Design Thinking for Associations: We're Taking It from Conceptual to Practical

Behind every challenge for associations right now is our shared reality: everything is changing and uncertain. Planning for the future is a constant game of catch-up as you try to figure out what your members and market need. But you can move forward with confidence because we have a solution to this problem: design thinking for associations.

The basics of design thinking for associations

If you’re like me, you’ve heard about design thinking and perhaps even attended a design thinking webinar or conference session. You have a basic understanding but never applied it yourself. We want to help you take design thinking from the conceptual to the practical realm—and our focus, as always, is on educational programs.

Connie Malamed, a learning experience design consultant who’s also known as The eLearningCoach, defines design thinking as “a human-centered, collaborative, and iterative approach for deeply understanding an audience and their challenges in order to generate effective solutions.”

She says design thinking doesn’t replace instructional design, instead it enhances instructional design techniques. Another illuminating description is from “Innovation Evangelist” Dr. Pavan Soni: “Design thinking is not about design, it’s about thinking.”

Why your association should give design thinking a try

We’re in the great era of exploration. Design thinking provides an opportunity to try a new approach to program development—an approach that gives you greater insight into your target audience.

Channel efforts in the right direction. With the situation on the ground changing so quickly, you can’t waste efforts. Design thinking helps you create products and programs that your members and market actually need, so success is more likely.

Minimize risk. Your board should love that! You’ll have the opportunity to test and tweak elements along the way instead of investing everything in one huge this-is-it, there’s-no-going-back-now final launch. Yes, some risk exists but it’s minimized because you’re getting feedback along the way.

Deliver expected value. With the design thinking approach, you know that whatever you develop will actually deliver value to stakeholders. In an Altai Systems webinar, consultant Moira Edwards of Ellipsis Partners compared the design thinking process to building a bridge. You don’t want to build a bridge in one go and then find out it brings you to the wrong place. Instead, build a bit, stop, and course correct if need be.

Build buy-in. The design thinking process depends upon the participation of members and/or customers. You learn about their experiences and listen to their feedback. You’re more likely to get to the right place while building buy-in from those who were involved. They become project champions who can help you sell the new program to the rest of your audience.

Deepen understanding. Perhaps the greatest side benefit of design learning is your increased understanding of member and market pain points. Time is always well spent when you can learn and think about your members’ experience.

design thinking for associations

5 steps of design thinking

Design thinking is non-linear process. Its cyclical nature may remind you of the Agile methodology. However, projects taking the design thinking approach start in one place always—empathy.

#1: Empathize

Connie Malamed said, “Empathy involves more than just analyzing an audience. It’s about experiencing the feelings of others and understanding what it is like to have their challenges.”

What frustrates your members? What do they yearn for? For example, many young professionals become frustrated when they can’t move up the career ladder because they don’t have staff management experience. You hear them say, “If only I could prove I understand how to manage staff, I’m self-aware and know what pitfalls to look out for, and I know how to motivate, delegate, coach, and lead teams. But how?”

Get these members to tell stories about their challenges and help them explore reasons for their situation. Use journey mapping, individual interviews (employees and employers), focus groups, surveys, and, in non-pandemic times, shadowing members in their jobs. But go beyond the usual suspects, Edwards says to include not just “friends” but “mavericks” too.

The people who experience this problem—and will benefit from the solution—must be involved in the Empathy phase. You can’t rely on subject matter experts alone. They may think they represent the user but you need to hear from the target audience themselves.

#2: Define

Now, it’s time to analyze all the information you gathered in the “Empathize” phase.

•    What problem are we trying to solve?
•    How do we know this is a real problem?
•    For whom are we solving the problem?
•    Why is it important to solve for them?
•    Why are we the ones to solve it?
•    How will we know if we’ve solved the problem?

The goal of this step is to create a problem statement that everyone agrees on. A problem statement could look like this: “[Member/customer] needs [product/service] because [insight from Empathize phase].”

In our example, the learner needs proof they have what it takes to manage staff because they need those skills to get promoted. However, they don’t have the opportunity to develop these skills at work.

Hmm, that’s a toughie, or is it? Is it a real problem? Are you the ones to solve it? Make sure you’ve identified the right real problem before moving on.

Malamed said, “If we spend sufficient time and effort at this task, we may discover that training is not the solution at all. That’s why defining the problem through research—looking at it from many angles and perspectives—can set you on the right track.”

design thinking for associations

#3: Ideate

Edwards said it’s tempting to jump to the Ideate phase immediately, but you need to step back and understand the problem you’re trying to solve. You don’t want to narrow your attention to solutions and details immediately.

Once you’re ready for the Ideate phase, you and your team brainstorm potential solutions. Stay open. Don’t fixate on one solution. Keep an improv mindset of “yes and…”

Our imaginary brainstormers came up with a bunch of ideas for our member’s problem, including:

•    In-person, hybrid, or virtual leadership academy
•    Online courses in staff management
•    Lunch and learns
•    Coaching service
•    Mentorship program
•    Throw the problem back at employers

And here’s an intriguing one: a digital badge program that includes online mini-courses, volunteer leadership experience, and a peer mastermind group. We settled on this approach because it provides an experiential learning loop that gives learners time to study, discuss, apply, get feedback, reflect, and apply again.

#4: Prototype

Next, design a prototype (or series of them) to test your solution. Don’t build the entire solution and test it as a pilot—that brings too much risk and is not the point of this exercise.

Malamed said a prototype is a “low-resolution or low-fidelity model of a concept” that doesn’t require a huge investment of time or money and is tested with a small group of users.

But first, the solution you select to prototype must hit the sweet spot between the user/learner, the business, and the environment. Is it desirable, viable, and feasible? Think about these factors.

•    Desirability for learner: What’s valuable, enjoyable, and easy to use?
•    Viability for business or association: Do you have mission alignment, staff capabilities and bandwidth, financial resources, and executive sponsorship?
•    Feasibility for environment: What about market conditions, competition, and the technology to pull it off?

Our imaginary team envisions a digital badge program as a series of 3-week synchronous online courses, each focusing on a different aspect of staff management. Learners take on volunteer leadership roles to practice their new skills and participate in an exclusive online community forum. They meet every week on Zoom to discuss what’s going on in the office, how they’re applying what they’re learning, and to practice potential management scenarios with guest mentors.

But that’s a lot to test at once, so the first prototype is the 3-week online course leading to the first digital badge along with the discussion forum.

#5: Test

If you’ve practiced Agile, this process will be familiar. You test the prototype, gather feedback, tweak the prototype, and test again. You must be willing to change what you’re doing based on the feedback and data you collect. It’s a continuous short cycle of design and delivery improvement until you get it right.

Our imaginary group rolled out the first digital badge program along with the online community and a live scenario practice with guest mentors. We made improvements based on feedback from the learners and mentors, and then launched the course for the second badge in the series.
Learners convinced us to add the volunteer experience later. They didn’t think they’d have time to volunteer while taking courses. But they do like the idea of having an opportunity to apply what they’re learning in a setting outside work. They also liked seeing how different mentors handle the staff management scenarios so we plan to incorporate more of that.

Lori Niles-Hofmann, the author of Data Driven Learning Design, said “…[T]he content we design and deliver could mean the difference between a person remaining relevant in the workforce or left behind.” The whole point of design thinking is to better understand the needs of your members and customers so you choose the right solutions to design and deliver—programs that deliver value to users and that learners value.

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