more effort to really, truly restructure and reshape systems, buildings, and processes with people – rather than processes or institutions – at the center.

Anthony Wood is the Global Managing Director of Shillington Education; previously he worked as a senior designer for ad agencies in London and Sydney. Find him on Twitter @Shillington_