Archive blog from October 2020

"Challenging but insightful": 22 charities' experiences of going through a digital 'Discovery' process and learning new ways to listen to their users.

40 charities funded by Explore

22 of them already knee-deep on their journey to finding a digital solution to their biggest service delivery challenges. 

18 more about to start down the path.

And hundreds of others have been applying for similar support through the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund.

But even though the 22 are halfway done they’ve not started on a solution yet. Because they’ve been going through what we call the ‘Discovery’ process. 

Discovery is what every charity needs to go through on any new digital project. 

This blog shares what these 22 charities have been learning. We hope it will help other charities get ready for their own Discovery process. Especially the next wave of 18, and those who come after.

Explore is about generating learning

Explore is an early stage funding programme run by Comic Relief and CAST. It includes funding and support to help charities explore their users' needs and day-to-day challenges. The idea is that this exploration will generate the learning needed to prototype a potential solution later on. The support provided is similar to our free Design Hops and what will be available to successful Digital Response fund applicants.

The goal

Explore’s goal is different to most other funding programmes. Because success for each participant is defined as a better understanding of their users' needs

This understanding might look like a clear, evidence-based problem statement, and a list of validated user needs (needs that are based on people’s behaviour and experiences, that have been researched and clearly evidenced). 

Success is not a digital solution, nor even necessarily a working prototype. At this stage it’s just as important to find out what the solution isn’t as what it could be. 

1. It’s messy and uncomfortable

‘I’m glad it’s over... I was out of my comfort zone… Tough and overwhelming… Challenging but insightful.” - Explore participants

Learning a new process. Putting aside beliefs. Challenging assumptions. Working with uncertainty. 

Focusing really deeply on users’ experiences. 

Resisting old habits of asking people what they want and moving quickly towards solutions. 

Discovery asks a lot of any charity. It’ll take you and your staff out of your comfort zone. Even though it can be described as a nice linear process, in reality it’s going to feel messy.

That’s OK. Getting messy is the best way to get off the same old track and spark new understanding. It’s also why Explore follows a clear process, to give participants something to hold onto as they grapple with the shifting uncertainties of a digital project.

Illustration showing lots of arrows with 'Design process' at the top and 'Reality' at the base

2. Assumptions are everywhere. We are full of assumptions.

"It's made me think about how much I make assumptions... I was able to get others to realise we needed to speak to users about these things rather than just assuming" Zoe Crimes, Pennysmart

It’s not easy being asked to put your early ideas to one side. It’s even harder to take that message back to your CEO and tell them that their idea may not be what people need. That’s what participants have been doing. They’ve been surfacing, documenting and then reality testing their assumptions

“We’ve realised some of the assumptions we made were wrong and would have resulted in time and investment in areas that might not have made the most difference. We’re now taking this project down very different avenues than we had originally projected.” - David Carnaffan, Moving On Durham

3. Focusing on all users isn’t possible

As a charity you want to be inclusive. You probably want to be accessible to all and meet everyone’s needs.

In reality it's incredibly tough to do that. And with a new project, when you’re being asked to start small and focus on one user group’s needs, it's impossible. 

So what do you do? What do you do when your stakeholders see that focusing on one group isn’t being inclusive in the way your charity should be?

You get practical. You build your evidence of need from the research. Then you playback what you’ve learnt and compare and contrast those different needs and explain how they can’t all be met straight away.

“Success for the programme is a better understanding of users needs.” - Suraj Vadgama, Explore Coach, CAST

4. Getting the right user interview questions is critical

“Explore has given us a better way of working, now we've started using your user research framework. It's taught us a lot about what we ask and how we structure interview questions.”  - Sho Shibata, Stopgap Dance Company

User interviews are a key Discovery activity. And arranging interviews takes effort. So it behoves charities to make the most of the time they get with their users. That means digging in the right spot and thinking hard about what questions to ask, and how to ask them.

Explore projects have been learning to:

  • Ask about people’s current or past behaviour, rather than to predict their future behaviour
  • Ask about people’s experiences and how it felt, rather than views and opinions
  • Ask open-ended rather than leading questions
  • Reflect back what people have said as a prompt to dive deeper

“I really like the idea of open-ended questions and the tip of repeating what the person said to you, and going deeper into their answers during user research” - Explore participant

5. Surveys and focus groups are hard to say goodbye to

Quickly learning to run user interviews is one of the most challenging tasks on the course. So it’s understandable that some charities resorted to other methods. Surveys and focus groups appeared within some participants' approach. Surveys have their place but are meaningless without interviews. Focus groups, with their biases and limitations, can’t replace them for quality and depth of insight. 

“A colleague wanted to do score-based questions, but I persuaded them we needed qualitative data instead. We needed to talk to people.” -Zoe Crimes, Pennysmart

For some it’s also been difficult to step away from thinking about user research as getting ‘feedback’ on what people think of their services. This is also understandable. After all, it’s how the sector has been doing things for over 20 years.

“We used to use questionnaires before. But now we know how to word things with unleading questions, and unnecessary jargon. We know how to approach user research.”  - Explore participant

6. Recruiting users can be easy and difficult

However you are talking to your users, recruiting and arranging them to be at a time and place takes energy and focus. We don’t yet know enough about why some charities find this more difficult than others. Differentiating factors could include:

  • Quality of relationship with users - trust and connection affect users’ yes or no
  • Steps needed to reach users - e.g. going through support workers or other organisations
  • Quality of communication about the activity - is it simple and easy for users to understand or their support workers to explain? Does it have clear next actions?
  • Choice of time to take part - to fit in with users’ already busy lives
  • Incentivisation tactics - is there a cash or other reward?
  • Criteria for selecting users to take part - it’s easy to go too narrow, or to think selections need to be representative of all users
  • Hidden barriers to sharing experiences - e.g. does the user think they will be expected to talk about things they’d rather not?
  • Time of year - summer holidays and Christmas are the hardest times to recruit most people

“We struggle to get people to pick up the phone. We’re offering them an incentive, so hopefully that will help us. We need to build trust with them.” - Zoe Crimes, Pennysmart

7. It’s rewarding

The messiness doesn’t last. Comfort zones get bigger, insights arrive and people start having inspired ‘Aha’ moments...

“The dedicated time to focus on what our client’s digital needs are has allowed us to explore what really matters.” David Carnaffan, Moving On Durham

“Lots of new ideas from the questions sparking a lot of creativity.” Irene Lo Coco, Chiltern Music Therapy

“This work is going to be ingrained in our organisation, it will become a habitual thing.” Sho Shibata, Stopgap Dance Company


These 22 projects are about to begin prototyping and testing solutions. Likely they’ll be stepping out of their comfort zone again! But it should also be fun, creative and inspiring. Meanwhile Explore’s 18 others are about to start their own Discovery journey...

'If you’re thinking of using digital to improve your service, take the first step now by signing up for a free Design Hop.