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Lowering the barriers for Stakeholders to be involved in Design Studios

I had the chance to conduct design studios for NGO stakeholders, who tended to be less IT savvy. Understanding that the NGO stakeholders might be unfamiliar with the design process, how might we lower the barrier for the stakeholders to be involved in design and co-create together?


Four-hours session per client


Not-for-profit organization (administrators, volunteers, clients), Technical Coach,
UX consultants


Design Studios,
Stakeholders' Immersion

My role

I serve as a UX Consultant with TechLadies. TechLadies is a community-led programme for women in Asia to connect, learn, and advance as programmers in the tech industry. The selected women are attached to technical coaches, and work in teams to program backend databases for the NGOs at the end of 10 weeks. My role lies in consulting with the respective NGOs, and balancing their wants with what's technically feasible within 10 weeks.

The Outcome

Along with another UX consultant, we conducted design studios on separate sessions with three NGOs, namely:
• Mutts Rescue, a dog shelter
• PPIS, a Malay women empowerment organisation
• Touch Young Arrows, a support centre for needy children

By the end of the design studio sessions, we had pieced together the user flows and collaborated on low fidelity sketches of the key screens, all set and ready to go to wire framing.

Mutts Rescue, a dog shelter based in Singapore
PPIS , a Malay women empowerment organisation
Touch Young Arrows, a youth help centre, under TOUCH services.

The Process

1) Immersion Meeting

On the first meeting with the NGOs, we talked intensively about the organisation's goals and how having a backend system can aid them in organising their data.

I learnt that even if the problem the NGO faced were similar in nature: managing a large database of volunteers and event attendance, it could not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each organisation upholds different values which in turn influenced their internal work flows.

At this stage, it was important to talk through thoroughly what their organisation goals were and their current method of operations. This was important to gain a holistic understanding of the relationships between the players in the ecosystem (internal NGO team, its clients and volunteers), before proceeding on to discover how a backend system could aid them in organising their data.

As the conversation about the work flow unravelled, I started sketching it for better visualisation. It acted as a tool for probing knowledge gaps. 


2) User Journey and User Goals

After the stakeholder's meeting, we synthesised the knowledge and drafted high level user journeys, mapping out the key steps various parties would take.

I found it valuable to identify the high level stages and re-order the sequence of how the parties fit into the ecosystem. This was because every time a new programmer was introduced to the project, this user journey became a crucial tool in helping me communicate quickly how the parties fitted into the picture.


3) Design Studio

Knowing that the NGO stakeholders might be unfamiliar with the design process, we had to bear this question in mind: "How might we lower the barrier for the stakeholders to be involved in the design process and co-create together?"

i) Introducing design studio and what is expected of this session

We found it helpful to share with them that it was a methodology commonly practised by established companies like Google and Apple, because it got some of them interested in bringing such best practices into their future brainstorming sessions.

To ease them into the design sketching process, a trick was to do warm up exercise: draw everyday items and compared how everybody interpreted the subject in their minds differently. Referencing that, I communicated to them that it was important to pool the team's ideas and align expectations before brilliant products are formed.


ii) Validating and Refining the User Flow

Next, I introduced the concept of user flow. This was an elevation of their involvement in the project as we were essentially mapping the backbone of the project.

Before they arrived at the start of the session, I had loosely drawn the high level stages which acted as a framework and left the rest of the canvas blank. As we crafted out the user flow together, I invited them to feed me with the information and involved them as the experts.

Two-pronged user flow on how admins and the public experience Mutts Rescue's CMS and website

iii) Co-creating the key screens

With high level visibility of the steps users are likely to take, we focused on the key screens to sketch.

A challenge met was that the participants were embarrassed to sketch because they feel unfamiliar with sketching. Solution: Reduce the unfamiliarity by showing examples of simple sketches done in other design studios / Print samples of websites or databases or intranets, as their first point of referencing. This assured them that design is not about being neat and pretty, it is all about communicating the function. Anyone can sketch.

During the sketching, a participant giggled and openly declared " I'm just copying from you actually." But as we did a round of 'Show & Tell and Critique', we realise she had added elements on top of the design which we had not consider. Assure them copying is absolutely fine! In fact it had given her a basic skeleton and impetus to improve upon the design instead.

During the 'Active Critique' session, it was an interesting sight to behold as they latched upon each other's designs and that was when brilliant ideas sprouted organically. However, this was also the point when the stakeholders tended to get overexcited on the possibility of the ideal features. It was important to get the technical coach to 'tech-check' against the timeline to prevent over-promising. Nice-to-have ideas went into the stretch goals basket.

Gabe Hollombe, Tech Coach of Mutts Rescue, explaining the tech limitations of the features.
Sketches of the public facing webpage that showcases the lovely dogs up for adoption
PPIS volunteer shedding light on the real needs of the volunteers.
Sketches of the volunteer sign-up form

Final Words

The impact of design studios could go far beyond the outcome of a session. It could make the entire organization more design literate.

Each design studio can involve others who have never participated in it before. In this sense, the team would progressively learn about the design process and shape a shared vision of what they are working to achieve. Addressing differences and aligning their expectations during the 'Critique' session will bring clarity to the project. Sketching in silo before converging to critique ideas objectively also helps in democratising power within the team.

It is telling you’ve succeeded when a team starts to automatically schedule design studios into their regular projects, knowing well this can help them anticipate the challenges they will face later on. That is when we know we’ve made a change in the organization, one that empowers them to think and collaborate better.   :)

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