Apple just promoted Jony Ive to Chief Design Officer. Johnson & JohnsonPepsi Co, and Philips Electronics have also recently elevated their Lead Designers to the C-Suite level. This has been a long time coming. Yes, design is having a moment. Once relegated to a component of marketing, design has grown to become a core product competency. It is now the driver behind product differentiation and marketing. Excellent, intuitive, interactive, seamless design is now at the core of the product.

What AppleJ & JPepsi, and so many other major companies are doing is catching up with the times, and validating what we’ve known all along, but found hard to quantify: design is in everything we do—beyond business or technology, we live in a designed world. From cities and roads to nature itself, we’ve had a hand in shaping our environment. From how we organize our communities to the ways we interact with each other, design is embedded in everything we do. If we do something today, someone thought it, and over many iterations arrived at what society is today.

Which is why considering the world through the lens of design is so relevant, vital even, to the way nonprofits can operate and communicate with their constituents successfully. Nonprofits are organizations that truly do want to help improve the world, but sometimes the way they frame their mission and present information fails to bridge the gap between what their constituents are looking for and the value the organization provides.

What about Design Thinking?

Putting people first. That’s often at the core of a nonprofit’s mission. But where and why does that message get lost?

Let's consider human-centered design principles when looking to solve a problem in a nonprofit environment.

Human-centered design stems from design thinking, which has been formalized into processes. At its core, design thinking aims to apply solution-focused creative thinking to resolve a problem. Sound familiar?

Design thinking is iterative and nimble, which foster discovery and flexibility that allow organizations to follow new paths and arrive at yet undiscovered solutions. When considering the application of these qualities to the world of nonprofit, design thinking principles can be a great asset to nonprofits susceptible to shifts in mission, vision, operations, and budget like so many are.

That is an altogether different process from today’s norm. So often organizations overwhelm their constituents by showcasing as much information as they can with disregard for how it will be consumed, what we like to call the “let’s throw everything at the wall and something will stick” approach, and it has an undermining effect. 

This approach often fails because the problem it’s aiming to solve hasn’t been properly defined and so a solution is not clearly available. It’s a top-down approach—constituents haven’t been part of the solution design. Instead, the solution came from the top based on what those governing the organization thought their users want.

With a top-down approach, the more information shared, the more likely it is that it’s irrelevant to most users. The result is a population of users blind to the mission of the company because nothing speaks to them. No one is engaged.

It is easy for budget-constrained nonprofits to dismiss aesthetic decisions as mere frivolity, but a well-designed interface makes all the difference between the product or cause being understandable and exciting, or too confusing to be a part of.
— Tabitha Yong, Khan Academy

The Human-Centered Approach

How can organizations combat this top-down decision-making process and engage their constituents with transformative solutions? Here’s an overview of design thinking processes and how they apply to nonprofits:

1.     Define the problem

Many nonprofits exist to solve a problem they are not fully aware of, and don’t necessarily understand what the best solution would be. This is congruent with design thinking in that the first step in designing a solution is always first understanding what the problem is. This is not always apparent, and exercises to discover and define the problem help to arrive at an impartial, objective solution that can be prioritized and measured.

2.    Research

Once the problem is defined, the focus becomes the people. How will those affected by the problem benefit from a solution? And what solution will most effectively impact that population? This is the mission-critical aspect of any nonprofit that gets clouded by lack of understanding of the needs of constituents and how they can apply the services and products provided by the organization. 

Design thinking addresses this issue by dedicating a whole phase of the process to identifying those needs. This is accomplished by talking to users, collecting examples of application, and researching possible solutions to the problem before arriving at a custom ideal.

3.    Ideation

Once all data is collected from users, it’s time to brainstorm ideas that will deliver the perfect solution. This is a time of creative thinking, of innovation. Organizations should ask themselves “based on what we know about the problem at hand and the population we are serving, what is the best possible solution for this problem?” By fostering an environment open to innovative and out-of-the-box thinking, organizations position themselves to design and develop unique solutions that speak to their users with specificity and authenticity.

4.    Prototyping

Coming out of ideation, this phase enables organizations to test, expand, and refine ideas. By utilizing prototypes as way to evaluate possible solutions, organizations are able to make quick and inexpensive decisions as to which will have a meaningful impact and are likely to be adopted by their users. Prototyping is key in helping to solve complex problems with unknown solution. For budget-conscious nonprofits, it can be the difference between failing early but inexpensively, or failing big and late, after budgets have been met and there's no room left for experimentation.

5.    Implementation

With a focus on uncovering unknowns up until this point, this phase is now about building the solution. Here, the work is to develop and polish the prototype. This is done by mobilizing stakeholders, assigning tasks, measuring progress, and remaining flexible to incorporate change and innovation into the already defined process.

6.    Testing

With a solution now developed and delivered, it is just as important to measure its impact. Tracking user data, interaction levels, bugs, and shortcomings will help organizations answer questions such as:

  • Are we solving the problem we set ourselves to solve?
  • Are the lives of our constituents better because of the services we provide?
  • Do our constituents enjoy interacting with our products?
  • Is this solution in alignment with our mission?
  • How can we continue to improve this solution?
  • Are there other needs that arise from solving this problem?

Having reliable data to answer such questions will increase the effectiveness of the solution and help draw the road map for the future of the organization. This is because information driving decisions is coming directly from users and constituents. In other words, people are the decision-drivers.
By putting emphasis on human-centered processes driven by empathy, organizations generate passion and goodwill from their constituents because everyone engaged feels they have a voice in the process. Empowering your users in such a way will make them advocates of your cause, and will equip decision-makers with the most reliable tools and metrics to develop the right solutions.