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

Part 3: Giving your ideas life, and taking it away if needed. {DIABOLICAL laughter}

A storyboard prototype of an interactive museum experience.

A storyboard prototype of an interactive museum experience.


Although design thinking is not meant to be linear – you can go back to any step at anytime – the ‘last’; steps bring a scientific method to the process, Prototype and Test. By bringing together our best hypothesized ideas to life, we can get feedback to test our assumptions and intuition BEFORE we invest a bunch of time and money into them. One caveat that I want to point out, nonprofit strategic and program changes are often not funded in a way that builds in room for testing before implementing an idea. This is starting to change so, depending on the funder, there may be an opportunity to build it into your grant application.

Prototyping in the nonprofit world can seem a bit obscure, how do you bring an entire program to life? You don’t need to - just focus on the most important elements of the idea that you can bring to life. The goal of a prototype is to get the most feedback with the least amount of time and resources. Depending on your ideas, there are various ways to bring it to life. The first task should be determining where the most pivotal moment of your new concept is and bringing it to life quickly. Does it happen in a location, like a waiting area? You can mock up a room and play out the parts of the service providers. Does it involve gathering information? You can mock up a form or fake website (using Power Point). Is it more complex? You can storyboard the ideal experience to walk someone through it. Prototype 3-5 ideas, then set up a day where participants can experience your prototype.


The important thing is to get honest feedback on how they are interpreting the information you give them. This could be through questions, such as “why did you choose that option?” or observations “you look confused, tell me what’s going through your mind right now.” As you test these prototypes with people, look for areas of improvement – is there a way to improve your mission through their experience with your idea? Obvious improvements can be made during testing so always be ready to print out a revised form prototype, etc. so that you can get the most feedback on your best ideas. If your your prototype is not giving you any improvement, fear not, you have still learned a lot and can always go back to ideating new ideas.

One other thing to keep in mind, the term ‘testing’ can have a bad reputation when it comes to nonprofit work. We need to be sensitive of the emotional state and resources of those you are serving at all times, and it may not be appropriate to share prototypes with them. Creativity may be able to still get you the information you need – think about sharing prototypes with a past participant or service provider who may be able to give some perspective where you need it.

Screenshots taken from this  VIDEO  by Age & Ability Lab

Screenshots taken from this VIDEO by Age & Ability Lab

An Example

At Kingwood Institute, a center for autism in the UK, they were trying to break free from the assumption that those with autism needed to be protected from themselves. Instead they looked to build a facility that allowed patients with autism to be their best. After interviewing patients, a design team  built some rough prototypes featuring different actions and activities that the patients enjoyed. Using these prototypes, the team co-designed interactive garden concepts with residents and caregivers, testing and revising them into spaces that residents could truly enjoy. The concrete nature of the prototypes allowed everyone to have more specific conversations about what was needed in the garden to achieve their goals.


Your testing may have revealed some successful ideas you can build into your organization to solve your challenge but they may also have given you more ideas. Maybe you came up short, but you discovered what didn’t work. This is where refinement comes in. Build on the ideas you tested or scrap them and start over based on what you learned from listening and observing people. Bring them back to the same people and see what they think or how they use it. The trick is to be nimble and keep improving your idea before you need to launch.

There you have it.

Design thinking allows us to look at complex problems in a human-centered way. By bringing in a wide variety of perspectives and redefining the challenge we are able to bring focus to a layered issue. Using the workshop, we can widen our thinking to make sure we are exploring the unexpected and solving the problem from multiple angles. By prototyping and testing, we are reducing our assumptions and risk as the ideas move forward. As I mentioned in the beginning, it takes time to get this process right. There may be resistance in an organization to think less linearly or ‘waste time’ in a prototyping phase. But each time we integrate some of design thinking in our process, we get closer and closer to understanding the best solutions to motivate people and how to do meaningful work that reaches them the first time.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about design thinking for nonprofits. Curious how this might apply to your organization? Reach out to me at emily@teenybig.com. Missed the first part of this series? Here are parts 1 and 2.