Five suggestions for building social impact digital products

Written by
Priyanka Marawar
Sven Newman

Reflections on the potential and pitfalls of social impact digital innovation, from teams who've been there.

Adding a family member to a home entertainment app can take less than a minute. So why is it that updating household members to maintain public housing eligibility can require an unexcused absence from an hourly job, two bus rides, a paper form, and a long line at the public housing authority?

Closing these kinds of glaring chasms between the frictionless consumer digital world and time-consuming analog social services is one way we can reduce the many added burdens that stack the deck in our society. 

It’s a place Daylight has put a lot of energy into. We are committed to working with public organizations, universities and foundations to bring the best of what we learn from consumer design to social impact challenges. And we’re happy to say, the frustrating example above is one burden we are successfully overcoming in partnership with the Santa Clara County Public Housing.

But we also recognize there are many heightened challenges in such digital transformations. Public agencies don’t have the same fiscal freedom as private capital. Those who could benefit most from digital social services lack access to the latest technology. And philanthropies and scientists who seek to innovate also need to adhere to rigorous evidence-based practices. 

How do social impact innovators navigate these challenges and constraints? To provide some insights and spark dialogue, we thought it might be helpful to share some of the key takeaways we and our partners have learned in our recent digital transformation work. 


1. Align on whether you need “a house you can move into.”

Creators of consumer digital products talk about launching and “learning in the wild.” Fully specifying a product before you start guarantees you will spend a lot of time and money building things that don’t actually achieve the outcomes you hope for. Instead, put something out there that has only some of what you hope for, but allows you to launch faster, learn sooner, and in the long run, focus resources on product features that are most valuable, compelling and effective in the real world. In this approach, feature specifications are held lightly and considered fluid.

However, an under-resolved minimally viable product (MVP) that inadequately solves social needs can be a non-starter for a public service organization or funder. Using public resources requires concrete outputs that meet public needs. Philanthropic grants are finite and are usually tied to clear requirements. That can clash with “fluid” specifications.

So how do you reconcile these different philosophical approaches and constraints? There’s no simple, right answer. It’s a topic worthy of a deep article in and of itself. But we’ve found that more important than where you land on this continuum, it’s critical that there is crystal clear alignment on that placement across all parties. 

One of our development partners shared an analogy that helps a lot. When you start a project, figure out as a team of stakeholders, “Do you need a house you can move into?” In other words, at the end of this project and budget, would it be OK that your digital transformation is well on its way to a delightful, intuitive experience that will quickly go viral, but still doesn’t have a fully operational bathroom and guest bedroom? Or is it more important that the house is ready to move into––the experience might not be ideal and the product may not get the traction you hope for, but it does achieve all necessary feature requirements?

There’s a great deal that can go into such conversations and often there are nuanced ways to create a hybrid approach, but just asking this key question at the beginning goes a long way in making sure there are no fundamental misalignment between stakeholders.

2. Find your product hero.

Making the investment in a digital transformation can be a catalytic moment for a social impact organization. Having lined up funding and design collaborators, this is the opportunity to radically improve critical services, nudge positive behavior change in a target population, or empower individuals in a compelling new way. Understandably, this can inspire many within an organization to weigh in on what’s needed. But, sometimes, all of that good intent, without prioritization, can be counterproductive to the outcomes everyone seeks. Design and development collaborators can get whiplash trying to respond to disparate inputs and quickly use up precious time and resources. 

The key to heading this off is finding and investing in a product hero–a respected individual who can artfully take in many disparate opinions, consider organizational needs, and be the empowered product manager who will work  closely with creative collaborators to act against those priorities. There are both strategic and tactical needs here, from nuanced decision making to operational execution. We’ve seen these different needs played by one individual or divided into two positions (product manager and project manager), but both roles are meaty and require day-to-day involvement. That’s not an easy ask for social impact organizations that are already stretched thin doing good work, but from what we’ve seen, it's a critical driver of success for any digital transformation and is worth the strategic investment. 

3. Figure out how to “Fail fast and fail often” safely.

Both human centered design and lean startup approaches look at failure as an opportunity to learn and build better products and experiences. Failing early, when the stakes are lower, can go a long way to mitigate larger risks later. But in the social sector, it’s not always appropriate to expect grantees or social services recipients to be guinea pigs of early prototypes. A lot of mutual commitment goes into relationships between providers, funders and community. One failure could lead to loss of trust in the product, jeopardize relationships, or worse could even adversely affect already marginalized populations.  There’s no one, simple way to overcome this challenge, but proxy users and co-creation are two approaches that can help.

When Daylight was designing a digital tool to be used by social service providers with new parents, it was essential that we show our early ideas to users, but it wasn’t possible to impose on the service providers and their end clients. So, instead, we papered our community with flyers and found a collection of analogous families who were more than happy to try things out, offer their opinions, and, of course, be compensated for their time and expertise. In these situations, seeking out similar individuals who self-select to participate can provide helpful analogous learnings.

Taking this approach one step further, making users and service providers part of the core design team and process can provide even greater sustained insight. It’s the approach Daylight harnesses whenever possible. Having such representation at the table throughout research and design increases ownership and trust. And it allows us to collectively experiment and fail safely.

4. Design with and for service staff.

We are all attuned to and seek to address the greatest unmet needs of our communities. But interestingly, for many digital transformations, one of the critical means to get there is to also pay deep attention to and design for the needs of social service provider staff. 

If the admin tool that enables a medical assistant to share a public health video with a new mom is clumsy, the whole effort will fail. If a user-friendly app for public housing tenants doesn’t play well with the existing workflow or backend system of the public housing staff, the product will never get off the ground.

We’ve learned to prioritize listening to and understanding the nuanced staff needs, workflows, and tools. Co-creations sessions with staff along with rigorous technical research of legacy backend systems is essential for creating digital products that minimize workflow burdens, adhere to labor laws, and actually empower the staff who will be in charge of delivering the experience that drives the ultimate impact we seek.

5. Plan for a new baby, not a new dishwasher.

This is another helpful parting zinger from one of our development partners. When an organization plunges into a digital transformation, there’s generally a shared understanding of the significant upfront investment of organizational focus and funding required. But like buying a dishwasher, everyone looks forward to seeing the satisfying results once it’s “installed.” 

That potential for spectacular, scaled impact is 100% true, but our development partner is wise to remind us that doing a digital transformation is more like adding a new baby to the family than having a new dishwasher in the house. Even after that product has been designed, developed and launched, its ongoing success and impact requires sustained commitment and product ownership. This can mean everything from managing day-to-day product support to additional feature development to new content creation to scaling to larger audiences to exploring new business models. 

Some of this work can be mitigated by choosing to build on top of an existing digital platform. While potentially limiting product features and requiring ongoing service fees, this approach can reduce upfront development costs and provides ongoing product support. Alternatively, external design and development collaborators can continue to provide ongoing support beyond launch. Or that outside team can progressively help an organization build up that capacity for themselves.

Whichever way you go, it’s helpful to remember you have a new baby in your organization rather than a new washing machine. The potential of that baby is oh so much more, but it will also require plenty of love.

What resonates for you?

These are just a handful of the lessons we’ve learned from some of our social impact digital product work. We know there’s so much more to learn. If you have thoughts to add to the conversation, advice for us, or are interested in collaborating, we’d love to hear from you.

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