With, Not For: 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)

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