The designer’s guide to working with charities


Written by Vala Petursdottir, Digital product and service designer at CAST.

Have you ever been in the position where you love your job and what you do but you’ve sometimes wished that the project you were working on had more meaning? Well, I certainly have.

Then when we finally get the chance to work on a project for a charity, for example, we find ourselves in a position where the agency and charity are not operating on the same rhythm. Often a charity’s work is applaudable, but it has a very old-school internal structure, and it just doesn’t seem to blend very smoothly with an agile agency working environment.

So it seems from the start we’re not really speaking the same language. This can happen with any client but it seems particularly apparent when working with a nonprofit organisation. Charities are addressing real problems that we would all love to help them with, but the collaboration is far from easy.

Remember the moment when you learned about user-centred design? Being able to use design skills to make services and experiences better for the people using them… I mean where do I sign up? Most services in the private sector have known about this for sometime now, and some charities know this and are doing it well, but the rest are lagging behind. There are thousands of overworked people in the charity sector closing their eyes to digital because they feel they don’t need yet another thing on their already endless to-do list. They’re missing out on small things that can be achieved. They need to become responsive organisations, but it’s not always simple to balance user needs with the social needs they’ve been set up to address.

We can’t just go up to charities and say that we will help and build some complicated digital product, hand it over and feel good about ourselves. We know that it takes a whole company to take care of a good digital product and a charity often doesn’t have the resources, time, or understanding of what’s needed. We need to ask questions before we start working if we want to create a viable and sustainable solution for them.

How about sharing what we know by teaching our ways of working, so that they understand why we do and make decisions the way we do? Imagine the charities using design methods in reaching out to their service users. I mean, is that not ten times more valuable than some app that will be floating around in the black hole of the App Store in a few months time?

I’ve recently joined a charity called Cast, which is transforming the nonprofit sector’s approach to digital service delivery by embedding these design methods into charities. Through working hands-on with hundreds of charities over the last three years, Cast has found that while they have excellent understanding of the complex issues they’re trying to solve, charities generally don’t have the “test and learn” culture of speaking to users directly, observing them in context, or making quick, cheap prototypes to test things out with them. We designers haven’t always been working in this way either but we know it’s a hell of a lot nicer than being micro-managed by some random client, because when we start making decisions based on real data and feedback, we know we’re on the right track and not just shooting an arrow in the dark.

Together with charities and funders, we’ve been working on a set of design principles to help them build better digital services that improve the lives of their service users. We recently hosted the launch of the first version, which you can check out at BetterDigital.Services. They include tasks like “start with user needs and keep them involved”, “build digital services not websites”, “build for sustainability” and “build the right team”. (That last principle, by the way, includes how charities work with designers and tech partners, and Cast has crowdsourced a document called a Conversation Menu to help these relationships be more productive.)

This is nothing new – we’ve all seen all sorts of principles before, but these are designed specifically for UK charities’ needs, language and practice. It’s a starting point for them so it doesn’t all seem so daunting.

They are a work in progress and we’ll be refining them over the coming months, so if you have any feedback or opinions please get in touch. We’d also love to hear stories of the design community using these principles in their work with charities, so if you have any, please send them to [email protected]. We hope it’s helpful for any of you that are looking into working more in this space; together I’m pretty sure we can make it better.

This article was originally published here.


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