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Design in the hands of experts

main.jpgWe all love pulling our new phone out of its box, feeling the radiant glow as it turns on for the first time. Over time, we develop an intimate relationship with it; we give it plenty of attention, and, in return, it gets to know us so well it begins to predict our behavior. Sometimes we take for granted how much an electronic device knows us better than some friends or family members.

But how did its producers know what we needed? How did smart phone gets so smart? How could its designers make a product that meets our needs so well?

The answer is: because they asked us.

Companies like Apple or Samsung don’t just sit in a board room and pretend to get into the mind of the consumer, they actually do it: focus groups, consumer research, prototypes and surveys.

In a sense, it’s a very simple strategy: consumers have the expertise on what a product should look like and what it should deliver to them, so extract their knowledge and insight in order to make informed decisions about product design.

This strategy is well accepted in the corporate world, as it’s been proven to be effective for producing a product that the consumer wants. Why is it that we rarely see this strategy implemented in the nonprofit sector?

I work for a nonprofit that provides housing and case management for individuals who have experienced homelessness. At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that there would be much parallel between our organization and Apple; however, I would beg to differ. Both my organization and Apple have a product: the iPhone and case management services, respectively. Both organizations have a consumer: individuals or businesses in need of phone service and individuals experiencing homelessness, respectively.

The gap that exists, then, between for-profit and nonprofit is that the former relies heavily on the consumer’s input.

Traditionally, nonprofits have designed programs by putting together a team of educated individuals to create, implement and evaluate programming. Normally, this team consists of college-educated individuals who study or have studied the issue that their organization is addressing, but they have never experienced the issue themselves (i.e. a domestic violence shelter designing programming using a staff of people who have never experienced domestic violence themselves). No doubt they bring essential knowledge and insight to solving the problems, but this is a little like Apple relying solely on a team of people who’ve never used a phone to design the iPhone. They’ve studied phones, but they’ve never actually used one. Do you think Apple would say they are getting sufficient information to design an iPhone that people will want to buy just based on such a team’s recommendations?

In the case of nonprofits and the communities they work with, the consequences for leaving out the expertise of community members are deeper than designing ineffective programming. What can result is an unhealthy dependence of the community on services and consultation and an internalization of inadequacy and helplessness on the part of the individuals being served.

These outcomes are, of course, unintentionally created by nonprofits, and its symptoms are all but undetectable. However, nonprofits can take measures to ensure that they empower the individuals and communities they serve while also designing the most effective programming and services. And they can take a page out of the for-profit handbook by relying on the customer’s input.

The first measure nonprofits can take is implementing the principles of Asset-Based Community Development—defined in Paul Schmitz’s book “Everyone Leads: Building Leadership From the Community Up,” which has two basic tenets:

  1. Every member of the community has gifts and talents to contribute.
  2. Communities are places where all people are able to contribute their gifts and talents.

The nonprofit’s role is not to just to fix a community’s problem and provide all the services, but, more importantly, it must to empower individuals within the community to identify leadership and mobilize efforts to solve their own challenges.

What normally happens if this empowerment does not take place is that both the institution and the community members begin to internalize labels: the helper and the helpee, the expert and the novice, or the powerful and the powerless.  From a sustainability standpoint, this is a relationship that will exacerbate problems, rather than remedy them. Community members won’t have the tools or the self-efficacy necessary to recognize and solve problems. Nonprofits will have to continually swoop in to save the day, creating a temporary fix, only to find out that the problem returns later.

The other important strategy for nonprofits to take is to harvest knowledge and expertise of the community by identifying leadership and involving community members in decision-making, strategic planning and program design. In this case, I turn to IDEO and the concept of Human Centered Design as a model for creating sustainable and empowering solutions.

By inviting community members to partake in design thinking sessions where the problems are discussed, solutions are dreamed up, and prototypes are tested, programs and services are created that are not only are fueled by the true experts, but are engendering more ownership and action due to the fact that the solutions came from the community itself.

Human Centered Design is a methodology that intentionally takes design out of the hands of designers and puts it into the hands of everyone, as described by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown in a 2009 TED Talk entitled “Designers—Think Big!” This is a case that would be the constituents that the nonprofit serves. By inviting community members to partake in design thinking sessions where the problems are discussed, solutions are dreamed up, and prototypes are tested, programs and services are created that are not only are fueled by the true experts, but are engendering more ownership and action due to the fact that the solutions came from the community itself.

Oftentimes we see nonprofit professionals cringe at the sound of words like “for-profit” or “corporate,” but we really need to open our minds to realize that they have a lot to teach the nonprofit sector about effectively solving social issues. And really, creating the best possible program or service that will enable communities to be successful and self-sustaining is very simple: all we have to do is ask.


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