Wall of ideas written on post-its

Many charities need help to turn their user research into a clear idea of what solution to build.

There’s another MASSIVE cohort of Catalyst digital projects on the way. 55 of them!

The 55 are all charities who have already done a Discovery project but aren’t yet ready to develop a solution. 

Their projects are at the Definition stage.

Who are they? What do they hope for? What exactly are they trying to define? And what will be most difficult? This blog tries to give answers.

Definition is about generating ideas and testing them

Where Discovery was about defining the problem, Definition is about defining the solution. 

It's about taking what you learnt about the problem and your users and using it to generate ideas. 

Then it's about turning those ideas into simple prototypes that can be tested. Testing helps you understand how users respond to an idea. You might need to test several ideas before you know what will be the best solution.

By the end of your definition stage you should feel confident that you have:

  • The right problem
  • The right solution

You’ll still have more testing to do later (there’s always more testing!), but you can move forward and confidently invest money in a solution.

Definition is often overlooked

People often want to jump straight from Discovery into Development. They’ve patiently researched users’ needs, and think they now know what solution they need. But this approach has pitfalls. Because it isn’t based on testing how people interact with that solution or any others.

Five years ago one charity invested in an app that failed. It failed because the solution was poorly defined and users did not like the way it worked. Some features actually felt intrusive to its users. The charity learnt a lot from the project and have since gone on to develop some really good digital services. But they also spent a fair bit of time and money on the app. This wouldn’t have happened if they had spent time defining the solution better.

Prototyping is the best way to test a solution. CAST’s Explore programme explains beautifully what prototyping is for charities.

Catalyst set up the Definition programme to give charities more help

Back in the autumn we launched the Develop programme, aimed at charities who had a clearly defined solution. We received lots of really good proposals and funded 29 of them. 

But we also received more proposals from charities who weren’t yet ready to move into full development. Many didn’t yet have a clear enough idea of the solution needed. Others had too many ideas and needed to prioritise them first.

So we re-structured part of the Develop programme, in a way that enabled more charities to get the help they needed. We created a 10 week programme called Definition. Like Discovery charities would work together, in cohorts, supported by one digital partner per cohort. This would give them:

  • structured, hands on prototyping help
  • autonomy 
  • peer support

We also favoured it because cohort working enables cross-pollination of ideas and insights. Everyone wins when they work together.

Seven cohorts of charities

In Discovery we split the charities into random cohorts. This time we were able to split them according to the general areas their solutions were likely to fall into:

  1. Accessible remote communication - 8 (supported by Outlandish)
  2. Community hubs - 6 (SIDELabs)
  3. Content design - 9 (Panda)
  4. e-Learning - 8 (Erica Neve)
  5. Strategy design - 4 (DXW)
  6. Tools and prototyping 1 - 10 (We Are Open)
  7. Tools and prototyping 2 - 10 (Reply)

This meant they might learn more from each other, and that their digital partners could better focus on their collective needs. 

As they were starting out, we asked them a few questions.

Most are starting out with digital

Most Definition charities were less mature than those funded to do development work. 55% described themselves as starting out with digital, and 13% were still at the curious stage. Our previous research shows most charities at these stages:

  • don’t yet have a digital strategy 
  • pre-pandemic they saw digital services as a nice to have rather than an essential part of their offer. 

At the same time 32% were advancing on their digital journey with a strategy and some experience already under their belt. 

Because of this you might expect that participants would feel less confident about turning their insights into ideas and testing them. And you’d be right. Only 20% felt confident about generating ideas and 27% felt confident in their skills at testing ideas. 

So, for 73-80% of participants, it will be their first time using a structured design process to define a solution.

But everyone is hopeful

Super hopeful in fact. They expect and want to learn how to design and develop a digital solution. Or more specifically (top 4 only):

  1. How to tweak and adapt ideas to suit their users
  2. Understand their users’ needs better
  3. Work on digital projects more efficiently
  4. Feel more confident about leading digital projects and involving all stakeholders

“With so many options available, and no obvious optimal solution, I'm hoping that we will be better equipped to make good judgements about the benefits and trade offs of various solutions.” - Participating charity

They’ve predicted their challenges

We talk about challenges a lot in this sector. When trying to change practice or culture we talk about the challenges. When learning new skills or processes we talk about the challenges. When working out how to develop a digital service we talk about the challenges. Because we know that here will be many!

So, here’s the top four challenges they expect to handle:

  1. Capacity to do the work. The people participating will always have other projects and deadlines too.
  2. Achieving results, by completing a full Definition process to a reasonable standard
  3. Access to users for testing prototypes and further research 
  4. Learning more new design terminology and concepts

“As a small charity team I would expect our main challenges to be around time and the need to meet daily, ever-changing commitments.” - Participating charity

We know from past experience that these challenges are all manageable. But we also know that the intensity and speed of working on digital projects can be quite different to working on non-digital projects.

Go teams!

We’re right behind every one of these charities and their bold efforts to better their services through digital. Some are even writing about their work. And some of the digital partners are also sharing what they are doing. 

We will be writing about the programme's results and outcomes in May. Sign up for the Catalyst newsletter and we will notify you!

Our Catalyst network - what we do

Support & services

Our free services help you make the right decisions and find the right support to make digital happen.

Learn what other non-profits are doing

39+ organisations share 50+ Guides to how they use digital tools to run their services. Visit Shared Digital Guides.