With, Not For: Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

nonprofits and client-centered design

If you design goods and services for your clients, instead of with them, you are forced to make assumptions. Inevitably, your assumptions will be wrong. With bad assumptions you risk your goods and services not meeting your clients needs. That means you are wasting your time and money, and your clients’ time and money. With basic needs like health and sanitation, you are also be risking your clients’ lives. At the intersection of nonprofits and client-centered design lies fulfilling your mission for your clients.

Principles for Designing With, Not For, Your Clients

In the world of computer software, the concept of designing with clients is known as client-centered design.

True to form for the software industry, there’s an accompanying international standard (ISO 9241-210). An official copy of the standard costs more than $100. Instead, this article lists the six main principles of client-centered design:

  • The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  • Users are involved throughout design and development.
  • The design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
  • The process is iterative.
  • The design addresses the whole user experience.
  • The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

The good thing about standards is that they try to be universal. The bad thing about standards is that being universal makes them vague. How, specifically, do you “address the whole user experience,” have “an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments,” and make sure that “users are involved throughout design and development”?

Here are some specific approaches for involving clients in designing your products and services.

Quantitative Methods For Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

Use quantitative methods to gather structured, numeric data that can be measured and analyzed to statistical significance if need be.

  • Market research tells you about the number of people or communities experience a problem; the cost of the problem in terms of money, time, resources, or lives; what people are currently doing to solve the problem; and how much they are willing to spend on the problem. Governments collect much of this data and make it available for free. This type of data gives you some insight into your market and clients. However, if you only do market research, then you’re still designing for and not with your clients.
  • Surveys give you responses from specific people and groups to a list of questions. You can draw on existing surveys, like the U.S. community survey. You can also conduct your own survey. See my brand strength survey series as an example. Surveys give you more detailed information than market research, but don’t replace working with individual clients.
  • Experiments are the ultimate quantitative approach. The approach you take depends on your product or service, your audience, and your budget. For a simple experiment, you can conduct A/B tests with your web content and advertising. A complex experiment might involve a control group, experimental group(s), and measurement methods suitable for statistical significance. (See this white paper for more information on complex experiments.)

Qualitative Methods For Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

Use qualitative methods to gather and learn from input from individual clients. There are ways of quantifying the results from qualitative methods, but these are generally not as numerically robust as quantitative methods.

  • Interviewing clients gives you direct access to what they are thinking. You can interview clients by phone or online conferencing. One benefit of online conferencing is the ability to record the interview for later reference. Develop a script or questionnaire to keep your process consistent and focused. In my experience, you usually need just a handful of interviews to uncover useful insights.
  • Observing clients shows you exactly what clients are doing. Observing is more expensive and obtrusive than interviews, because you need to be in the client’s environment recording what they are doing. Observation is more powerful and interviews, though. People can tell you one thing in an interview but do something different in real life. Develop a score card of objects, people, actions, and statements you want to look for while observing. Video recording your observation session is very useful, but not always possible or acceptable to clients.
  • Focus groups uncover the thoughts and attitudes of a particular type of client. For instance, you can hold a focus group with five single parents from a neighborhood to learn about local child care options. With focus groups, you can probe attitudes and possibly try out new ideas on potential clients.
  • Form a client advisory board. Ask several existing clients if they’d be willing to give you an hour or two of their time every quarter. This group gives you a forum to introduce new ideas, gather feedback about existing products and services, and learn more about the evolving needs of your market.
  • Host a design workshop. Invite a group of your existing or prospective clients to participate in a half-day or whole-day meeting where they give input and ideas for design. This is probably the ultimate example of designing with your clients.
  • Perform field tests. Take a new product or service into the market to see how well it works for clients. These tests may give you the most useful and honest feedback on how well you are meeting your clients’ needs.

Examples of Nonprofits and Client-Centered Design

See these examples of nonprofits and client-centered design from previous blog posts:

In these cases and many others, smart people tapped into the needs, desires, and intelligence of their clients to develop powerful and sustainable solutions.

What can your current and potential clients tell you?

Need help designing with your clients, and not just for them? Contact me for marketing services to uncover new client and market insights.


(Image courtesy of Flickr)

Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Look for bright spots of success and hope among your market audience, and you may find your next big idea. Here are lessons from a story about how one underfunded aid worker used turning bright spots into products and services to change a nation.

Continue reading Turning Bright Spots Into Products and Services

Increase Your Public and Social Sector Impact Through Lean Methodologies

Lean production principles can transform public and social sector
We love picking on the DMV, don’t we?

In the US, public debts keep mounting, taxpayers keep insisting on lower taxes, and vital services and infrastructure keep declining. We need to find a new way of designing and paying for government. Cost cutting isn’t enough. We need transformation. Lean production principles can transform public and social sector work.

Government is interested in lean, as witnessed by this McKinsey article. Another McKinsey study shows that government can be a leader in digital goods and services. Lean methods show the way.

Lean Focuses on the Process

In Lean Thinking, authors Womack and James describe the lean approach as focusing on

all the specific actions required to bring a specific product (whether a good, a service, or increasingly, a combination of the two) through the three critical management tasks of any business: the problem-solving task running from concept through detailed design and engineering to product launch, the information management task running from order-taking through detailed scheduling to delivery, and the physical transformation task proceeding from raw materials to a finished product in the hands of the customer.

Don’t be put off by the business-oriented language if you work in the public and social sectors. Your organization performs these same activities to serve your clients. You just call them different things.

Why focus on the end-to-end process like this? Because you can uncover, and then eliminate, wasteful practices. Eliminating waste saves you money, allowing you to meet the needs of your clients without exceeding your financial resources.

Here’s one example. A UK social services agency found they spent 85 percent of their time managing and maintaining their bureaucracy, instead of serving their clients. By redesigning their end-to-end process, they switch to spending 80 percent of time actually helping clients.

How can you understand your process from end to end? Pretend you’re a client. Staple yourself to a request for service or payment and observe the process as the request moves through your organization.

Public and Social Sector Obstacles to Lean Approaches

Lean is not easy, nor quick, although you can see some improvements from the very start. Taiichi Ohno developed the Toyota Production System, which is now known as Lean . After 50 years of following Lean, Ohno felt the company was maybe halfway done.

Lean is a mindset, a culture. Changing mindsets and cultures is difficult. Implementing lean methods in public and social sectors have additional challenges identified in the McKinsey article:

  • Disconnect between buyer and user: Buyers may be government agencies, foundations, or individual donors. User or end-customers may be individuals or groups receiving goods or services. This disconnect often forces public and social organizations to focus on improving two different processes.
  • Lack of clear process ownership: A public sector organization rarely invents and controls the processes it must follow. Regulations and policies govern much of what is done. Organizations may start their lean journey focusing on what they do control, and later move towards influencing regulation and policy.
  • Lack of customer or process mindset: Public and social organizations may be more focused on policy and regulation than on delivering value to customers. Lean forces focus onto delivering value while also maintaining compliance. This additional focus can feel like an additional burden instead of a benefit.

Key Concepts in Lean Methodology

Lean is a large field. You can earn a master’s degree in lean management. I’ll try to do justice to some key concepts in a few bullet points:

  • Waste: Ohno identified several types of waste to eliminate: delay, overproduction, defects, excess inventory, and activity and transportation than doesn’t add value.
  • Kaizen: This means continuous improvement through waste reduction. It often takes the form of kaizen events, where process owners and workers make improvements to their workspaces and activities.
  • Flow: Instead of performing batches of similar work, perform a process from start to finish as a continuous flow.
  • Pull: Once you’ve established flow, only initiate the flow when you have demand from a customer.
  • Just-in-Time: When you have flow and pull, you can add to inventory and perform tasks as items and work are needed.
  • Kanban: Use visual cues to indicate pull, items in flow, and problems preventing flow such as need for additional inventory.
  • Cells: Instead of organizing departments according to job type or function, create multi-function cells that can carry out a flow from end to end.

Lean production principles can transform public and social sector work. You can continually eliminate waste, improve effectiveness and raise efficiency. In the public and social sectors, this means free up resources to meet both client needs and budget constraints.

One great thing about lean methodology is that you can start with one concept, one change, and measure your improvement. So, which lean concept would help your organization today?

Lean Thinking and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.

(Image courtesy of Flickr)

Impact Investing: Return on Investment From Marketing Social Goods

Impact Investing Return on Investment From Marketing Social Goods

Can you do well while doing good? This is the ultimate question for a marketer in the public and social sector. Doing well in the public and social sector means more than just money. Earning money leads to sustainability and scale, two qualities that communities desperately need and funders desperately seek.

Continue reading Impact Investing: Return on Investment From Marketing Social Goods

Free download! Seven Visual Storytelling Methods and When to Use Them

visual storytelling methods
Graphic produced by Cel Culture Lab and Race Forward

Stories impact and motivate us, and a picture is worth a thousand words. Knowing how to use visual storytelling methods to tell your story–sometimes that’s difficult for public and social sector marketers who aren’t trained designers or have access to design help.

Use this story format wheel from Culture Lab to explore your options for visual storytelling and choose the method that best fits your goals.

Continue reading Free download! Seven Visual Storytelling Methods and When to Use Them

Design Thinking: Asking the Right Questions to Address the Five Villains of the Social Good

Design Thinking Questions Address Villains Social Good

The American Marketing Association definition of marketing centers on the concept of offerings: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” A prime design question for this blog then becomes what should public and social sector organizations offer that has value for both clients and society at large?

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Marketing the Social Good: Top Five Posts of 2016

Top Five

To continue bringing you topics of interest in the new year, I took a look back at what you read the most this year. Here are the top five posts published in 2016, as measured by your views:

1–Free download! White paper template for Microsoft Powerpoint

In the public and social spheres, creating and publishing white papers is an avenue to attract new partners and funders, document a problem you want to highlight or solve, influence policy, summarize your work, and make scientific findings more accessible to  non-research community. Download this template to add to your toolkit of promotion.

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Redesigning public and social services: Staple yourself to a citizen


Government leaders should adopt the perspective of a citizen passing through the end-to-end experience of a particular process and seek to optimize the complete journey.

This quote from a recent McKinsey survey is simultaneously obvious and revolutionary. Of course government leaders should optimize the process of serving citizens. But most government processes seem so cumbersome and plodding that just a little customer service would be welcome, never mind the optimization.

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Designing better student loans using system thinking


Students go into debt to pay for college. In the United States, the amount of student debt has surpassed $1.3 trillion, which puts it on par with auto loans. Americans like to think the student debt is an American phenomenon, but this article from the New York Times shows that students in other countries also borrow, and borrow almost as much.

Borrowing may not be American, but struggling to repay is.

Continue reading Designing better student loans using system thinking