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What we’ve learned about how charities use digital design principles

30 July 2018

Last month, we at the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST), held a launch event for a set of ten design principles. These principles have been created by and for the sector, to help charities and funders create better digital services.

What are design principles and why should charities be using them?

We’d seen a lot of research and anecdotal evidence from our own work at CAST to suggest that while charities are now getting pretty good at using digital in comms and fundraising, they still really struggle when it comes to embedding digital across their services, despite many understanding the value and wanting to do so. This is because good digital service delivery is hard, and there isn’t much sector-specific guidance on how to balance things like agile working, user-centred design and considerations about privacy or security.

For those new to the concept, design principles are a means of codifying and communicating what’s important, and what ‘good’ looks like, in digital product or service delivery. They’re used by government, tech and design companies and nonprofits alike to help people ‘build the right thing in the right way’. At the beginning of the year we spent three months, many 1:1 interviews and several buzzing workshops bringing together over 50 organisations to create a list of 10 principles specifically aligned with the needs, language and context of the UK charity sector.

What did we learn?

The research raised interesting insight into how people prefer to interact with principles, guidance and resources. For example:

  • People tend to pick and choose what makes sense to them from others’ guidance, then adapt it to their own context
  • Best practice gets shared primarily through stories and people – one person will do something and try to push it within an organisation, then it spreads through relationships and networks
  • It’s really important for people to be able to easily communicate principles to other team members
  • Plain, accessible language should be default, BUT use of the right technical terms (if explained clearly) is also sometimes valuable to educate, up-skill and give people a sense of ownership
  • Tangible, physical artefacts are also useful, e.g. a nice-looking poster that can be stuck on the wall as a constant reminder and prompt to the team.

This fed into the creation of version one of the principles, housed on a new independent website, BetterDigital.Services.

So, one month on, are the principles useful?

Overall the feedback has been really positive, and we’ve been chuffed with how much interest and conversation the principles have generated. The site had over 2,000 unique visits in its first month and the #BetterDigitalServices hashtag reached over a million Twitter impressions in the first week alone, which was exciting to see!

More importantly, people are lingering over the content: the charity checklist (which is packed full of crowdsourced tips and links) has had an average pageview time of four minutes, which shows people are taking time to look through and digest the information, and they’re spending several minutes on each case study as well. We’ll be reviewing the analytics in more detail in a couple of months’ time to see what tweaks need to be made.

Besides using the principles ourselves in recent workshops, we’ve heard from charities that have found them helpful when putting together new funding bids for digital, and from funders who’ve used them to help assess bid applications. Others have discussed the principles at board meetings, used them as a basis for structuring new innovation strategies, and added them to tender documents as a requirement for potential digital partners to follow. Several people have told (and shown!) us they’ve printed out the poster and put it on display.

Principles on the wall at the Scottish Book Trust

We’ve also had valuable feedback from the community:

Some have said the Think About Privacy and Security principle needs to be stronger – unsurprising since GDPR and safeguarding are currently front of mind for the sector. There are several good resources to help with this, a lot of it boils down to questions of data ethics. These include the Data Ethics Toolkits by data agency IF, the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas and Gov.UK’s Data Ethics Framework.

A recent Tech for Good Live podcast discussed whether ‘evidence of impact’ should be its own principle, and the July Product for Good Meetup discussed how different organisations are ‘measuring good’ in digital product/service design. It’s an interesting and important question, and one we hope to delve into more through future events and conversations.

Several people have noted the Build the Right Team principle is the hardest of all the principles to get right. Some have fed back that the guidance under this principle is currently more applicable for larger charities. The Shelter case study is a great example of how a big organisation with teams of specialists might tackle digital, but it’s a world away from the reality of a tiny organisation struggling to keep the lights on, let alone resource digital development.

Janet Thorne, CEO of small charity Reach Volunteering, told us,

“Embedding [digital] is relatively easy but resourcing it is super tricky. I don’t know how others manage it – we are just making it up as we go along. For us now, the challenges are about working out which tasks/functions we need to pay freelancers for, and finding talented reliable freelancers who will work for reasonable rates; which tasks we can do ourselves and how we develop the skills and confidence to do them ‘well enough’ (and what ‘well enough’ looks like); and perhaps most challenging of all, carving out time for things like user research while managing competing priorities (that we are funded to do) like service delivery.”

We’d love to hear from more smaller organisations on how they’re tackling this, and if they think they’re striking the right balance between upskilling in-house staff and pulling in external digital expertise. It feels like there’s an important conversation to be had here with scope for a lot more exploration.

Take a look at BetterDigital.Services and if you find the principles useful or have comments please drop us a line at

Banner Image: Green Chameleon on Unsplash
Image: Edho Pratama on Unsplash

Ellie Hale

digital fellowship and communities lead, CAST

Ellie runs CAST's digital fellowship programme for non-profit CEOs and senior leaders. She is also CAST’s community champion, collaborating with other leading organisations to run regular events including Tech for Good London, NetSquared London and Open Charity Meetup. She is a trustee of Quaker Social Action.

Tori Ellaway

fuse lead, CAST

Tori leads CAST's Fuse accelerator, recruiting and supporting nonprofits throughout the programme in user-centred service design, and integrating the methodologies they learn back into their organisations. She also runs a number of bespoke consultancy projects at CAST, working with a network of product and service design professionals, and co-led the research and development of the digital design principles.