3 challenges to embedding a user-centred design approach

Photo credit: Uscreates


Last week I went along to #Design4Charities2018, an event hosted by Uscreates to explore the different ways charities and foundations are using design to deliver impact at scale.

An impressive bunch convened for the two-hour event, with representatives from GSTC, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Health Foundation, Mind, Marie Curie, The Wellcome Trust, Point People, Investing for Good, and the Centre for Ageing Better, amongst others.

After a short panel discussion, we split into groups to discuss and tackle different challenges. My team was tasked with thinking about the challenges associated with embedding a user-centred design approach across organisations, investments and commissioning.

This is a really pertinent question for us here at Shift, and one which done a lot of thinking about through our work on Progressively and in our partnership with the National Citizen Service.

Through our discussion, my table identified three challenges charities often face when seeking to promote and embed a user-centred design approach:


Whilst one of the big benefits of applying a ‘design approach’ is that it pushes you to make progress – testing your ideas early by getting them out into the world and into the hands of users – the ‘discovery’ phase can feel like an unaffordable luxury. Senior managers and funders can apply pressure to make progress towards outcomes targets early on, leaving little time to consult the end user, understand their needs, and engage them in co-creation.


The language of ‘user-centred design’ can feel alienating and confusing, making it feel inaccessible as an everyday approach. We need to simplify the language of design, and demonstrate to individuals in all positions that user-centred design can support them to meet their aims.

There can also be misunderstanding about the purpose and process of user-centred design. User consultation is not about identifying users who will validate a preconceived idea, but about bringing users in early on to co-develop solutions that genuinely meet their needs. This requires open-mindedness, humility, and a willingness to be open to challenging your beliefs.


Related to the above, gaining support for the adoption of a user-centred design approach across an organisation can be difficult. There is sometimes scepticism about the value that such an approach offers; a value that can be difficult to measure in concrete terms. Case studies demonstrating the benefits of iteratively designing services that have the user at their centre are a good starting point for convincing sceptics of the need for such an approach.
Challenging the status quo and supporting organisations to change the way that they work is a tricky task, but it was great to see so many charities and funders gathered together to share experiences and come up with positive steps forward.