Digital design principles for the UK charity sector

Digital Design Principles workshop

Written by Kieron Kirkland, Director and Co-Founder at CAST

There are over 165,000 charities in the UK. Some of these are already doing amazing things with digital service delivery. But many are just starting their journey.

At CAST we run a number of hands on product development programmes for charities to help them research, design and test new digital services. But we’re just one small organisation working in a very large sector. So we’ve been trying to understand what can be done to support sector change at scale.

One of the things that has come up recently in our research with charities and funders is the role of digital design principles. For charities just starting out, they can be a useful checklist to make sure they are developing digital services in the right way. For charities already running digital services, they can be useful to communicate to key stakeholders (including trustees) how digital services should be run across the organisation. For funders, these principles can be useful to support charities they are funding, as well as providing guidance on what to look for when assessing applications.

There are some great sets of design principles out there, both in government (for example, from the Government Digital Service18fGovernment of Canada), and in international development (Principles for Digital DevelopmentAlidade). But what we’ve found through our research is that for UK charities already developing digital services, not all of them align with their work, so they end up picking and choosing or writing their own. Equally for charities starting out with digital service delivery, deciding which principles to follow can be overwhelming when they don’t have the expertise to choose.

These two challenges mean we’ve been facilitating a process to develop digital design principles for charities in the UK.

So far that’s involved workshops and interviews with charities of all sizes, as well as with funders and other sector organisations, to explore if and how principles could be useful. Here’s four key things we’ve learnt:

  1. Charities who are already developing digital services often adapt digital design principles to their own context. However, there are some core principles that are consistent across different organisations.
  2. For charities or funders who are starting out, an accessible set of starter principles is very welcome as they don’t have the expertise to pick a bespoke set.
  3. Digital design principles are currently best shared through people. Even when organisations are already using a set of principles, these are socialised and shared through personal relationships and stories.
  4. High level principles need to be backed up with case studies of how they’ve been used to support the charity, and to enable positive outcomes for the service users they work with.

The first draft

Through desk research, 1–1 interviews and a workshop of sector digital experts, we’ve pulled together a first draft long list of digital design principles for UK charities. We openly share them here for constructive feedback and thoughts.

There are two things to emphasise.

Firstly, this is very much the first draft of a long list. We are just a few weeks in to the work and will be further refining the long list over the coming weeks with more input from people in the sector.

Secondly, we think that for principles to be most useful, no organisation should own them. So our approach has been to work with the great thinking that’s out there already — by bringing together existing digital design principles — then facilitating a process where those in the sector prioritise and identify those which they feel are most effective.

The long list so far:

  1. Research your user’s needs
  2. Build digital services not websites
  3. Be iterative — test and learn
  4. Look at existing tools first, to see if you can reuse them
  5. Work in partnership and collaborate
  6. Pay attention to privacy and security
  7. Build for sustainability
  8. Understand the existing ecosystem
  9. Design for scale
  10. Do the hard work to make it simple
  11. Plan for failure
  12. Build the right team
  13. Design with data
  14. Be inclusive and provide the right support for people who need it
  15. Where appropriate, use open data and open source software
  16. Spend money wisely.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these principles. We’re running a London workshop for funders and charities interested in this work on 28th March.

This article was originally published here and was reposted with permission.


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