children and teacher gathered around a laptop

Increasing Human-Centered Design In The Social Sector

Guest post written by Kyle Zimmer, President, CEO & Co-founder of First Book. Kyle is a member of the Forbes Nonprofit Council. This article was originally published on Forbes.

While billions of dollars are spent on consumer insights to ensure that our potato chips are crispy, powerful data to fuel human-centered design are rarely applied by the social sector. 

An example of this failure is educational reform — especially for children in poverty. The 1970s brought “Open Schools;” President Bush ushered in “No Child Left Behind;” followed by the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top;” and the Trump Administration’s elevation of school choice. What these strategies have in common is that they were launched with minimal practitioner engagement in the design phase, imperfect implementation, and limited continual feedback for ongoing improvement.

To change this cycle, First Book believes we must build data systems that reach into classrooms and schools to determine what is needed, as well as what is working and not working — and why. From the design phase through implementation to ongoing refinements, we need continual data from practitioners if we are going to make progress.

To remove barriers to learning and fuel educational equity, First Book, built First Book Research & Insights, a research arm that gathers qualitative and quantitative data from our network of educators from under-resourced schools/programs serving children in need ages 0-18 across the country. Market research from our network informs the design of our models and drives continuous improvement strategies. We also make these research capacities available to academics, curriculum developers, and companies seeking practitioner guidance for strategies and products to benefit children in need. 

In the process, we are identifying fundamental learnings regarding how human-centered design can advance the social sector as a whole. Here are three cases where data and insights can enable nonprofits to foster human-centered design solutions:

1. Establish Need Through Data

At times, the social sector has been accused of delivering solutions from helicopters: developing what they believe is needed, and designing models without input from people they serve. The risk is that the real needs may not be accurately identified and quantified, and the solutions may miss the mark. 

Human-centered design starts by deepening your organization’s understanding, not only of the needs of the community but how they adopt new practices or resources. To change beliefs or behaviors, you need to understand current beliefs, perceived barriers, and the environments in which your community operates so that you can design a user experience that helps drive adoption. This requires ongoing qualitative and quantitative research. 

A qualitative analysis gathered through focus groups, one-on-one conversations, or online comments, can provide much-needed context and clarification around an issue.

Quantitative research, or numeric data, ensures your solutions are grounded in statistically relevant samples and don’t just address the voice of the “squeaky wheel.” This may include conducting a survey with a representative sampling of your community and analyzing measurable data that you already have. Which of your programs are used most often? Is the frequency of use going up or down? Do you capture performance ratings indicating how well you are meeting existing needs? What other numerical data reflect the actions, requests, and suggestions provided by users?

Organizations that regularly capture quantitative and qualitative data from the populations they serve are able to confidently represent those needs to boards, funders, and stakeholders, and use those insights to develop human-centered models, partnerships, and funder relationships.

2. Test Market Viability with Data

Before investing in solutions, nonprofits must design pilots to determine market viability and obtain feedback on three important factors:

  • To test if users feel your solution addresses their needs, and if so, how to position it effectively to optimize adoption.
  • To mitigate your organization’s financial risk. Are you achieving your intended impact with a high return on investment?
  • To identify opportunities for improvement for rolling out at scale.

When designing a pilot, be specific about the questions the pilot needs to address. For example:

  • Does our solution support the diverse cultural, race, language and religious needs of our community?
  • Can we use existing staff and resources, or will we need specialized staff, training, technology or systems — and what will that cost?
  • How will we pay for this solution? Can it be designed to pay for itself — and if so, at what price point?
  • What measures will indicate if this pilot is successful? What improvements would users recommend?

Intentionally thinking through questions and how you will gather user feedback are important to test the market viability of your solution.

3. Establish Continuous Improvement Cycles

While the social sector is dedicated to designing solutions for society’s problems, the field often pursues the same strategies for decades without refinement. To ensure we are making a difference, data analysis must be a driving force to continually retool strategies to elevate impact, using feedback loops at every user touchpoint:

  • If your community interacts with you online, make it easy for them to provide feedback, especially through open-field comment boxes.
  • If your community interacts with you in person, make certain each interaction includes questions such as: Are we getting you what you need? What can we do better?
  • Develop a help line that is regularly monitored, with calls returned within 24-48 hours.
  • Regularly discuss feedback with senior leadership to determine what changes are needed to address user input.
  • And importantly, report back to the community you serve, as well as to donors and stakeholders, regarding program adjustments made based on user input.

In First Book’s case, ongoing data gathered from our educator network enables us to learn what resource formats are most effective, what languages are essential and what additional resources are needed. Sometimes educator insights reveal changes in the field that require us to reinvent entire initiatives. Without continuous feedback, nonprofits risk becoming irrelevant.

Data is Essential to Impact 

While funding for R&D might be a rarity in the social sector, it shouldn’t be. Data from the field must be a pillar of our sector if we are to ensure our limited resources are well-directed and if we are to ever catch up to the challenges we seek to address.

Partner with First Book

First Book works closely with leading businesses, nonprofits, and individuals to promote equal access to quality education for kids in need. Together, we have distributed more than 200 million new books and learning materials to schools and programs serving children from low-income families.

We are deeply grateful for the support of our generous partners and eager to collaborate with other outstanding organizations that care about making a difference on behalf of kids and heroic educators. We would love to explore ways to work together and provide many more books and resources to kids who need them.

To learn more about partnering with First Book, contact us at 202.393.1222 or e-mail us.