Part 2 in a series on how to incorporate user-centered design into social sector work. Click here for Part 1.

After developing a hypothesis -- what you think the root problem & potential solution might be -- the next step is to gather information about your user base. Your goal is to better understand the hypothesis through a process of discovery, using a variety of design tools. Namely, you want to validate your hypothesis through better understanding the complete experience of your community when it comes into contact with your service. Much of this is found by learning the pain points, pleasure points, behaviors, and contexts within those being served. We'll go into more detail on this, below.

The Brief

Let's build upon an example from Part 1 in this series: let's say, hypothetically, that I'm a Program Manager at an educational non-profit in, say, Scranton, Pennsylvania*, and I want to help increase the participation of 8th grade girls in coding programs. I've been working with this turnaround school for three years and although grades have improved in other subjects, STEM-related test results are still low, especially amongst girls. I just learned from a program officer at a local family foundation about a $10,000 grant with an application due in two months. Their most recent awards have been granted to schools and mid-size non-profit partnerships, sitting in the $5,000 - $7,500 range. I'd like to apply for equipment & materials to establish a new after-school coding program at the school.

Assume You Know Nothing

Remember, my best approach is to put on my social anthropologist hat and pretend that I know nothing about the community being served. Even if I've worked within the school for three years, I've made assumptions about the things that I don't understand, especially things that I've seen fail. I can't let this cloud my judgment or my work. I'm going to start at the beginning, by listening.

Go Out Into the Field

People are really bad at self-reporting, which is why we can't rely on surveys or market research to reveal how they really feel about things. It's much more effective to observe their behaviors and collect qualitative/quantitative information about how they actually spend their time, as well as the thoughts that go through their minds within the moment.

Remember, we don't just want to hit demographic targets or ticket sales -- we want to leave people with life-changing, impactful experiences. Therefore, like UX, we have to design programs around the complete, beginning-to-end experience of our community members. To do this, we have to get out of the office (and yes, I realize that in Scranton, PA, this is definitely a pun).

Contextual Inquiry: This Is Your Survey

One of my favorite UX tools is contextual inquiry, which is like a very concentrated form of field research. Also, it's cheap. All you need to get started is a notepad and writing utensil, a place where your community members convene, and an open, observant mind. Then plant yourself in that spot and write down everything you observe. Describe the people you see, what they're wearing, how often they look at their mobile phones, who they talk to, what kind of language they use, how much time they spend -- doing what -- within the space. Don't intervene yet and don't assume you know any of these things. Just observe...and write it down. Pretend that you're an alien visiting a new planet and everything is new to you -- be that open. 

After doing that for a little while, find someone to talk to, preferably someone who might be directly involved with your program. In this case, if legally permissible, talk to one of the 8th grade girls. Ask only a few questions, even ones that might sound really dumb -- like, 'what were you doing right before you came to cafeteria?' or 'What made you want to come to the cafeteria?'. Then listen to everything she says, even if you think she's gone off on a tangent and not directly addressing your hypothesis. What you learn may bring you valuable insight and, through practice, you'll learn how to improve this type of interviewing skill. Do this even if you watched her come to to the cafeteria and, obviously, people come there to eat. Again, you're an alien, you know nothing -- your job is to listen, observe, and report back to the mother ship.

Find Out Who All the Key Players Are (They May Surprise You)

But don't stop there. Think about all of the other people coming into the space, how much time they spend there, what their roles are, and how their presence impacts the girls. Listen -- don't just talk to -- the janitor. Listen to the kitchen staff. Listen to the teachers. Listen & observe the librarian in the corner who has been volunteering her unpaid time to distribute books to parents after school. She's a wealth of information.

When I worked at the symphony orchestra, I organized a lot of kids concerts in elementary school cafeterias. Because most of these spaces were multi-purpose, quite a few logistics went into coordinating the events. Once, I had to wait for the ping pong club to finish meeting and help them break down the ping pong tables before I could begin setting up my equipment. Another time, all of the nearby parking lots were full due to midterm elections, which took place in the same room!

In each of these situations, it was the janitors who really knew what was going on in the space. In a way, they held the psychological power and in order to get anything done, I needed to work with them. Not the principal, not the teachers, not even the students -- the janitors. I learned my lesson through direct experience but the same thing could have been gleaned from some thoughtful school visits and contextual inquiries.

Find Out What Motivates Them, Brain-Dump Style

It's one thing to know who the key players are, but it's another thing entirely to understand what motivates them. You can do this by trying to identify what their pain points, pleasure points, behaviors, and contexts are. UX designers talk about this all the time. I think this is also the step that differentiates designers from anthropologists and other social scientists -- they don't just want to observe the people, they want to create something for them. So do you.

UX designers use a lot of tools and they don't repeat the same process every time. Rather, a good designer will have a variety of tried and true methods hiding in her tool belt, to be used whenever appropriate. One super-reliable tool is the Four Lists Method, taught at GA by Luke Miller. Essentially, you ask a person to make four unique lists in response to a specific scenario, each one focusing on either, you guessed it, pain points, pleasure points, behaviors, and contexts.

In this case, let's imagine that you're sitting down with an 8th grade female student and want to learn about her typical day. Don't just ask about her [lack of interest] in coding -- find out what she cares about, in general. Give her one sheet at a time and set an alarm for 10 minutes each, then ask her to just write down all of the words, stories, phrases, and anecdotes that come to mind when she thinks about "school" and Pleasure (she might giggle over that word -- it's okay. Most people do). Next, apply the same to Pain points. Move onto Contexts, focusing on times and places (where & when has she been today?). Follow that with Behaviors, focusing on verbs and actions. The order of lists can certainly be switched around, depending upon the audience and your own interviewing style. It's up to you -- experiment and find out what works best.

After you've finished, take a look at the lists and start asking questions, then listen closely. Look for natural connections and draw insight from her responses, including body language. If you'd like, draw a mini mind-map to visualize the connections or sketch some images, but don't focus on the analysis just yet. For now, you're seeking clarification on the list items (many will need more context to understand) and any major, emotional connections between the different lists. 

Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Why? Why?

Essentially, you want to discover what the student has been trying to accomplish throughout the day -- what is it that she is trying to do? Why? What is preventing her from doing it? What is aiding her? Who is helping her? Who is making it difficult? What has she tried in the past? When did she give up? What would it take for her to try again?

These are all questions you'd like to understand more clearly. There are no wrong answers but there are a lot of bad questions. Your best bet is to refrain from asking anything that sounds like causation; let the interviewee guide you. Stick with just: who, what, where, when, and, most importantly, why. Here's a terrific starter guide from Johns Hopkins on qualitative interviewing techniques.

Allow Yourself to Be Surprised

Regardless of how much time you've already spent within the space, if you aren't surprised by an observation at least once during your interactions, you aren't asking the right questions. Or you aren't looking closely enough. 

Once, when I was launching a new music integration program within a local elementary school's kindergarten classrooms, I didn't realize until two months into the program that the teachers weren't confident about their own lack of musical ability. These were classroom, non-arts teachers, and I had just assumed that they would feel comfortable jumping into basic music lessons with 8-key glockenspiels and simple drumming. I had completely overlooked their need to overcome the initial fear of making music with their hands, something that I, as a musician, took for granted.

After spending a few months in the classroom, I noticed that the students had a natural interest in singing -- they did it all the time, making up songs and lyrics. But being an open-plan school with few walls, any instruments being introduced had to be gentle, pleasant (most are not, especially in the beginning!), and light-sounding. So, I asked if they might be interested in ukulele lessons, a simple beginner instrument which also happens to be terrific in leading group singing. 

After only a few months, I was amazed to see the teachers grow not only in their musical confidence but their team building skills with each other. The lessons became a weekly opportunity to come together and learn something new, from the very basics, just like their students were experiencing with numbers and letters. In fact, one of the most rewarding insights that we gained was the value that students placed in seeing their teachers struggle to learn something new. This seemed to bring the students just a little closer to their teachers and helped to encourage a safe learning environment. A mutual empathy grew out of the experience -- it was a beautiful thing to watch.

I mention the story above for a few reasons:

  • The lessons weren't originally part of our project plan or timeline but became a realistic need through observation.
  • We gained valuable insight about mutual empathy in the learning process. This is actually an important aspect of music education, in general, as musicians are constantly learning from each other.
  • Rather than taking months to develop, a thorough contextual inquiry and interviews with the teachers could have gleaned this insight more quickly. If I could go back and run this program again, this is exactly where I would begin.

Take Lots of Pictures

Always take way more pictures than you think you need. Document everything. These will not only help you remember what happened -- they will serve as a powerful tool for communicating your design process and decisions to others, especially stakeholders. I like to take a gazillion pictures and then dump them into a single folder, organized by date or activity. This way, I can always refer back to the photos and use whatever I need, in whichever context. 

If appropriate, ask someone to take video or audio recordings of the process, especially interviews. This isn't always possible, especially in a school setting, but can be incredibly valuable. It also helps to cut down on the need for note taking.

*NOTE: I've never been to Scranton, so this is truly what I might do to approach to this brief. Also, my apologies to Scranton, if the assumptions seem off-base. I can assure you that this article is well-intentioned!


This is an introductory series about UX design for non-profit & social sector audiences. I’ll introduce concepts and resources gently but don’t hesitate to contact me or comment. Essentially, I'm looking back at the work I've done and thinking about how I could do things better through design thinking. 
I hope you'll be part of the conversation.

AuthorRose Kue