Guiding charities through digital service design

Written by Sam Sparrow, Operations and programmes lead, CAST

Over the the last two years at CAST we’ve been working intensively with 12 UK charities on our Fuse programme. Fuse is the world’s first technology accelerator for established nonprofits, working hands-on with organisations to build scalable, user-centred, digital services. We’ve learned a huge amount from a diverse group of charities, ranging from household names such as Breast Cancer Care and Action for Children to smaller organisations like Gingerbread and Advising London.

Here are four of our key learnings from working with charities on service design:

1. Charities too often start with the solution, not the problem

Charities exist to provide social value by responding to a particular societal issue, yet new programme and service development (digital or otherwise) tends to be driven by funding opportunities and organisational priorities, rather than by a deep understanding of the problem their service users are facing. While this is understandable, it means many charity services do not respond to clearly identified needs or behaviours, which means — despite best intentions — much of the potential social value of those services is lost.

Most charities come with the service they want to build already in mind. Through the accelerator we coach them to become user-centred and test-driven instead. Charities select a member of staff to be their ‘Fusilier’ on the programme, and the first stage of Fuse is supporting that individual to lead an in-depth discovery process — including five one-to-one detailed interviews with users every week. This enables us to find out users’ habits, needs and pain points, which then informs our assumptions of the problem we should focus on and what a suitable solution might be. We are simultaneously working with a growing number of funders that recognise the value of this approach to digital development.

“I had been pretty confident that I had a good grasp of what our services needed, from my privileged position as part of the digital team at head office working with the charity’s services team. How wrong I was. I very quickly became aware that actually I knew very little about what our services — and most importantly our service users — really want and need from us.” — Rachael Townley, Digital Services Manager, Action for Children

2. Charities need time to lay the groundwork for agile ways of working

Agile ways of working are often completely alien to a sector that has little room or resource to explore, test and learn — despite it being a great way to de-risk innovation. This is partly due to the way funding has traditionally worked, but on top of that, charities also face structural challenges that stop them from being truly responsive problem-solvers.

Governance structures such as long sign-off processes and quarterly trustee meetings simply don’t provide the speed of decision-making needed to rapidly iterate through the build-measure-learn cycle. In this environment, quick decisions are needed. Often in the first couple of months of designing a new product or service, both the problem and solution can shift quite dramatically — and we wouldn’t be accelerating service design if we had to wait three months for a decision. Most boards also lack the skills, experience and confidence to delegate a team to explore a problem area and be led by user needs. Trustees are used to being presented with fixed projects, budgets and outputs to sign off on, so working in a more responsive way is challenging.

On Fuse, we’ve learned to start setting these expectations early — often months before the organisations start working with us, and trustee engagement is now a key part of our application process to get on the programme. We also ask charities to have a senior sponsor and internal stakeholder group as part of the programme, who can clear paths internally and report up and back to trustees without them getting in the way of the project’s development.

3. For a new service to be sustainable, integration into the charity is key

It can be hard to be a charity intrapreneur, especially if you are trying to work against, and not with, the systems already in place. So a key part of Fuse is not only to develop a new digital service, but to start to change how each participating charity responds to user needs and develops technology in the future. In order to do that, we place just as much weight on integrating new digital approaches (and the new product/service itself) into the charity as we do in designing and building the new service.

This includes the engagement and buy-in of wider staff as referred to above, but also thinking about where the new service sits within the charity infrastructure. Answers to questions such as “who will run the service?”, “how will it be funded?”, “how will we continue to develop the service as it grows?” and most importantly “how does this impact the other services we run?” are all vital in ensuring the new service has a life beyond initial testing.

4. Charities can bring a lot to this process

In many ways, charities have an unfair advantage when it comes to creating scalable ‘tech for good’: they have unparallelled understanding of complex social challenges, established reach and networks, trusted relationships and infrastructure already in place. That’s a brilliant starting point. Most charities use software that already exists to deliver the new services they have designed — which makes them even easier to develop, grow and maintain without access to huge amounts of tech talent and money. And tech talent is an issue in the sector, which is why engaging so-called “technology novices” in the programme has been such a refreshing approach.

Because undoubtedly, the most important thing in charity service design is the renewed focus on the end users — and who is most passionate about servicing their needs most of all? The staff who work directly with them every day, whether they understand the digital landscape or not. This passion can then be easily harnessed to adopt best practice in user research and service design to develop better services for all.

“As an operations manager in various guises for the past 23 years, I was apprehensive about the world I’d been asked to dip into. I could manage large teams and make things happen but could I get to grips with this new approach to user testing and agile design? Even some of the terminology seemed alien to me, and I was scared that I’d appear to be a dinosaur.

“The time I’ve spent with the Fuse team has been a revelation. I’ve begun to aunderstand that ongoing and pervasive agile design, and the importance of embedding user insight into every stage of the process, are intrinsic in helping NCT to overcome immediate and more long term challenges and in enabling us to drive forward towards our goals over the next decade.” — Tamara Bavin, Parent Services Manager, NCT

We’re always keen to hear from charities about the challenges they face and how we can help overcome them. We’re opening our phone lines throughout May to hear about charities’ ambitions for digital, and in return we’ll provide support, expertise and connections. Where appropriate, we’ll also put organisations forward for a place on our new, funded Fuse for Smaller Charities digital accelerator programme, starting in July 2018 — join here.


Originally published at digileaders.com on May 4, 2018.