What comes to mind when you think about start-ups? Openness, flexibility, innovative, disruptive, risk taking, experimental with the use of technology, a great user experience?

Now, what about charities or not-for-profits? Do the same characteristics come to mind? And if not, why might this be the case?

You might be surprised to know that more and more charities are rethinking the way they’ve been doing things. And much of this rethink involves technology. It’s important that design thinking is part of the way charities reimagine their work and who they work for, or much of this effort will be wasted.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is all about inclusion. It’s about actively involving those who will use a service in the very early stages of consultation through to the testing of prototypes, and evaluation. For charities and non-profits, the users may include staff, current service users, their families and support networks, donors, and those the organisation hopes to reach and inform.

There is much that can be learned from the private sector, especially start-ups, in terms of successfully designing technology for the third sector. Being open to change and the potential for its positive effects is one characteristic that defines a start-up. But so too is a culture of risk-taking, new ideas, research, consultation, and an attitude of trial-and-error-and-try-again. Many start-ups create an environment where they give themselves permission to experiment. Much of this behaviour is interwoven with technology and the way it can improve lives and add value to a service or product.

Need first, technology second

One thing many start-ups know is that the need comes first, and from that point the technology follows. People need to understand how a new piece of technology will add value to their lives or why would they bother? And for that technology to even have a look-in with many potential users it must be user-friendly on all counts. A design thinking approach will ensure this happens through involving the people who they are designing the technology for. Right from the start.

It’s just about matching those who can, with those who need. Being open to this is critical.

For charities to turn to the benefits of technology and consider how this might enhance their business, their organisational mission is the starting point. Why do they exist? And who do they serve? How are they trying to make an impact in the world? These are very basic questions, but absolutely fundamental to making sure technology is designed to work for them in the best way possible.

One size does not fit all

Many charities have target groups where there is a lower take-up of technology. This needs to be considered when thinking about designing technology into their business. For example, older users may not use technology in the same way as say, 18-25 year olds. Older users may be intimidated or overwhelmed by technology. Or if they’re willing to try, are quickly put off by user interfaces that have not been designed for their needs.

Recently I tried to convince my mother to use online shopping as a way to reduce the heavy work of going to the supermarket herself. My younger, early adopter attitude thought it was a no-brainer. Why wasn’t she doing this already, I asked. I cajoled her into giving it a try with me as her guide.

To my surprise, the online supermarket websites we tried were horrible. My mother was viewing them on a tablet and yet readability was poor, which is not great when you consider that an increasing number of adults in countries like the USA, Australia, and the UK own a tablet, and of these a significant proportion of 50-64 years olds (37%), and 32% of over 65 year olds own a tablet. The report quoted here shows that the over 55 year old age bracket’s ownership and use of tablets is skyrocketing. In the UK this jumped from 1% in 2011 to 37% in 2015.

Matt Hancock, Minister for Digital and Culture, showing his support for Get Online Week.

What I learned was the supermarket websites were not designed to be read on handheld devices so the interface was tiny and cumbersome. Neither of us could read the text without zooming right in, and that wasn’t straight forward either. The product images were tiny and couldn’t be enlarged. Navigating the shopping process through the website was not intuitive, to me, or my mother. We both just stared at each other in disbelief. Me, because I couldn’t believe something could be so badly designed without the involvement (I am assuming) of a key user demographic of this service – older people. My mother, because sadly, it just confirmed all her thoughts about technology. In this case, difficult to navigate, frustrating, and frankly, she couldn’t see the value. We aborted the idea within about 20 minutes of trying.

Now, to be clear, my supermarket example is not about a charity and its use of technology. But it does highlight some of the issues of designing technology in a way that puts the target user at the very centre of the design process. Who will be using this app and why? How will it improve things for the target user/s and employees of the charity? Essentially, why would they bother?

Make no assumptions

Assumptions are funny things. We probably make them daily and think little of their consequences. But imagine this. You’re designing a wifi dependent service for a charity and a key user group lives in a regional or remote area. With a city mindset, there seems to be no apparent problem. However, anyone who has spent time outside of large cities in developed countries like the UK, Australia, Canada or the USA will understand that, right there, a huge assumption has been made in the design process. And possibly, key user groups were not involved in the beginning (or any stage) of the product or service development. To put it simply, wifi is patchy or non-existent outside of large metropolitan cities. Even now in 2017. Astounding maybe, but true.

Fortunately, some are getting this right. And the third sector will reap the benefits. For this we can all be thankful that design thinking underpinned how they came to be.

Not-for-Profit technology innovators

Slowly things are starting to change. Innovative programs and initiatives are being developed and adopted by the not-for-profit sector. Here are a few examples:

iCOPE Digital Screening is an innovative digital platform that identifies mental health issues in pregnant women and new mothers. This initiative creates a more efficient and accurate screening practice. The platform supports multiples languages, offers tailored support for clients, and easily identifies service needs. So far, iCOPE is being used by public health providers in Australia.

Raising awareness of Motor Neurone Disease became a viral phenomenon in 2014 in the USA and then Australia with a captivating social media campaign focusing on the ice bucket challenge. The use of social media in this case, was so successful that it funded the largest ever grant to be awarded to the Motor Neurone Disease Research Institute of Australia’s Research Committee. The central user in the campaign, was the general public. By asking them to act (do the ice bucket challenge) and share this on social media, an enormous groundswell of public interest erupted.

The Road that Changed Everything is another example of a charity harnessing the power of social media to communicate their work.

Older users may be intimidated or overwhelmed by technology, or put off by user interfaces that have not been designed for their needs.

There are so many ways that charities can tap into design that works for them. For example, Design for Good has a list of resources highlighting those working to connect designers with the not-for-profit sector. Sometimes it’s just about matching those who can with those who need. But being open to this is critical.

Involve young innovators in leadership

Given the apparent low understanding of technology amongst charity leaders, getting this right is crucial to change. Recruiting younger members to charity boards in the way that Endometriosis UK have is one way to turn things around. Imagine the difference Claire Metcalfe could make if she was invited onto the board of a not-for-profit. Claire is an Australian high school student and an award winning designer of BlueyCheck, an asthmatic device for children. And rewarding and recognising organisations that are making a shift, such as through an annual event like the Australian Not-for-Profit Technology Awards, is a fantastic way to build awareness and momentum.

So who will be our future charity innovators? And how will they use design thinking to catapult them into an every changing technology centred world?

Keep the following in mind:

  • Need first, technology second
  • Design for the context – one size does not fit all
  • Push your assumptions aside and involve user groups in design
  • Include young innovators in leadership boards
  • There are others making the change, so jump on board!

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