Design Research Integration

Helping Nonprofits Go Beyond Surveys and Focus Groups

Design Research blends ethnographic and anthropological tools to help us better understand what users, constituents, and customers want.

It helps surface any buried desires, emotions, and needs to inform the strategic design of our outcomes.

Nonprofits might hit limits when using surveys and focus groups in an attempt to reach breakthrough insights about their customers and clients. Let's observe focus groups:

  • They don't discover unmet needs. People don't know what they're missing until they've experienced it.
  • Focus groups are convenient for incremental improvements for currently existing produts, services, and programs
  • They're convenient for small reiterations in strategy and tactics.

Design research can answer the big questions regarding the total experience around a nonprofit's programs and services. It helps answer questions like "What impact is it really having in the field?" or "What are we not seeing?"

Focus groups and surveys aren't entirely useless. The point is that some breakthroughs can't be generated by simply asking people.

Practice Using Design Research

  • Use it to structure conversations with stakeholders, team members, clients, and those who will be most impacted by your outcomes.
  • Be aware of how you're using new methods and tools
  • Be aware of what part of the collaboration process this might be useful for: fact finding, idea generation, idea evalution, problem definition, etc.
  • Use a facilitator. Facilitation can guide groups to use their best thinking with these tools. The basics of team work and teams design still remian the same.


Don't view design research as silver bullets. Use it to supplement your already existing research. Use it to test assumptions or lingering questions about insights you've already gained.

Try not to use these in isolation. Be aware of how they supplement a particular activity in your collaboration process. For example, is a tool suitable for the problem-defining phase or fact-finding phase?

Finally, be aware that your collaboration outcomes will not always be "tangible." Read the entry on outcomes awareness.

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