Why design is more important than digital, and how to start thinking ‘design first’ rather than ‘digital first’.

Pre-Covid-19 we talked a lot about ‘charity digital’ and ‘online service delivery’. 

Since Covid-19 we've been talking even more. Because, as a sector, we’ve turned enmasse to digital to solve our pandemic-induced service challenges. 

Challenging. Purposeful. Amazing

However we don’t talk much about design

Probably we should. Because good digital always relies on good design. On its own digital is not enough. 

This blog will help you understand why design is more important than digital and move you towards thinking ‘design first’ rather than ‘digital first’.

Digital is not design

Digital is a tool for carrying out tasks and processes. For doing jobs. Design is not the tool. It’s a process, a way of thinking, an approach to creating and iterating the right tool and the right service.

You can ‘do digital’ to solve a problem without thinking about design. But if you do you’ll end up with a poor solution.

Design is the process for guiding the what and the how of digital

“Design is a process, a way of creating services so users can solve a problem, complete tasks and achieve a goal.” - Maddy Stark, Digital Development Worker, SCVO

Digital is amazing. But it doesn’t always work out for the best. The sector’s past is littered with failed digital projects.

That’s OK because failure is allowed. We need to get used to failing more often. But failing isn’t so great when we know we didn’t spend enough time on design.

Design makes the difference. It provides the structure and processes to help people work together to really understand a problem. It helps you solve the right problem in the right way, using less money, with better user adoption. 

It reduces the risk of getting things ‘wrong’. You might even find you don’t need as much of an expensive or complicated solution as you think, or that you don’t even need digital at all.

Design is a way to solve problems

“Who are the people using our services? What do they need? Are we answering those needs?”. - Melody Butcher, Design Research Consultant, Graft Global

Design is the bridge between your charity’s challenges, your users’ problems and the solution. 

It’s the cautionary voice telling you to carry out user research and investigate your assumptions first.

It’s the reminder to focus on the problem first, and the solution second.

It's the invitation to build empathy with your users.

It’s the hand to guide you through a solution’s concepts, tests, and iterations.

It's the rigour to check and challenge your (and your users’) biases and assumptions.

It’s the invitation to look at the background and foreground processes needed to make your service work.

It’s the waymarker that lets you know you’ve found a viable solution you can feel confident about.

Design comes in different clothing

But it’s the same body underneath. There’s different definitions but in the end they overlap with one another. 

User-centred design

An iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. Same as human centred design, but less generic and more focused on the design of digital services and interfaces for specific users.

Human-centred design

Same as user-centred design, but often used to talk about the design of everyday things. Usually informed by the general characteristics and peculiarities of human psychology and perception rather than specific user needs.

Service design

A way of thinking about and working intentionally to improve the experience of those who interact with your organisation. So you can solve their problems better digitally or in person. 

Follows the same principles as user-centred design. Thinks about:

  • How people get to know your offer
  • How they connect with it and use it
  • The various objects such as forms, leaflets or apps that they interact with
  • The 'back office' processes needed to support the service.

Service design provides tools and methods and a structured framework that help you align all these elements in a way that improves the experience of people using your service. It also ensures that your service is provided consistently.

Anyone can be a designer

If you’re thinking about needing to understand the problem better, understanding your users' needs, and testing your design as you develop it then you already are a designer. If you choose to start thinking in the way I’ve described then you’re also embracing design thinking. You’re well on the way. 

Here’s a few ways to take your next steps:

  1. Join a Design Hop to help you get started with designing a new or redesigning an existing service
  2. Read 10 Design Principles - written for the charity sector. Includes many examples
  3. Read the Fable of the Charity Worker and the Digital Service Designer if you’d like to learn through a 30 minute story
  4. Read about content design - something we do everytime we write anything our users will read.
  5. Perhaps you’ve noticed why some government services have got easier to use over the last five years. Here’s why.

Go design first, not digital first

When you talk about digital, think about design too. Think ‘how could I use design thinking to improve this process, service or tool?’

Please share this article on your social channels. The more people learn about design the better!

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