What on Earth Does Design Thinking Have to Do with Nonprofits?

03/23/2018 2:30 PM | Anonymous

By ACN member Emily Taylor
Principal, teenyBIG

To many, the word design means nothing more than making the latest sports car or water bottle “look cool.” But design goes so much deeper than aesthetics: It considers human need.

Design Thinking Begins With Empathy

Companies have long followed a process to design products that meet human needs for comfort, convenience, ease-of-use. This process, now commonly known as “design-thinking,” begins with empathy for the user’s experience. Nonprofits can adopt the same process to better design programs for the people they serve.

As I talk to those in the social sector, I find people who are passionate and knowledgeable about what they do but who have yet to step back and thoroughly examine their work through the eyes of their clients or supporters. With all the pressures that nonprofits face to do more with less, it is understandable that this important undertaking often falls through the cracks. But making the effort to conduct “empathy interviews” with your clients and supporters will help your organization understand how to make your work far more effective.

An empathy interview, the first step in design-thinking, differs from a standard interview in that it must be designed to challenge your assumptions. For instance, one of my current clients is having difficulty recruiting volunteers to fill board and other leadership positions. Their assumption is that people no longer have time to volunteer in their community. My job is to interview a variety of people who volunteer to find out why they do make the time as well as people who don’t volunteer to find out if the lack of time is what really keeps them from engaging. The learnings that come from these interviews will go a long way in reframing who the client need to recruit and how they can more effectively engage the interest of potential volunteers.

How One Organization’s Empathy-Driven Insights Led to Better Solutions

Pillsbury United Communities in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is an example of a nonprofit that took empathy to another level in an effort to understand its community. The state health department had asked Pillsbury to figure out why the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) was so greatly underused by eligible families and propose a solution.

In addition to conducting one-on-one interviews with parents eligible for WIC, the Pillsbury team immersed themselves in the WIC users’ experiences. They rode along with them on the bus to get WIC vouchers and then on another bus to get groceries with small children in tow. They witnessed parents’embarrassment at the checkout counter when they discovered they had selected products that weren’t covered by WIC. These empathy-driven insights led them to reframe the problem they were trying to solve. Rather than figuring out how to get families to better utilize the WIC program, they began to consider how the WIC program might better fit families’ lives.

You May Need to Reframe the Problem

In my work, I find this reframing of the problem to be the most exciting but challenging part of the design process. Organizations sometimes resist redefining a problem in which they have invested a lot of time and money to solve. But when a design team can see, hear, and empathize with the experiences of those they serve through observation, a video, photograph, or a compelling story – the passion it can ignite in a team to find a better solution is astounding.

Brainstorm Solutions, Prototype, Test

Once the Pillsbury team defined their challenge, they began the next phase of the design-process— ideation—and brainstormed creative ways to redesign the WIC experience. After some trial-and-error they hit on a big idea: why not build a holistic WIC grocery store in North Minneapolis? The underserved community had high obesity rates, low life expectancies and little access to fresh produce. The store would offer not only healthy, affordable food but a health clinic, healthy cooking classes, and wellness events and services. They were able to create quick prototypes to get further feedback from their users and partners as they developed the concept.

Through small steps of prototyping and testing, the big idea took off, attracting partnerships with General Mills, Cargill and other nonprofits in the Minneapolis area. North Market opened in North Minneapolis in late 2017. Check out this moving speech by Adair Mosley, of Pillsbury United Communities to hear first-hand how design-thinking helped, as he eloquently puts it, “find an equitable solution for a complex problem.”

Empathize with your user, ideate, prototype, test. These are the steps in design-thinking, whether redesigning a water bottle, recruiting volunteers or finding a more equitable way to provide nutritious food to those in need. By discovering the true challenges people face, nonprofits are able to find and test solutions to the right problems.

Emily Taylor is a former product designer and now principal at teenyBIG, which uses design thinking to help non-profits make small changes with big impact. Visit her website at teenyBIG.com.

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