What is service design and how can you use it to create better experiences?

Struggle with the challenge of creating a great experience for your program participants or donors while balancing the needs of staff or volunteers or your organization?  Trying to develop a new program, new event, new campaign, new operational capacity – and feel like you’re constantly discovering another missing piece you didn’t have in place? 

Service design considers the needs of all stakeholders involved in a service or experience, how to create value both for the user and the provider, and all of the supporting infrastructure or processes needed to make that happen. 

In this 30-minute talk from the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference, I provide an overview of service design and introduce a core method, the service blueprint, as a way to help you think through and plan what’s needed to deliver the experiences or outcomes you’re hoping to achieve for new and for existing programs.

When to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods

While I really enjoy working with qualitative data, and while there are definitely camps of people who argue about the superiority of quantitative vs. qualitative data, what ultimately matters is what type of question you’re trying to answer.   Certain methods are better suited for certain situations or types of information.  Selecting your methods should be not be about what you prefer or are most skilled at (and thus most comfortable with), but about which method will help you answer your question.  Each method has its strengths and its limitations.

Here’s how I think about design research methods:

Image is a chart with 4 quadrants and 2 axes.  Y-axis is a spectrum of Qualitative (Tell me why) to Quantitative (Does this work?).  X-axis is a spectrum of Attitudinal (How do you feel about it?) to Behavioral (What do you do?).  Clockwise from the top left: Attitudinal & Qualitative includes Interviews; Behavioral & Qualitative includes Contextual Inquiry, Usability Testing, Service Safari; Behavioral & Quantitative includes A/B Testing, Web Analytics, Unmoderated Testing; and Attitudinal & Quantitative includes Surveys.

On one axis: qualitative to quantitative. 

Quantitative methods are for when you want to know, does this work or not?  Surveys, website analytics, A/B testing – for these, you’re looking for patterns across a large sample size, or group of people (or interactions/transactions).  Note: If you’ve only got 10 people to see data from, this is probably not going to be your best course because even 1 extreme case (10%!) is going to skew your results. 

Qualitative methods are when you want to understand why.  Why someone does things in a certain order, or why certain functions or features are important.  If someone makes a frowny face when presented with something, what is it they were expecting instead?

On the other axis: attitudinal to behavioral.

Attitudinal methods are for when you want to know how someone feels about something.  What’s their opinion?  Even if you are surveying or interviewing someone about their past behavior, this is based on recall—which will be colored by how they felt about it. 

In contrast, behavioral methods allow you to observe what the person is actually doing.  Quantitative behavioral methods like analyzing website visitor behavior can tell you that 30% of website visitors did in fact click on the “Donate” button from the home page.  It can’t tell you why, though.  A usability test* allows you to observe behavior while people are trying to use your design to complete a task—so you can see the behavior directly without it being filtered by what the person thinks is relevant to tell you (or remembers), but you also have the ability to ask them questions.  Like, “I noticed you moved your mouse back and forth between the Donate button and the Join Us button a couple times before clicking on the Donate button—can you tell me more?”

*A usability test is a test of how usable your design is—it is not a test of the user!  For a usability test, you typically create some realistic tasks and have an idea of how you might expect them to go about the tasks, then you give them to someone who is representative of your audience of focus.  What you’re looking for is whether your design and your expectations for how someone would do that task match up to a real person’s expectations of how things should work.   

Let’s walk through an example.

Say that I’m doing advocacy work and I’m trying to get people to contact their government officials about how much we would in fact like a taco truck on every corner.

  • If I want to increase how many people open our emails and then sign our petitions, I’ll probably use A/B testing and look at the email analytics.
  • If I want to know whether people who supported our taco truck on every corner initiative are interested in our other initiatives, I’d use a survey.
  • If I want to understand what would motivate someone to recruit others to take action and how we could make it easy for them to form their own street team – I’d use interviews.

Typically, I will layer methods.  For example, I might use web analytics or a survey to inform what questions I ask in interviews or what tasks I focus on during a usability test. 

Just as the best tacos have multiple fillings with a mix of different flavors and textures – the same goes for when you’re gathering data to make for the most enjoyable eating experience!

The best way to get everyone on the same page

When I was a kid, I drew all the time.  On anything.  (Just ask my parents to move their couch—there is still crayon on that wall behind it!)  While I have no plans to become a professional artist or graphic designer, I’ve carried drawing and sketching into adulthood, and into my work

How, you wonder?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone, perhaps multiple people in a meeting, and then realized halfway through there were actually multiple conversations going on?  As in, none of you were talking about the same thing, even if you were using the same words and convinced that you were?

The best way to get everyone on the same page is to take it literally.

Drawing a picture is the best way to get everyone on the same page.  The challenge of discussing things that aren’t tangible, like a process or where all our data lives, is that everyone is working off of how they think things are related in their brain.  Which is not to say that each person’s version isn’t each true, but it’s hard to tell if they line up with everyone else’s or not.  Without anything tangible, we often assume that everyone else has access to the same information we do and that they’re seeing the same image of the thing in their head that we are. 

Putting it down on paper (or a whiteboard, or an online canvas) for everyone to see at the same time, however, allows people to see where things don’t match up, fill in some gaps, and make corrections.  Most importantly, it’s a prop that helps us make sure we’re all having a conversation about the same thing and know that everyone else is looking at the same thing.

Wait, but I can’t draw!

You doth protest too much.  If you can draw a box and a line, you can draw a diagram.  When you’re using visual communication, it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as people understand it.  You’re not creating a pretty picture; you’re creating clarity.

Interested in learning more?  Here’s a talk I gave, along with Adrienne Figus and Brianna Collins, at the 2022 Nonprofit Technology Conference with on how you can draw a map to clarity:

How to prioritize which data to collect and keep

One of the things that can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, whether you’re beginning to collect data for the first time or you’re trying to clean up a decade’s worth of data, is how to prioritize which data you need.

Of course, there’s data you’re required to collect and keep due to regulations, taxes, grant contracts.

And then there’s the data that you will need in the course of your operations—like where to send donation thank you letters, volunteer contact information, client names, budget totals, event attendees, etc.

But of that second category, which data do you need to keep?

And, if you’re starting out, what data should you collect that would be helpful?

Here’s how I like to answer that question:

A question you can answer using dataWhat action can the organization take based on this data?What data do you have (or can you get) that would be needed to answer this?
Example: Which social media channel generates the most conversions?Example: We can change how much time we spend on various channelsExample: Click through rate
Table to use for prioritizing data to collect

By filling in this table, I can get a lot of clarity on which data is worth keeping or collecting.

First, identify some questions you’d like to be able to answer using data.

These are typically things that might help you make a decision.  For example, is our current marketing strategy working as we’d hoped?  Is our program achieving the intended goal?  Did we budget appropriately for our technology needs? 

Next, determine what actions you could take based on answering that question.

Perhaps you’ll spend more time on your TikTok content than YouTube if that’s what the data proves to be more effective.  Maybe you’ll be able to (combined with demographic data) notice that your program is more effective for certain age groups than for others.  Or you can budget more realistically for your technology needs in the future.

Last but not least, determine what data is needed to answer that question and evaluate whether you can actually obtain that data or whether it would be ethical to collect or keep it.

Of course, there are plenty of things we’d love to be able to answer.  For example, we’d be interested to know what drives those seemingly random donations from new donors.  But maybe it’s really not feasible to obtain that data beyond how they got to our donation page (e.g., from an email vs. social media vs. something else).  Or perhaps we’d like to know how long the effect of our program lasts, but we work with a population that moves frequently. 

Then again, there’s data that is highly sensitive in nature.  Like someone’s undocumented status or the fact that an individual has contacted your organization about services related to intimate partner violence. 

If you are dealing with data that puts your constituents at risk should it end up in the wrong hands, consider whether you actually need this data to fulfill your mission and if so, what steps you can take to minimize data collected, secure it, and carefully discard it as soon as possible. 

NTEN’s Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology is a great resource to check out for more considerations for your data collection and data management practices.

Tips for starting a new job remotely

Since many organizations went remote in 2020, many people have been starting new jobs remotely.  As a freelancer and independent consultant, I started my first remote gig in 2016.  And even before that, as someone who worked at an organization with partners nationwide, I frequently worked with colleagues who spent 50% of their time on the road as well as with people scattered across the country and whom I still haven’t met in person.

However, many people are still starting new jobs remotely for the first time – as I was reminded when a friend recently asked for advice before their first day. 

Consider the organizational and team context.

Has the team always worked fully remotely, or have some of the team members worked together in person?  Or, is the organization working in a hybrid form – you’re fully remote, but not everyone is? 

Teams that have been remote from the start tend to have designed all of their internal processes around being a distributed team.  While organizations that made their digital transformations as a result of the pandemic have figured out a lot of things by now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team you’ll be working with isn’t still relying heavily on relationships that had been built when the team worked together in person.  And depending on how a hybrid environment is set up, people who are in office may forget that things still need to be done differently for teammates who are remote.  For example, that the team is no longer all within one time zone.

Also consider that, at a large organization hiring lots of people, they’ve had more opportunities to iron out the remote onboarding process.  Smaller organizations that may only hire 1-2 new people a year may still be figuring things out.

Be more proactive and intentional in building relationships.

It used to be that your manager could simply walk you around the office on your first day and you’d meet most of the people you needed to meet that way. Then maybe you’d have some meetings set up with the key people you’d be working with over the next couple weeks.

Like all of the tips I’m mentioning, relationship building is something you want to do regardless of whether you’re starting your new job in person or remotely.  However, you’ll want to be even more intentional in both meeting people (and asking them whom you should meet with) and in building relationships with those folks.  On the other hand, it may also be easier to meet with people who normally would have been located in different offices or who traveled a lot.

Here’s a thread that shares a great approach to meet and greets:

If you find it hard to remember to circle back with people, and especially if your organization is large and dispersed, consider taking notes on any suggestions they made (e.g., to talk with such and such person) or insights they shared, and put a reminder on your calendar for a couple months later to let them know how that suggestion worked or how that insight was helpful.

Learn the time zones—and that these are not the same as working hours.

One major mental adjustment for people who are not accustomed to remote work or working with people who are not collocated is remembering that people may be in different time zones and/or may have different working hours.  And for those of who have the flexibility, we may be trying out new structures, like only having meetings during certain hours and reserving other time for heads down work.

Perhaps everyone in your organization lives in the same region and is simply working remotely during the pandemic.  But even if they are, this doesn’t mean they didn’t decide to take a couple weeks to visit family and work from a different part of the country.  And it doesn’t mean that their hours are the same as if they would be commuting to and from the office.  I know someone who starts his workday at 5 so that he can be done when his kids come home from school.

It is always a good idea to ask about general working hours or about preferences for scheduling meetings.  For example, although I start working earlier, I usually try not to schedule meetings before 10 a.m. so I can get some focused time in first.

Figure out how to make use of existing tools and practices to communicate about your time zone and work schedule.  Some people include their time zone next to their phone numbers in their email signatures (if phone numbers are shared).  Shared calendars are useful for conveying working hours and availability for meetings—however, different teams and people have different norms around this and in how shared calendars are used (if at all).  Often, it’s best to explicitly discuss this with the people you’ll be working with most closely.

Find out how the team shares information.

Speaking of how teams use shared calendars, if they do, it will be helpful to understand how teams share various types of information.  Some teams are better at explicitly articulating this and cover it during onboarding, but in general there are usually things that tend to be things that people take for granted because they’re simply used to it.

  • How is information shared differently at the team and organizational levels? 
  • Do they use a chat or messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams?  If so, what gets shared publicly or within team channels vs. via private message?
  • How does the team use shared calendars?  Are there calendars for work deadlines, editorial calendars, when team members are out, etc.?
  • What gets shared in team meetings vs. email?  Are there shared meeting notes?
  • Are people expected to share back with the rest of the team after attending a webinar or a conference?
  • Where are files stored and shared, and what are practices around that?
  • Is work often done in public or collaboratively, or do people typically work on their own before sharing the final product?

Ask about communication preferences—and share yours.

And of course, it’s helpful to ask your colleagues about their individual communication preferences.  I’ve worked with people who loved a quick Slack chat, others who preferred the phone for something that required back and forth discussion, and some who preferred email or scheduled meetings, and still others who were okay with a spontaneous video call.

It’s also important to communicate your preferences, both towards the beginning and per individual instances – such as asking if you could hop on a call after the 5th email in as many minutes.  Some questions to help you get started:

  • Are you okay with sharing your phone number?  (This may depend on other factors like whether your employer gives everyone a work phone/phone number, whether colleagues are good at understanding time zones, etc.)
  • If you’re okay with sharing your phone number, is this for certain instances (e.g., a quick text to tell me your Internet went down before our meeting) or can folks treat this like a work phone number and call any time during business hours?
  • Are you okay with spontaneous phone or video calls?  Would you like a quick message to ask if now’s a good time?  Or would you prefer to get a request and schedule a time?
  • Are there platforms that work better for you?  (For example, you have a hearing impairment and prefer video calls so that you can use captioning.  Or you just went to the dentist and can only type until the novocaine wears off.)
  • How will you communicate times when you are working but need to focus?  (The office equivalent would be closing your door, if you normally keep it open.)

It should go without saying, but since people still seem to do this: If you’re a manager and want to quickly chat with a direct report, please please please mention the topic so that the other person doesn’t have a panic attack.  There’s a vast difference between, “Do you have a few minutes to discuss how the presentation went?” and “We need to talk.”  (Also a good idea even if you’re not the other person’s manager.)

What else?

Is there anything else you would advise for someone starting a new job remotely for the first time?  Drop a line and let me know.

A Quick and Easy Template for All Your Meeting Notes

My whole life, I have been a note taker – not because I have poor memory, but because it is part of how I process information.  If someone is simply talking at me (not with me), and I am doing nothing with this information, then there’s a good chance I’m not likely to remember any of it.  I have live transcribed interview notes.  I have gotten into sketchnotes the past few years.  I have typed up official minutes and jumped into the beautiful fray of collaborative notes.  Mostly though, I prefer a steno pad and a ballpoint.

Take notes however works best for you.

That being said, there are notes that are for you, and there are notes that are for the creation and sharing of knowledge.  Meeting notes fall into the latter category.

To be useful to other people afterwards, meeting notes require a clear structure.  They require some synthesis of what had been discussed, agreed upon, and what remained outstanding.

To be useful during the meeting to the person taking notes, meeting notes require a template that reminds you of all the types of things you need to capture.

There are a lot of specific and formatted templates out there.  You may have a few or 15 at your organization.  But I find that simple is best.  It means I can easily create it from memory without having to search for the correct template for that particular client or committee or type of project.  Which is really helpful when what was supposed to be a 15-minute check-in with your team turns into an apparently-no-one-renewed-our-domain-registration crisis management session.

Here it is my quick and easy template for all meeting notes:

  • Date
  • Participants
  • Agenda
  • Decisions Made
  • Action Items
  • Notes

Date

Having spent enough time working with global teams and generally communicating with people who are not American, I am getting into the habit of writing dates in an internationally friendly format: Month DD, YYYY.  That’s still rather US centric, if at least clearer, so you and your colleagues might prefer DD Month, YYYY, which is how most (the rest?) of the world formats dates.  If you prefer numerical dates and or will be including this in the filename for chronological sorting, I suggest using the ISO standard of YYYY-MM-DD.

Participants

Who was present at this meeting?  Unless it’s a very small team or very short-term project, I typically include last names so as to maintain clarity for when a second Sanket joins the team.  (Trust me, New Sanket and Old Sanket are NOT good ways to distinguish between them.). If this is a meeting across teams or organizations, I may include which group they’re representing as well. 

Basically, if these notes were shared with you and you were not at the meeting, what might you want to know about who was involved in making the decisions?  What information would you need to follow up with people assigned action items if you have questions?  Relevant details will vary somewhat depending on that context of who’s there and who else will use these notes.

Agenda

Every meeting should have an agenda.  It doesn’t have to be super formal, but there should always be a clear purpose for your meeting. 

Many people list the topics or the speaking order in an agenda, and that’s not wrong—but it’s not as effective as listing your objectives.  How will you know if the objectives of the meeting have been achieved?  How do you know when you’re done talking about a topic or if further discussion is needed?  It’s easier to tell if your agenda lists “Choose venue for teambuilding” instead of “Discuss teambuilding.” Make your agenda your guide.

If this truly needs to be meeting and not an email, this means there is likely at least one decision to be made.  Include any decisions to be made in your agenda.

Decisions Made

This space is for recording decisions that have been made.  Documenting decisions is crucial.  Otherwise, everyone notes what they think they heard to be the group’s decision, and you end up with a game of telephone except that you were all in the room (Zoom or conference) believing you took part in the same conversation.  Spelling out the decision in writing gives everyone a chance to refute or clarify, and helps make sure that you are all agreeing to what you think you are agreeing to. 

Note that this decision can change in the future; you’re simply documenting the decision at this point in time.  For example, that you’re going to have your conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 2020.  That decision may have made sense in September 2019 but may not have looked so good in March 2020.  This doesn’t mean you may not plan out your 2022 conference and revisit having it in person.  Documenting your decisions allows people to track what happened when and why things changed.

In the rare instance that no decisions were made* (was this actually a presentation rather than a meeting?), you can always leave this section blank, but it’s a handy prompt.

*If you decided to punt a decision to a later date or separate meeting because, for example, you needed some additional information, or because a key stakeholder wasn’t present—then you made a decision!  Add that here.

Action Items

It is very common that after a meeting, some of the people in the meeting will need to do some things.  Documenting those action items here, along with who is responsible and the due date, is again, crucial as a central source of truth and avoiding those pesky arguments about who was supposed to get your domain registration renewed pronto.

Notes

This is where you take notes on the substantive points of discussion.  Updates shared.  Concerns and considerations that went into the decisions that were made.  Any disagreements and how they were resolved.  Contextual information for those action items.  (If there are any questions that require someone to find something out and let the group know – that’s an action item!)  And anything else worth noting!

If you’re taking notes during the meeting and scrambling to figure out where to put things in the moment, it’s completely okay to put everything that’s not the agenda (which hopefully you have beforehand or create together at the start of the meeting) in the Notes section.  Then you can take a few minutes after the meeting if needed to put the decisions made and action items into their appropriate spots.  Since note taking is often done quickly, I often leave them in the notes as is and then try to rewrite them more clearly to put into the Decisions Made and Action Items sections.

Go forth and take notes!  Drop me a line if this has been useful to you or if you have any suggestions.