What Every Non-Profit Can Learn from UX Design: Part 1

Part 1 in a series on how to incorporate user-centered design into social sector work

About five months ago, I left a beloved role as Director of Education & Community Engagement at a symphony orchestra to pursue a fellowship in User Experience Design at General Assembly, a career changing 3-month immersive course. With no tech background, very little graphic design experience, and only a rudimentary understanding of design thinking, it’s safe to say that I was going into an entirely new field of study.

But I wasn’t completely unprepared — I had experience designing large-scale programs that met direct needs from the community — and I wanted to learn how to do this work more efficiently. I wanted to decrease the risk of failure for my programs, provide community members with a more positive overall experience, and figure out better ways of communicating the story. And I wanted to explore the relationship between online and offline community engagement for long-term organizational success.

Over the next five days, I’ll explore 5 attributes of UX Design methodology and how they might help to improve your work within the social sector. I’m writing these as we go, so please comment or drop me a line, especially if you disagree. I’d love for this to be an iterative conversation that helps to advance our work in service design. At the end of the day, we want to accomplish the same thing: highly impactful work that better serves our community.

We both advocate for the users

In my past work, I often jumped directly to creating a solution before really digging in to better understand the root problem. It’s not enough, really, to know about a need in the community and then apply industry standards to design a program around it.

For example, just because we think we need more girls in STEM and online coding programs seem to be working in other places, this doesn’t mean that the 8th graders in my neighborhood are going to embrace Khan Academy. It might seem like an obvious solution for the local 13-year-olds in my area but…what if the real problem is that they don’t have reliable access to computers? With this approach, we’ve only provided a band-aid solution for what we thought was the root problem, only we created an additional resource challenge for ourselves.

I’m guilty of this approach. I often felt pressured to fix problems as quickly as possible — I thought it was my job to have the answer for everything, “putting out fires before they begin”. This process might be well-intentioned but often left me with these common mistakes: potential for disagreement with stakeholders, lack of buy-in from community members, and misalignment with external funding. These are significant problems that, when occurring repeatedly, can lead to major overall inefficiencies in organizational operations.

For example, if I suddenly had the opportunity to apply for an exclusive grant targeting early education amongst low-income families and I just happened to work for an organization that specialized in alternative therapies for children with autism, I might immediately begin “brainstorming” a new program. I might consider all of the project ideas that have been swimming around my head for 2 years.

I might reach out to my grants manager to get his feedback on the funder’s preferences. Then I might do a little bit of online research to find report statistics from the Pew Research Institute or recent Census data, then align them with my new program’s mission.

This could work. It also comes from a heartfelt place. After all, we just want to help the people we serve.

Like non-profit program management, UX fundamentally advocates for the people who actually use their services. This type of user-centered design focuses on their pain and pleasure points, aiming to make things clear, communicative, accessible, and delightful (hat tip: Abby the IA). This supersedes business goals, profit, and sales — it’s based on the belief that these things come with great UX. I believe the same applies to service design.

So, how do we do it?

Start with a hypothesis, not an answer

If you immediately jump into creating a solution for your community’s problem, then you’ve already stopped listening to your community. Take a step back — it will save you time and money later because the thing that always holds us back is the realization, down the road, that we didn’t ask the right questions soon enough. If you truly think you have a good idea, fine. Reframe it as a hypothesis which you have yet to validate. If you’re right, then awesome. But if you’re wrong, even just 35% wrong about your program’s design, then that’s 35% more efficiency that you can buy for the success of your program. It’s worth it.

Allow yourself to discover the problem

You’re probably familiar with Toyota’s famous ‘5 Whys’ method, an iterative questioning technique used to find the root cause of a problem. Essentially, you ask each other “why” until you come across a universally recognized understanding of the core problem. The thing to remember about the 5 Whys is that you have to move beyond human error — this is the mistake that most people make in identifying problems and exactly why the 5 Whys method is so powerful. Don’t stop with human error.

With service design, human error might refer to a demographic’s lack of knowledge about a subject or a flaw within a program’s delivery due to misguided training. Either way, your evaluation process has to move beyond these issues. Keep asking why and keep practicing it with others. This exercise absolutely cannot be done alone or even in very small groups.

Put a limit on your internal brainstorming sessions

Don’t get me wrong, I love whiteboards and colorful post-its as much as the next person. But when most of this work gets done behind closed doors, the only ideas represented tend to come from managers and stakeholders.

If you’re designing a program that you want people to use to its fullest extent, you’ll need to revisit your understanding of their needs over and over again. In many ways, you’re not a program manager — you’re a facilitator. The perfect solution won’t come from inside your head alone. And more importantly, the people, foundations, and corporations supporting your work don’t want that, either.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about user research.


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