Why charities need digital design principles to create #betterdigitalservices

Ellie Hale runs CAST’s Digital Fellowship programme for nonprofit senior leaders and CEOs, as well as being CAST’s Community Champion. CAST is an organisation that aims to drive social change through the use of digital technology.

Over the last two and a half years at CAST, we’ve worked with over 300 charities to help them embed digital and design approaches into their services, strategy and culture. We’ve seen first-hand that voluntary sector organisations are struggling to adapt their services to the digital age, and to respond to the ever-changing needs and expectations of their users.

This is because doing good digital service delivery is hard. And it can be especially hard to know where to start, or to bring others with you to embrace new or unfamiliar methods. The 2018 Charity Digital Skills Report found that two-thirds of charity leaders see the potential of using digital to deliver their strategy and services more effectively, but over half of charities see their digital service delivery skills as fair to low. What’s more, it found that

  • 58% of charities rate their user research skills as fair to low
  • 51% say that they have low to very low digital product development skills, and
  • 75% rate their agile project management skills as fair to very low.

But help is at hand! After holding in-depth interviews with over 50 organisations, from tiny nonprofits to leading tech for good funders, we discovered that many people who were delivering or funding great digital services were using ‘design principles’ in one form or another. Good digital service delivery is about the how as much as the what, and design principles are a well-established concept in other sectors that help guide the design and delivery of effective digital services. They help individuals communicate best practice to others and keep everyone on the same page about what ‘good’ looks like. They help organisations build the right thing in the right way.

But although there are some great principles already out there (like the many listed on principles.design), we found there wasn’t a single set that worked for charities. People often ended up mixing and matching or creating their own sets, which led to a lot of duplicated effort and confusion when novices didn’t know which set to choose or where to begin.

So we worked with these organisations to develop a set of digital design principles that reflected the needs, language and practice of the UK charity sector.

Following a series of 1:1 interviews, workshops and analysis, version one of a list of 10 principles has been created:

  1. Start with user needs and keep them involved
  2. Understand what’s out there
  3. Build the right team
  4. Take small steps and learn as you go
  5. Build digital services not websites
  6. Be inclusive
  7. Think about privacy and security
  8. Build for sustainability
  9. Collaborate and build partnerships
  10. Be open.

If you’re wondering what these mean and how they can be applied, check out the new website – betterdigital.services – that explains each in detail. We also learned in our research that a list on it’s own isn’t enough to make a difference – people need practical tips and examples of when and how to use principles. So we’ve added checklists and example stories of how organisations of all sizes, such as Breast Cancer Care, Refugee Action, 360Giving and Alexandra Rose, have used these principles in action.

On the site, the principles can be navigated through the following scenarios for charities:

  • I’m about to start building a product or service
  • I’m writing a bid
  • I want to get colleagues to work in this way
  • I’m building a digital product / service and I want to make sure I’m doing it right
  • I want to get senior management buy-in

And the following for funders:

  • I’m deciding whether to fund a charity to develop a digital product or service
  • I’m funding a charity to develop a digital product / service and I want to make sure they do it right
  • I’m a funder trying / thinking of funding digital services and want to know more.

We heard that sharing these principles across the organisation is important in helping them become embedded, so you can download printable posters of the principles to put up on the wall for everyone to see, and check out the helpful tools and tips that have been suggested by other nonprofits.

Over the coming months we, and the nonprofits who have helped create these principles, will continue to use, test and refine them, and we’d love your feedback on them too. What works or doesn’t work, based on your experience? Do you have any examples of great digital service design that we should add to the site? If so, send your ideas to principles@wearecast.org.uk. We’ll review submissions every three months and add to the growing and dynamic online resource.

We hope that as they evolve, the principles will prompt more conversations and knowledge-sharing among grant-givers and nonprofits. And that this greater understanding and confidence will lead to #betterdigitalservices, money saved and, ultimately, better outcomes for service users.

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