Background: As an experiment, I'm writing my ebook Public Design FAQs in public, on the 200wad platform. It's a complete field guide to the best practices, strategies, tactics, tips and hacks to using human-centred design approaches in the public sector. Read the book here as it's written, 200 words at a time.
Q: Design thinking often advocates for speaking to citizens to understand what they want. But isn't that like asking them for a wish list and pandering to their whims and fancies? We can't just give them what they say they want because they will want more than we can give and then we will struggle to manage their expectations. Besides, everyone will ask for different things, and as the government, we can't simply accede to every request under the sun!
A: It's true that in design thinking, we feel strongly about speaking to citizens to learn what they want. But "What do you want?" is phrased inaccurately at best. What we try to do is to learn directly from people's experiences in order to understand the painpoints and difficulties they face when interacting with your public service, and to develop deeper empathy for their needs. These needs can often be difficult to articulate, even from the users themselves. So when we speak to them, we don't exactly phrase the question as "What do you want?"
Instead, we ask "What was your experience like using public service X?" Instead of asking them for their wish list, we try to ask them about their experiences. We get them to tell us stories, real stories and authentic experiences they had. Not what they heard from the news, or somebody else's experience, or their opinion. We ask them about their own lived experience, probe to understand the emotions they had during that experience, and try to get to what exactly they were trying to do. Sometimes, we ask them to sketch it out on paper, or walk us through in the real space. Through these activities, we get a deeper understanding of the difficulties they face, and moments where the service or product can be improved to help them in their context. Asking for what they want might be risky, as it might get very abstract and intellectual, and you don't know if that really addresses their painpoints since it might not be anchored in real-life experience.
Caveat: sometimes when we do ask them for what they want, it might be in the context of brainstorming, or using the ideas and solutions they proposed as a segway into asking them about their experiences and how that solution addresses their needs. A wise and experienced design researcher will be mindful of the difference between directly asking them for what they want versus asking them about their experiences.
So worry not! We speak to citizens not to pander to their every want and desire, but to learn how the public policy/service can better address their deeper needs and concerns. This in fact, does the opposite of pandering to a million different wants - by understanding their deeper needs, you reduce the noise and can now better focus on the few needs that really matter at the end of the day.