Think big - start small. Prototyping for digital transformation in the Public sector.

Is your organisation facing the need to change in order to meet new needs of our increasingly digital world? Are you dreaming of a fast, easy and cheap way to leverage a digital transformation? Are you also reluctant to get started because of all the effort and uncertainty it brings, even though you can see big opportunities ahead? If this resonates with you, you’re not alone.

Digital transformation prototyping header

When hearing the buzz-term Digital transformation being thrown around, it’s easy to get the sense that it’s almost a predefined procedure, a big, costly change that you need to go through, when you’re already busy helping citizens or customers and planning for the next years.

In the project Digitalisation for attractive places, we at ustwo worked with digital transformation in the public sector. What we set out to think of Digital Transformation as something that starts with thinking big but prototyping small. According to us, change should grow in a controlled way from small experiments where insights come quickly, to a place where the whole organisation is sure that the money invested in a new solution, will give the right return.

Digitalisation for attractive places, was a collaboration with Future Place Leadership about leveraging digital transformation in the public sector in the Nordic countries. During a 7 month period we defined and initiated prototyping projects, and coached the participants along the way. The participants prototyped for a wide range of challenges, from digital tourism and talent attraction, as well as how to co-create digital strategy in a regional perspective.

Complex challenges calls for an open approach

There are a lot of things to take into consideration when you aim for a bigger change in your service system and ways of working, utilising digital possibilities now at hand. Additionally, projects in the public domain are complex, especially in the multi-stakeholder setting of a place or destination. This means that synergies cannot be readily predicted, because every change affects the other, and causality can only be spotted in hindsight.

This is why solutions can only be found by testing, probing, sensing and responding to what is learned along the way.[1] When tackling this type of complex projects, we see that there are two things that are key to success:

  1. Spend enough time and energy on understanding the domain and what the problem or situation that you are looking to change really is about, which dependencies and synergies are at play and how the different actors relate to each other. We need to go beyond our initial understanding and dig deeper, covering as many perspectives as possible – not only our own.
  2. Approach the solutions with an experimentation mindset. If we’re attentive, we will still gain new insights about our problem space even when we’re about to change it. To get the effect we’re hoping for, it’s important to adjust to those new insights. We will need to prototype, test and iterate and possibly fail a couple of times along the way, to find the best approach.

So where do you start? With this mindset and understanding of the situation you need a clearly communicated what, why and who.

Lego and Play-doh are alignment power tools

To us, it has been really helpful to playfully map out the different aspects and dependencies of your service. It makes you see things and identify gaps and connections that sometimes is hard to get a good overview of. To build out an idea or vision using Lego, Play-Doh and drawing is a powerful tool, because it forces the members of a group working on the problem to visualise and make things concrete.

By making the abstract parameters of a problem space physical and visible, the stakeholders can align and spot the areas and questions that needs most attention. The goal is not to solve any problems, but to make sure everybody is set out to do the same thing for the same reasons. That is the necessary foundation of any change project.


Creating a guiding star - making people buy into the why

The visual model is hard to interpret for those who wasn’t present when it was conceived, and not suited to be the only thing to bring back and communicate to the organisation at home. Then, it’s important to synthesize the decisions into succinct statements about the project idea, and the intention behind it. Nailing this down to a few sentences is a good way to set a vision and guiding star for the project. Specify what you are trying to do and for whom you want to make a change, how you think it can be done and the reasoning behind choosing this specific strategy.

Having a clearly communicated WHY provides purpose and background, and finding the right WHY can be a game changer when it comes to implementation and engaging people.[2]

Working with digitalisation is mainly working with human behaviour and this is where changes in tools and processes meet their ultimate challenges. Implementing changes means having the people within the systems and organisations buying into the why.

Killing off assumptions - validating with the real users

Another important thing is to have a good look at which underlying assumptions a project is built upon. In order to agree on the purpose of a project, you need to start evaluating what kind of knowledge you actually have, before starting to look for more insights. What do we need to learn more about in order to be able to move the system to where we want it to be?

An analysis of who will be using the service is crucial to design the right thing, but also to test and validate. Who are the core users? Who is directly affected? Who is indirectly affected? When having identified and prioritised – often hard choices – you have found a core user. Or have you? Make sure to validate your assumption, by i.e. user interviews or surveys, to be sure you are focusing on the relevant user. After having real insights about who they are, it’s time to find out their needs, their motivations and what pains or obstacles they might face.

What needs to be in place?

Now you know what to do, why you want to do it and who to target. In order to start, what more needs to be in place? Identifying these things will help you to spot in what order things need to be done, where to start and who you need to involve. To what extent and when do you need to involve your stakeholders? After having done this part thoroughly, you can make a first stab at a somewhat realistic timeline for the project.

The power of prototyping

A powerful method for learning, thinking about and communicating your ideas is to prototype. It will sharpen your thinking and identify what questions to ask, while also validating and getting answers to these questions. Start small and build on insights.

Creating ‘quick and dirty’ prototypes to test the relevance and comprehensibility of your project ensures that your focus and money goes in the right direction. Creating paper sketches to test user flows or setting up testing stations in relevant places gives you invaluable answers. Identifying a smaller test group or narrowing the focus temporarily in order to start building something relevant is also a way forward.

People - your greatest asset

Remember, digital transformation is as much about implementing tools to make it easier for the individual to interact and solve their needs, as it is about nudging general human behaviour in ways to leads to gains for society. To work with a prototyping mindset enables you to onboard and engage people, which is also a big part of the implementation. To get people to buy into your project and the outcomes; involvement and engagement are key. In short, designing to bring the relevant people onboard from the start will help you create both ambassadors and harvest knowledge and insights you might have missed otherwise.


Making yourself accountable

So… off you go then! Make action plans, book meetings with the right people and develop your ideas into something tangible. During the Digitalisation for attractive places-project we asked our participants to make a high level plan and offered them a set of coaching sessions to be distributed freely over the months to come, designing a process for accountability as well as for creative freedom.

We coached the participants regularly to follow up on progress and make friendly pushes in the right direction. However, if you don’t have the luxury of a dedicated coach, you can set up some processes of your own to make yourself accountable for progress. For instance, steering group meetings, public feedback/input sessions, stakeholder presentations, peer group feedback or just regular check-ins with anyone who’s feedback will help you. You can also use reference groups, user testing and open feedback sessions to create an engaged community. Feedback and insights from other people is your most valuable tool to leverage your project.

So, whatever your goals are; in order to make big changes or implement new ways of working and thinking - start small.

Identify what would give the most interesting insights and design to test that for real. Create prototypes in order to fail safely while gaining knowledge and it will have multiple effects. It will save tax money as well as creating buy-in from both users and stakeholders. The validated and iterated ideas will ensure you are on the right path.

Starting small will ensure success in the bigger perspective. Knowing you are doing the right thing, will help you do it right. No vision is too big to start with a simple prototype.

Credit to Joakim Norman, Senior Visual Designer, for the amazing illustrations


  1. Snowden, David J.; Boone, Mary E. (November 2007). "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making". Harvard Business Review, 69–76.
  2. Simon Sinek TED Talk