How to Apply Human-Centered Design to Association Technology Initiatives

Written by Gordon Withers on January 24, 2019

Have you ever struggled with issues of technology adoption, mismatched expectations, or the perception of your organization as behind the times? The use of technology can change the way people think about you as an organization, for better or for worse.

Human-centered design is a framework for projects and decision-making which can be particularly useful for embarking on new technological ventures. As a published framework, it is fairly new, although IDEO, the firm that developed it, has been using it successfully for several decades. Human-centered design and the concepts behind it are especially applicable to membership organizations, because human-centered design focuses on putting ourselves in the shoes of our members and the users of our products. The framework can be applied to any organizational initiative, from developing a publication, to designing an event, to improvements to your physical office space.

IDEO segments human-centered design into three phases, while other adaptations use four, five, or even six steps. This four-stage version most closely matches association technology initiatives.

Stage 1: User Research

User research is important for any initiative. While it is often skipped, especially in organizations where budgets are tight or people have a fixed idea of what they want to do, it may be the most important piece. Most associations have some data on hand, even if it’s anecdotal or a three-year old member survey. Anything is better than nothing.

Recommended tactic: Immersion

Associations are uniquely positioned to execute human-centered design, given the close relationships they have with their members. Have you ever considered observing members in their day to day work? Shadowing people doing their day-to-day job can be illuminating in truly understanding where their pain points are and how your organization can offer solutions.

Stage 2: Ideation

The second phase of human-centered design is ideation: the process of coming up with ideas to ease these pain points, or imagining what the next version of an offering will be. An ideation process does not have to be an extended and time-consuming one. It could be a single three-hour workshop at conference with a facilitator present to gather up ideas and choose two or three to test.

Often, ideation can start with simply taking a look at peer organizations, other associations in your space, or even similar for-profit organizations: what are they doing and where are they succeeding? This is especially helpful if you’re stuck without ideas or want to consider partnerships to move your whole industry forward.

Recommended tactic: Card Sort

During ideation, run a simple card sort exercise with a few of your members. The way they react to and rank words and phrases will help clarify what is truly important to them – and give you insight into which of the association’s product ideas will resonate, and which should be discarded.

Stage 3: Iteration

The next phase is taking your ideas and prototyping them. Build a test product and then try it out and iterate on it within a set amount of time. You can match iterations to budget funding cycles if money is an issue; and prototypes can be made cheaply. Depending on your stakeholder landscape, a committee can be engaged to give their feedback on these iterations, with progress reported back to the association’s board.

Recommended tactic: Storyboard

A prototype doesn’t always have to be high-tech. A simple storyboard exercise might be perfect for testing out a concept, portion of the product, or simulating an interaction with members. Start simply, figure out what is working, and build to more high-fidelity iterations.

Stage 4: Implementation

In many association projects, prototyping and implementation occur simultaneously. In the human-centered design approach, it is split up so that once you have tested a product, you know exactly what works and what to implement. Therefore, the implementation process should run more smoothly. Transparency is the name of the game for implementation. What will you measure to gauge the success of the new project? How are you going to communicate its purpose to members?

Recommended tactic: Define Success

How do you tell if implementation is a success? Define success metrics in advance so you can track them throughout the project – and remember, the perception of success may differ between association staff and members. Success metrics may also change over time, but having defined them at the start, you can adjust as things evolve throughout these stages.

If you do spend time researching human-centered design, you’ll find that different techniques for listening and interviewing are at the core of it. The most important part is having empathy for your users and members.

If you are interested in learning more about the techniques the specifics of human-centered design, start with IDEO’s official guide to the process.

Editor’s note: The author would like to thank the other speakers - Amy Burke, Emily Hendershot and Harry Rothmann - for their informative contributions to the session and to this article.

Gordon spoke in the “Approaches For Human-Centered Design in Technology Initiatives” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.