Design Thinking: A Framework for Providing Value to Members
It’s no secret that successful associations strive to make important decisions using facts rather than assumptions. With a clearer picture of what each member truly prefers, and not just guesses and hypotheses about what they want, board members can make informed choices that lead to better outcomes.

According to Donna Hudi, executive director of SHARE — a technology user group that supports the enterprise technology ecosystem (mainly IBM mainframes) — an association can get a clearer picture and affect positive change by learning the tendencies of its key audiences through a process called “design thinking.”

Hudi, a veteran of the information technology world with expertise in computer programming and systems design and development, explains that design thinking is a framework originally created by IBM to build computer software that delivers the best possible user experience to consumers. Because IT project plans can sometimes span many months or even years, business objectives, technologies and even consumer needs often change before the project can be completed. To combat this, the design thinking process was developed to break projects down into digestible pieces so that software developers could start, finish and deploy new products to consumers in a timely fashion.

Design thinking consists of four steps: understand, explore, prototype and evaluate. This process is continuously repeated to ensure that products and services remain relevant and continue to address the changing needs of consumers. When applied to associations, design thinking can help boards deliver a valuable experience to all members and respond agilely to members’ needs.

1. Understand

The first step is to directly ask your members how they feel about your association’s offerings and then segment the feedback by age group, role within the organization, experience in the field or whatever form of categorization is most relevant. During this step, Hudi suggests asking what their biggest hopes, fears and challenges are, so you can determine commonalities. This information can be gathered through a physical workshop, electronic survey, or just anecdotally — whatever works best for members.

2. Explore
Next, explore the specific needs of each segment and brainstorm how your organization can meet them. “At this point, it’s paramount to keep in mind the point of view specific to the members you’re examining,” Hudi says. Review the data regarding members' hopes, fears and challenges to devise solutions that will help you deliver what each segment wants in the most effective way.

3. Prototype
Now that you’ve identified pain points and examined possible solutions, it’s time to turn words into action. Prototype an initiative or program that will provide value to the members you’re focusing on. It should include enough details so you can gauge what works and what doesn’t work, but not be so detailed that it’s difficult to make adjustments. “Flexibility is an important component of this step, as you will learn what amendments should be made to improve the project,” Hudi says.

4. Evaluate
Based on the possible solutions you’ve explored and prototyped, you can now weigh the impact of each option against the feasibility of implementing it in order to decide what ideas should be prioritized. Which ideas can be implemented in the short term to deliver immediate value, and which require longer-term development? For example, what can you accomplish before the next regional event, and what will be rolled out at next year’s annual conference? These considerations will help you strategize how to move forward.

This process can be applied to a variety of products and services, and Hudi recommends using the framework to determine how your educational offerings, communication platforms and event experience can be better designed to meet the needs of your members.

Educational Offerings

Format is one aspect of educational offerings you can explore with design thinking. Some individuals prefer textbook learning, classroom settings, or self-study tools, while others benefit most from expert panel sessions, TED talk-style presentations or mentorship programs. Because one size does not fit all, successful associations distinguish which formats are most effective for the member segments they are trying to reach.

For example, in an effort to learn more about the educational needs of its millennial members, SHARE conducted a focus group. The organization learned that one segment, millennial members, wanted more introductory-level courses, and that they wanted them labeled as such at the annual conference so that they could better prioritize which sessions to attend.

Communication Platforms

Hudi urges associations to identify which communication platforms members favor the most and why. Determine how much information they want to receive at once and what the most convenient way is for them to get it. This effort can result in members that are more receptive to — and more inclined to participate in — your association’s programs.

From its initial focus group, SHARE also learned that members were disinclined to read emails that included a daunting amount of information. Additionally, members reported that they strongly preferred informal communicative tools that allowed them to get updates and coordinate with one another in real time at events. Because of this, the organization used an instant messaging platform at its next event to communicate with attendees and allow them to interact with one another. Feedback showed that the tool allowed attendees to connect more quickly, frequently and personally.

Event Experience

Perhaps there is an aspect of your event that you continue to include year after year because it has always been included. You may learn by polling members that this program is no longer as effective as it once was. The design thinking process can allow you to identify and address weak spots in your event experience that may not be immediately obvious.

SHARE discovered that the Genius Bar at its events — a question and answer booth providing informal access to experienced industry professionals — was no longer providing any tangible benefits to members. Furthermore, younger members wanted more opportunities to connect with other attendees their age. To respond to these changing needs, SHARE replaced the Genius Bar with a lounge for millennials to help them connect with each other.

Hudi stresses that design thinking is an iterative process. After learning what members prefer and implementing changes accordingly, it’s important to go back and ask if your efforts were successful. Was their experience decidedly better, or is there still room for improvement? “If you don’t respond quickly to your members needs and concerns,” Hudi warns, “you stand to lose them.” Continuously going back through these four steps and adapting to new insights will help the association’s programs and offerings stay ahead of the curve.

Through this process, Hudi notes that many associations have found unexpected similarities between the hopes, fears and challenges of member segments that were previously believed to be very different. This shows it’s in an association’s best interest not to make assumptions about member preferences or tendencies. With the knowledge and insight gained through the four steps of design thinking, associations can plan experiences to engage their members that address issues and inclinations that may not have otherwise been anticipated.
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