10 digital design principles to help UK charities build #BetterDigitalServices

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A card-sorting exercise at one of the digital design principles workshops

Doing good digital service delivery is hard. It’s often less about the technology and more about the principles through which it’s applied. For charities new to doing digital service delivery, learning what these principles are is a challenge. They have to learn to balance user-centred service design, agile software management, ethics and security.

There are good programmes and agencies out there that support charities to do this (including our own programmes like Fuse and the Digital Fellowship). But these can only ever help a small number of organisations. Beyond this there are thousands of other charities who are trying to learn how to build and run digital services — with very little time and very little resource. CAST’s ongoing mission is how to change this and make the digital revolution open to all charities.

We’ve learnt that one thing that can help charities to create digital services is design principles. We met and interviewed individuals who were leading digital transformation in charities and funding organisations. They told us they regularly used design principles to communicate how things like user research, an agile and iterative approach or open source could improve their charities’ digital services. Some of these concepts are relatively new to charities, and team buy-in can be a challenge. Elsewhere, individuals in charities or funding organisations who were new to the area talked about the value they’d gained from finding design principles that helped them know if they were on the right track. However, the principles we found people using were a hotchpotch, cobbled together from things like the Government Digital Service (GDS) Principles and maxims from startup literature, such as ‘test and learn’.

This patchwork approach had two problems:

  • There was a lot of duplicated effort from experienced people who were all doing the same thing
  • There were a lot of inexperienced people who didn’t know where to start.

We researched and drew together existing sets of principles from both the public sector (such as the GDS principles) and international development (for example digitalprinciples.org). However, in testing these with charities and funders we found that while they contained excellent insight and guidance, a single set didn’t quite fit with the context UK charities were working in.

So we facilitated a process, building on these existing principles, to develop a set suitable for those working in the UK charity sector. This involved interviews and workshops with over 50 different UK charities, grant-makers and agencies, ranging from household names to small organisations.

Together, we drew up a set of 10 design principles to help charities deliver digital services. Some of these you may recognise from the existing sets that are already out there. Some may be new to you.

Version one of the full list of digital design principles, created by and for the UK charity sector

However, we haven’t stopped with just creating a list of principles. We know from our research that principles alone aren’t enough. To make a difference, principles need to be backed up with practical tools that help organisations put them into action, and case studies that show how they’ve been effective. That’s why on the new website we’ve created lists of dozens of tools, along with checklists and a number of case studies from large and small charities.

Take a look at betterdigital.services and explore some of the different scenarios.

This doesn’t stop here. It’s just the first version of the principles, and we’d love your feedback on them — what works or doesn’t work, based on your experience?

Equally we’re interested in hearing your stories about how you’ve used these principles to create better outcomes for your service users. If you have a story of digital service design that embodies one of the 10 principles, submit it to principles@wearecast.org.uk.

The Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology — upskilling and upscaling social sector organisations to use technology for accelerated social change.

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