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How to create better digital services in your organisation

Charities are making good progress in using digital for fundraising and communications, but using digital to improve and extend our services is much slower.

That’s because good digital service design is difficult, and our sector often lacks room or resource to explore and test new approaches. It’s also common practice for charities to start with a solution in mind before thoroughly investigating the problem, with few new digital products or services based on direct user insight. This is a huge issue, because it leads to the creation of services that might look great but fail to respond to real needs and behaviours - so a lot of their value is lost.

But you don’t have to work it out all for yourself. A collection of nonprofits have developed a set of digital design principles that reflect the needs, language and practice of the UK charity sector. They help show what ‘good’ looks like and enable organisations to ‘build the right thing in the right way’.

Here are two common scenarios to help guide your approach to digital service design:


1. I’m about to start building a product or service

If you are about to start building a product or service, you are in the perfect position to embed digital design principles into your process. There are three key things to bear in mind:

  • Start with your users, and keep them involved. Researching your users’ needs and behaviours is the first step you need to take before you embark on developing any new digital product or service. It’s important to be led by user research, not by the assumptions you might make about what should be developed. You should fully understand your users and their situation before designing your product or service. Keep them at the heart of the development process by continually testing, observing and analysing how they use and interact with your ideas or solution at each stage.
  • Understand what’s out there already. It’s important to do some market research to understand what else might be solving this problem, whether that’s within our sector or in another. It might mean you don’t need to develop anything at all, or instead you can spend your time and resources building on what already exists.
  • Build the Right team. Having the right mix of technical skills and subject expertise on your team is key to successful delivery. That includes having senior management and trustee buy-in, as well as understanding what skills you have in-house and what skills you may need to source externally.

2. I want to get colleagues to work in this way

Perhaps you already work to some of these principles, or are keen to start but your team or senior management aren’t on board yet. That’s ok - there are many tactics you can employ to bring them on the journey of good digital service design:

  • Start with users and keep them involved. As before, user research is a critical part of gaining buy-in from sceptics and those that are less confident with this way of working. Whilst it can be easier to dismiss internal opinions or experience, it is very hard to ignore the direct experience you uncover through user research. This evidence is a powerful way of showing your team what challenges your service users are facing and where their needs aren’t being met.
  • Take small steps and learn as you go. Building a new product or service can feel overwhelming at the start, with cycles of planning, building and testing needed to hone and refine your ideas and prototypes. It can be hard to engage your team if your project is stretching out for a long period of time with nothing to really show them. Building small parts of your product or service and getting these in front of users to test early on can show the immediate impact of an iterative approach. It also helps demonstrate how cheaply and quickly you can create things that improve services users’ lives.
  • Build digital services not websites. How many times have you heard colleagues talking about building a new app or website and getting fixated on the technology instead of the actual service? Try talking about the service first instead of the technology you might build to support it. This will help your wider team understand how it integrates with and supports their existing work.

Further information

For more scenarios, practical tips and examples of how to apply these ideas to your work, see You’ll find lots of resources, tools and support to ensure you start developing digital services using a tried and tested approach.

Further information

This blog was written by CAST - Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology



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Page last edited Jun 15, 2018 History

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