by Aza Damood
As helpful as it’s been for design to be trendy, I’m looking forward to a day when design is seen as much more ordinary.
What components of service design are most interesting and relevant when working with nonprofits?
Making things tangible is clutch. More specifically, making things tangible to drive collaborative decision-making with clients and stakeholders is clutch. Power structures within organizations and communities are complex, and (not too surprisingly) we’ve found that people are much more likely to actually follow through on ideas that they've had an active part in shaping. Rapid, low-fidelity prototyping provides a great structure for this engagement process, and dramatically lowers the risk of trying something new. We ask, “How quickly and cheaply can you figure out if an idea is any good?”—for organizations often strapped for both money and time, this approach really resonates.
Has the relevance / acceptance of service design changed in nonprofits over the last two to three years within the U.S.?
Nonprofits were designing programs long before service design was officially a thing, but now there’s growing exposure to the intentional practices and structure that the human-centered design process can bring. In the last few years, I’ve been most struck by just how quickly that exposure is spreading. Rather than me needing to start from scratch when explaining design, more often than not now, someone in the meeting has done a design thinking workshop or HCD online course or at least knows someone who has. This is actually a really big deal—making it much easier for an organization or internal champion to take the next step in framing a service design project or crafting a new role that brings design practices into their team. Organizations building this in-house design capacity has been a big area of change recently, and I think that will continue as exposure (both within nonprofits and philanthropy) spreads.
Do you think there are any specific aspects that make it more difficult for nonprofits to adopt a human centered approach?
Nonprofits (generally) get paid to execute, not innovate. There are certainly wonderful exceptions, but as a whole the world of funding hasn’t yet shifted to support the structure of HCD work. We’re basically asking, “Fund this process, but we can’t tell you yet what we’ll make, and any hypotheses we have right now about what we’ll make might turn out to be totally wrong.” I can appreciate how that’s a big shift in expectations when usually grant applications ask for a fully-formed idea and implementation plan and detailed budget and clear, projected impacts. Taking an HCD approach takes time and flexibility, and most organizations can’t afford to make that investment without a supportive funding partner.
Given that the nonprofit landscape is diverse, what types of organizations have you found typically embrace service design first?
We’ve found the most ready partners in organizations that have identified a persistent challenge that they haven’t been able to solve with their current methods. In other words, they’re sincerely open to having their assumptions challenged and trying something new. Often these organizations have been doing excellent work for 10, 20, or 30+ years and they’ve reached a reflection point—maybe an opportunity for growth, or a shift in the sector, or an organizational milestone. Design offers a way to make that reflection active and intentionally inclusive of their diverse stakeholders (clients, staff, leadership, volunteers, donors, board members, etc.) But the other critical component is leadership that is supportive (and realistic) about the time it takes to really commit to a design process—not just the fun parts of research and brainstorming, but the longer and slower organizational change work of implementing what might be far-reaching new ideas.
How would you like to see the practice of service design evolve in the public sector?
As helpful as it’s been for design to be trendy, I’m looking forward to a day when design is seen as much more ordinary. This will free (or disabuse) designers from the expectations that design is only about new and snazzy and big ideas, and give us more permission to celebrate the work behind smaller, unglamorous, but impactful change. The shift toward more design capacity going in-house at nonprofits is an interesting step here, but there’s still more to do to build the skills and methods of these staff and to support as they make the translation to their colleagues. And on top of all of that, I’d like access to service design to continue to extend to organizations and communities with smaller budgets and more constraints.
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