2012-05-09

Co.Exist

3 Lessons From Ideo For Designing The Best Social Enterprises

Ideo.org, the design company’s division for nonprofits, is just getting off the ground, but they’ve already found a few key things that any impact-based organization can learn from.

If you follow the design world, the name Ideo should sound familiar to you. The consultancy firm has worked on major products for some of the biggest companies in the world including Apple, PepsiCo, and Microsoft. But a little over a year ago, Ideo decided providing design solutions for corporate giants wasn’t enough, so they helped form a separate nonprofit organization called Ideo.org focused solely on delivering the firm’s unique human-centered design to nonprofits, social enterprises, and charitable organizations.

Ideo.org fellow, Marika Shioiri Clark, interviews a customer.

When Fast Company last spoke to Ideo.org, it was still awaiting its official launch. Now over a year later, Co.Exist caught up with Ideo.org’s Executive Director Jocelyn Wyatt and Creative Director Patrice Martin about the lessons they’ve learned from the organization’s first projects about what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to designing for nonprofits.

1: Understand the Community You’re Serving

Perhaps the most important element to nonprofit design, according to Wyatt and Martin, is to know who you’re trying to help before even taking pad to paper on initial prototypes. “I think it takes real deep humility to go to places that we may not intuitively know, and understand what motivates them, what are their behaviors, and be open and committed to learning that,” Martin says. When Ideo.org partnered with the World Bank to help connect low-income Mexicans to better financial services, Martin says, “We didn’t start and say, ‘Okay, how do we get savings products into the hands of the poor?’ Instead, we said, ‘Let’s really understand low-income people’s lives, how they relate to money, and how we can then appropriately design services that respond to this.'” Through that process, they discovered that while low-income families don’t always use deposit accounts for savings, they are active savers when it comes to preparing for big expenses like their children’s education.

The Clean Team service team in Kumasi, Ghana.

This principle was also put into action when Ideo.org launched Clean Team, an initiative to bring working toilets to households in Ghana that aren’t connected to sewage lines. “We spent time in Ghana to really understand the sanitation situation and understand people’s preferences around what types of solutions they were interested in, how much money they’re spending on pay toilets, and what types of jobs entrepreneurs were doing,” Wyatt says.

2: Make a Measurable Impact

Ideo.org also stresses the importance of tackling design projects where it can produce effects. This is also exemplified by the Clean Team initiative which has provided a hundred toilets to residents of Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, and plans to scale that to 10,000 toilets over the next 18 months. In addition to ensuring accountability, the tangible results also make Wyatt’s and Martin’s jobs a lot more rewarding. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people whose lives have really radically improved because of the work that we’ve done,” Wyatt says.

The Clean Team toilet in a customer’s home in Kumasi, Ghana.

3: Work With the Right People

The third important piece to nonprofit design is to ensure Ideo.org’s partners are organizations that are equally as devoted to innovation and risk-taking. “The size or the age of the organization doesn’t matter as much as if they’re an organization that is capable of implementing whatever project it is that we’re working on, and that they are interested in innovation and excited about taking risks,” Wyatt says. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify those organizations, as Martin learned in the pre-Ideo.org days when a partnership to promote financial inclusion in Kenya went awry due to the partner’s unwillingness to buy into Ideo’s approach.

Beyond those three steps, Ideo.org’s design approach is very similar to the one adopted by Ideo for its for-profit partnerships, which focuses on multiple iterations and prototypes while always keeping the user’s wants and needs in mind. Wyatt and Martin say it’s too early to provide specific statistics on the success rate of their programs. But anecdotal evidence, like the success of the CleanTech initiative, suggests that the approach is just as effective for nonprofits and social enterprises as it is for giant corporations.

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4 Comments

  • JJJamison

    Really? If you weren't already doing these painfully obvious things you have no business designing anything. Is this just a thinly veiled plug for IDEo? zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • Sheetal Agarwal

    These are very similar to the guidelines followed in the Software Industry for designing technologies and applications and deploying them for developing regions. 

  • Dave Foster

    I'm a big fan of Ideo.org and its mission.  With the importance of crafting, iterating and steering solutions over the long term, until they're adopted and beyond, what is Ideo.org's policy on following up after initial recommendations are made and projects are started?

  • Andrew Siegel

    Great Article - but note that most of these ideas apply just as well in the corporate world as they do in the non-profit