Digital Design Principles

10 design principles to help charities build better digital services:

Start with user needs, and keep them involved
What does this mean?

Before building or designing anything, you must start by researching and understanding your users’ needs. This means gaining a deep understanding of their situation, behaviours, attitudes, problems and goals. To truly understand user behaviours, it’s better to spend a lot of time with a smaller number of people, rather than one moment with lot. So rather than surveys, you use techniques like semi-structured interviews or shadowing.

Don’t only do this at the start though – you have to keep ensuring that your product or service meets those user needs and that you’re actually responding to what they tell you. This means ongoing testing and research with users, and constantly adapting your decisions based on what you find out.

One of the reasons user research is so important when developing ‘tech for good’ services, is that the digital service must meet the user’s preferences and behaviours as well as their ‘social’ needs. These two needs can sometimes clash (I want to save money, but I struggle to find time to write a budget), which means really thoughtful research-led design is even more important, to ensure the service will be both used, and beneficial.

Find out more

A simple guide to carrying out effective user research for charities.
An introduction to user value as one of the three strands of value in social tech.

Case studies

Youth Business International

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Understand what’s out there first
What does this mean?

Duplication wastes money. Before you build anything, especially a new service, it’s important to understand what’s out there already. On the one hand, this means understanding who is already working on the issue you’re trying to address. Knowing this means you can learn from them, and avoid duplicating their work. Secondly, it means not building something that you don’t need to. Very often existing digital tools can be repurposed much cheaper and more quickly than building something new. If you are spending money and time on a new digital thing, you’d better have bullet proof reason why.

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A blog about accelerating tech for good impact through a culture of reuse

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Build the right team
What does this mean?

To make an effective digital product or service you need the right mix of people, skills, knowledge and experience. You need to combine: technical skills, subject expertise, user insight and design. The team needs to be supported by a product manager who can coordinate and support them.

The shape of team will change depending on the nature of the work. One option is for the charity to employ in-house software developers and designers, this is big commitment but is often a good option if the charity intends to continue to develop a digital product or service over time. A second option is to partner with an external digital agency who bring this capacity – this is helpful where there isn’t the skill or expertise internally. In either case it’s important that the charity dedicate a product manager to manage the product. While the team are central, if you work in a big organisation, you might also need a senior sponsor to support your work at the management level.

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Take small steps and learn as you go
What does this mean?

No one gets its right first time. Building a digital service is the same as everything else. Our first ideas are often laden with assumptions about what we think users need, and our assumptions will almost always turn out to be wrong. So rather than plan everything upfront based on these assumptions, it’s important to start small and build the smallest, cheapest version of something we can to test whether our ideas are right. Then we can learn from the test, build the next version of the service, and test it again. This virtuous cycle is at the heart of good digital development. It’s at the heart of very established software management processes like Agile, and the Lean Startup. A further benefit of this approach is it forces the team to focus on specific problems, rather than try to do too many things at once.

Find out more
About lean startup for charities
About agile for charities or the agile manifesto
How technology can narrow the gap between new insight and new action

Case studies
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Build digital services, not websites
What does this mean?

A website never exists in isolation. A person visiting a site always has a goal, and your website is just part of the journey they are on to achieve that goal. Always think about how the website fits into with the wider journey your user is on. What gets them to the site? How does it link with other parts of yours (or others) physical services? Where will the user go next to achieve their goal? Thinking in services means we are always thinking about where our users are coming from, where they will go next and how we support them throughout that journey.

Find out more:
A video introduction to service design
A post from Citizens Advice on how they’re improving their service
An introduction to journey maps and service blueprints

Case studies

Reach Volunteering

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Be inclusive
What does this mean?

It’s important that your service works for all of your users, whatever their needs or situation.

Being inclusive should influence every part of your design. It might affect your choice of technology – for example it’s no use creating an app if your users don’t have data, or even smartphones. It involves thinking about your content and ensuring it’s written in a clear and accessible way. It means ensuring that your service will work for users who have different needs. For example, it should meet accessibility guidelines and work with assistive technologies. Designing for inclusivity should begin from day one – by starting with users who have different needs you’ll understand what your service needs to do be inclusive for all who use it.   

Find out more
An introduction from GDS on making your service accessible

Case studies
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Think about privacy and security
What does this mean?

Part of creating responsible technology is considering the privacy and security of your users – especially in the charity sector where users of services are often in vulnerable positions. There’s plenty of good advice to help with security, such as the guidance from the NCCS. Data ownership and processing also need consideration. Following the principles of GDPR covers much of this, but beyond this be sure that your use of your users data is ethical.

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Build for sustainability
What does this mean?

We’re often attracted to invest in new things, but not in maintaining existing things. Consider how sustainable your product is likely to be before you build it. This means realistically thinking about the ongoing cost of maintaining the service and how the money will be generated to do this. Knowing how much a service is likely to cost in time and money upfront is a good start. A service might not run forever, so part of sustainability is about understanding when services need to change or be decommissioned, either because they’ve done their job, or because they are no longer doing it well.  

Find out more:
Progressively model of the development milestones in a social tech product or service.

Case studies

Breast Cancer Care

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Collaborate and build partnerships
What does this mean?

You can’t do everything yourself, nor should you. Collaborate or build partnerships with others in the sector to strengthen the product or service. For example, partnering with other organisations who have domain knowledge or routes to scale. Equally collaboration might come through using or building on others platforms, rather than trying to recreate an entire service yourself. Collaborating with other organisations doesn’t just help you – it can also lead to a more seamless end-user experience because other services are connected together. Ask yourself ‘what can we do together that we can’t do alone?’ and what is the value you can give?’

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Be open
What does this mean?

Being open makes things better.

If you are developing a digital service, being open has two benefits: firstly, it helps avoid duplication and  enables everyone to improve by not repeating mistakes. By sharing your learnings and, if appropriate your code, others can build on your work. Equally it means listening when others are being open and building on their work. Whether that’s learning about a particular model of intervention, or looking to reuse technology rather than building from scratch.  

Being open isn’t just about supporting collaboration. It’s also about supporting transparency in our sector. It means we can hold ourselves to account through open scrutiny of our decision and approaches, and ultimately improve our collective practice and impact.

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Did you find these principles useful? Maybe you’d like to share them:

This list of principles is something that has evolved, and will continue to evolve, as the digital space evolves too. Think something should be here that we’ve not covered?

Suggest a principle to us!