At Navicet, we're on a mission to build design-led organizations. On the surface, the goal seems simple enough. Digging deeper, however, it turns out that a useful definition of the term is anything but obvious.

Just the other day, a board member from one of our favorite nonprofit clients asked: what exactly does it mean to be "design-led?" Having been at it now for a little over three years, we thought we would take a stab at putting it into words.

Design-thinking is a strategy and a process for problem solving, rooted in empathy. Design-led organizations combine a design mindset with supporting principles and process. To fully deliver on its promise, design-thinking has to grow into more than a checklist of activities, or it risks falling away, dismissed as just another “flavor-of-the-month.” For it to yield meaningful results, it has to be embedded as part of a deeper cultural change.

Design-led organizations are willing to test ideas before they are fully formed. They try out the smallest, lowest fidelity product, service, or technology before making the big investment to launch at scale. Testing ideas and assumptions early reduces risk, and we learn our way forward to delivering a bigger impact for the smallest investment. Because of the focus on testing and iteration, we spend effort early in a project to frame the challenge and build, or select, a measurement instrument, so that we know what we're optimizing for when we generate or refine ideas.

In the design process, we start by focusing on real people's experiences. We talk to the people we serve in order to challenge our assumptions, find insight, and uncover surprises. This approach works well to balance out an engineering culture, but it works equally well for non-profits, organizations that already have the benefit of a clear, consistent passion and commitment from staff members to the clients they serve. But as humans, despite our best intentions, we carry biases, make assumptions, and sometimes pass judgment. For example, in a different nonprofit we work with, we noticed a couple of staff members judge a client's decision to make a purchase as "bad" or thought it "doesn't make sense." A closer look helped us understand how we all might make those same “bad decisions” if we found ourselves in their shoes.

Being design-led means we set aside time to understand how that person's world works and build empathy - because without doing that, there’s only a small chance we will create something that makes their world better. This same approach also holds true for staff members, because for a solution or new idea to survive within another nonprofit or government agency's system, it has to align with the aspirations and goals of their staff.

Practicing human-centered design doesn’t mean that we simply ask the families we work with or the staff what they want. They don’t know. Before the touchscreen phone was invented, customers weren’t asking for a phone without buttons during qualitative interviews. It's up to the design team to synthesize what they hear, build on what they learn, and generate ideas that stand up to the challenge that real users face.

I'm inspired by one of our clients, The Prosperity Agenda, who has made a commitment to become design-led. A year ago when I first met Diana, the Executive Director at The Prosperity Agenda, she and her team were already inclined towards a design-thinking mindset, and they were looking for support to build the muscle, own the practice, and integrate the principles into their planning and the organization. It's been a delight working with them to translate those aspirations and sensibilities into concrete plans that generate new insights and uncover surprising ways to address "how might we" questions for challenges that haven't been adequately addressed for families experiencing poverty.

By becoming a design-led organization, The Prosperity Agenda delivers something that partners and funders can't get anywhere else - deep experience and expertise combined with agility, nonjudgment, and a commitment to approaching their work by putting the partners and the families experiencing poverty they serve at the center of everything they do. The Prosperity Agenda builds trust by measuring the impact of their work, by testing their assumptions with the families experiencing poverty they serve, and meeting both partners and families where they're at today. Being design-led means that we focus on the experiences of the people we serve, and that shines through strategy, planning, and daily activities.