A Crash Course in Design Thinking for Nonprofits (part 1 of 3)

Part One

Design thinking reminds me of one of my favorite childhood games, Othello, because it was advertised as ‘a minute to learn, a lifetime to master’. I mention this because the principals are simple and perhaps familiar to those who have worked in strategy and marketing but perfection is an ever attainable goal. That is because us humans are complicated, which I will continue to discuss, and is ultimately why we need to integrate design thinking into the social service sector.

Challenge: Both you and those you serve see the world through different bubbles

Challenge: Both you and those you serve see the world through different bubbles

Bubble Trouble

We need design thinking (aka. user-centered design) because we are human. As humans we each carry around our own understanding of the world and make assumptions based on them (you may reference your recent family holiday gatherings for an example of how humans misinterpret each other). When we get into nonprofit work these complexities become even more apparent – think of a complex, human, reoccurring problem that you face at your organization. How have you tried to solve it? With data? Data can give us answers to what people have done in the past, but it can be hard to use to plan a new future. With surveys? Surveys can only tell us what people are conscious of and what we think to ask. How do you reach out to a new audience for your museum when you don’t even know who they are? How do you engage an under-served community when you can never fully empathize with their struggles? How do you convince a potential donor that your cause should be their priority? These are the types of questions that we need a user-centered process for, to get into people’s minds and motivations, past our assumptions, and beyond the known.

The 5 steps of design thinking

The 5 steps of design thinking

5 Steps

Above are the 5 main steps for the process of design thinking. You may see these laid out in a variety of ways as organizations customize design thinking into their own processes, but these are the 5 steps that came out of the Stanford School of Design, where much of thinking originated from. I’ll describe the steps below, and in following posts, with some examples to help you better understand.

The first two steps are Empathy and Define, and they go hand in hand. With the Empathy step, we gather as much information as we can on the challenge today from the perspective of people involved in the challenge. One-on-one or focus group style interviews are typically conducted, but additional tools such as observation or immersion can help us better understand how someone might experience our services. ‘Why’ is an important question to ask over and over during this process to better understand people’s perspectives and the root of the challenge. Next, we Define the challenge. This starts by representing the information gathered in the Empathy phase through various tools such as personas, experience maps, and other visuals. These tools help make the information more concrete and allows us to more easily retain that information as we move forward in the process. This step ends with re-defining the challenge with a ‘How might we…’ statement, a statement that takes a look at the challenge through the eyes of the user.

A graphic representing the touch points one high-need patient experienced over 2 months

A graphic representing the touch points one high-need patient experienced over 2 months

Re-framing the Challenge

Take this example (referenced in the book Design Thinking for the Greater Good); Monash medical center was struggling with a reoccurring problem of extreme patients with physical, mental, and substance abuse challenges returning to the emergency room. They wanted to find out how they could offer these patients better care so that they would be able to improve their overall health. By starting with the Empathy phase, they interviewed and created experience maps of some of these patients. In speaking with one patient, who was referred after a recent suicide attempt, about his experience the real problem became clear. In a matter of two months, he had seen 13 different case managers, had 18 hand offs, and had 70 touch points at the hospital (represented in the visual above). Not only did this complicate his treatment, but the paperwork to process all of these visits was overwhelming for the clinicians behind the scenes. The challenge they needed to solve for was not about the quality of the care, they needed to redefine it to “How might we reduce the complexity of the experience?”.

Staying User-Centered

As you can see, the Empathy and Define part of the process help us stay centered on the people that your organization serves before coming up with solutions to the challenges. In design thinking, we do our best to understand where these people are coming from to discover where there are setbacks that keep us from making a bigger impact. My future posts will address how we continue to keep the user-perspective centered throughout the Ideation, Prototyping, and Testing steps - and, in this way, help you stay focused on your mission throughout the entire process.

Questions? Reach out at emily@teenybig.com.