March 28, 2013

A New Trend in Design Can Help Charities Do Better Work used service design to help develop prototypes of ATM machines and smartphone apps that aim to help low-income people in Mexico create and use savings accounts. Photo courtesy of used service design to help develop prototypes of ATM machines and smartphone apps that aim to help low-income people in Mexico create and use savings accounts. Photo courtesy of

Over the past decade, we have seen many important evolutions in the field of design. Fields like “interaction design” focus on making digital and physical products easier and more desirable for people to use.  As technology has progressed, it has allowed us to design devices that adapt to how humans naturally use things, rather than forcing people to adapt to technology.  Think about how much easier it is to surf the Internet on an iPhone than it was 10 years ago on a flip phone.

Taking this evolution even further is an exciting area of design called “service design,” which focuses on improving processes and services.  Service design goes beyond the design of end products and considers the environment and context around service delivery.  Anyone who has waited in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles has experienced a process in need of service design.

If you have seen apps like Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar, you know how they have transformed transportation services in big cities.  The makers of these apps have examined the process of getting a taxicab, carefully studied points of frustration in the process, and have created alternatives that allow users to quickly and easily get a ride in a crowded city with the touch of a button.  Service design is this process of examining how a system works and looking for ways to make it easier and more effective.

Service design can be applied within organizations as well, examining in detail how a group interacts with its employees or partners.  At my design studio, we conducted a detailed analysis of our business processes, filling three walls of our conference room with an array of colored Post-it notes.  Each of these notes represented a type of interaction–a meeting, a project being handed off from one employee to the next.  We investigated all the potential points of friction between employees in these interactions and came up with creative solutions for how we could redesign these processes, leading to greater efficiencies and improved morale.

In the United States, studios like, Frog Design, and Adaptive Path have started applying these principles to nonprofits. recently worked with MyCollege Foundation on a service-design project with the goal of creating a new college experience that “resonates with the needs and motivations of both low-income students and employers.”  The result was the innovative nonprofit Portmont College, designed to “teach what employers are looking for” and adding credentials like teamwork and “learning to learn” to students’ transcripts.

These same principles can be applied across a wide array of nonprofit challenges: a family that recently lost its home and is looking for a shelter, a first-time volunteer looking to help out at a soup kitchen but uncertain where to go, or a scared parent without health insurance looking for a free clinic.  Think about those you serve, where they look for information, how they found out about your organization, and the steps they took to receive your services.  What are the points in these processes that are scary, confusing, frustrating, or degrading?  Service design can provide the framework to make these interactions much better.

Service design will almost certainly continue to grow in the years to come.  Because good causes tend to be service-oriented, nonprofits may be uniquely positioned to leapfrog the rest of the economy and use these techniques to build organizations that better serve their internal and external constituents.

To aid in that process, we organized a Google Hangout with service designer Katrine Rau Ofenstein.  To watch a recording of the event, which outlined the principles of this exciting discipline and shared some concrete examples of how nonprofits are using it, watch the video below.

Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes.