What on earth does design thinking have to do with nonprofits?

Throughout my experience in product design, there has been a misconception of the word ‘design’. Often people think of it as ‘making something look cool’, such as the latest new water bottle. What it is really about is paying attention to what motivates humans; whether that is making something ‘easier on the eye’, more comfortable to use or just plain simple for someone to fit into their lives. Design thinking is the process of discovering those human motivators and find solutions for them. Who wouldn’t want that?!

Design thinking has been used in for-profit organizations to help find solutions for consumers needs in order to sell more products, but the human-centered approach of this process is easily adapted to the social sector to find authentic and engaging ways to improve services. At the core of the process is understanding and empathizing with the people you are serving to discover their unmet needs- said and unsaid- from your services, a simple concept that can go a long way in improving the impact of your organization.

A classic example of design thinking for nonprofits comes from Pillsbury United Communities. In the Minneapolis area, they were struggling with an underutilization of the WIC program in neighborhoods where 65% of residents were receiving food assistance and 50% on Medicaid. The organization started the process of redesigning their programs by conducting user-centered empathy interviews with WIC users to uncover why they weren’t getting health and wellness services the needed. This did not just include one on one interviews, the team also immersed themselves in their experiences- including taking the bus to get stamps, another bus to the grocery store and embarrassing experiences at the checkout- things users may never admit to in a survey. They started to understand the struggles WIC users faced in transit, juggling kids and understanding what complied with the WIC system. These experiences made them realize they were not looking at the problem correctly and instead asked “how are we as an organization solving for the right problem?". By bringing these challenges into a collaborative workshop they were able to develop creative and innovative solutions that rethought how they delivered services. One big idea that came out of it was the mobile WIC grocery store. They followed another part of the design thinking process, prototyping, and mocked up the store with chairs and shelves- then tested the prototype with users to get reactions and make improvements. As with any challenge, the team ran into logistical roadblocks, but rather than give up they went back and asked if there was something larger they can solve for in the community based on everything they had learned through the design thinking process? The next big idea that came out was North Market, a holistic grocery store embedded with wellness services and community building opportunities- a concept that is moving forward with partnerships from General Mills, Cargill and other nonprofits in the Minneapolis area. Check out this moving speech by Adair Mosley, of Pillsbury United Communities for more in-depth information on how design thinking helped, as he eloquently puts it, find an equitable solution for a complex problem.

Understand, ideate, test. These are all the basic principles of design thinking, whether we are improving a water bottle or finding a more equitable way to deliver nutrition to those who need it. By experiencing and discovering the true challenges people face, we are able to find and test solutions for the right problem, not what we assume is the problem. At teenyBIG, we believe these teeny insights will help you discover the big impact your organization is meant to make.