Introduction – who is this guide for?
Our guide explores how community businesses can develop and deliver digital services to support their service users and local community and generate income. This is part of our series of guides providing facts, ideas and guidance to help you plan for a more sustainable future.
As a community business there is a range of services you can develop and deliver digitally, or existing ones you can provide differently online. But what will suit your business and the particular community it serves? This guide will help you decide what might be most appropriate and fruitful for you.
The digital revolution has transformed businesses, public services and charities worldwide. To remain resilient and sustainable, organisations in all sectors have responded to economic necessity, public demand and consumer expectations by moving more of their operations online. In 2018, e-commerce by UK businesses outside the financial sector accounted for £688 billion, an unprecedented 18 per cent increase on the previous year – £38.5 billion of that was in online sales by micro businesses1.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have accelerated this online migration for some areas of the economy, and ‘going digital’ may well have provided some of the solution to the challenges of operating during a period in which social distancing and lockdown for many meant limited access to services or local places they usually access them.
However, while people increasingly expect to be able to interact and trade online – and delivering a service digitally can provide access to new revenue streams for community businesses within and beyond the community they currently serve – it is also a great way to reach service users or support a local community at any time that meeting physically is impractical. Community businesses serve many groups for whom access to services can be a challenge. For instance, amongst those community businesses supported by Power to Change, one in four work with older people, while one in five work with those living in poverty or with poor physical health. Reaching physical services may not always be possible. Moving services online can therefore improve reach and impact, whatever the financial returns, and strengthens the need for community businesses to consider the benefits of developing capacity and capability in digital delivery, whatever services they currently provide.
Community businesses currently provide a wide variety of services and the sector is hugely diverse. We estimate that there are 9,000 community businesses in England – employing nearly 34,000 and supported by more than 205,000 volunteers – with a quarter providing some kind of public-facing support service, primarily in the welfare and wellbeing sectors. Around two-thirds provide more than one service, nearly three in five offer a community hub, a third deliver training and education and as many as three in every ten operate a café. Although diverse in the services they provide, there’s a great deal they consistently share in their social aims – improving community cohesion, health and well-being.
While community businesses and their users might therefore appear well-placed to benefit from growing a digital presence, there are notable skills gaps that may limit them. One in five community businesses lack skills in ‘advanced information technology/software’ and a quarter feel they need support to develop digital marketing strategies to attract new customers as well as reach supporters, volunteers and service users2.
Lack of digital maturity presents a distinctive challenge across much of the sector. Around half of charities don’t have a digital strategy or fully accessible websites and many community businesses continue to use either paper-based practices (e.g. manually logging volunteer hours) or ‘paper online’ practices (i.e. digitising an existing paper form or report). This not only poses challenges for service quality and productivity – with some of the most vulnerable potentially missing out on services designed to help them – it also highlights a looming challenge for the long-term resilience and competitiveness of community businesses in an increasingly digitised marketplace.
Whatever the apparent health of the market, as a high proportion (62%) of community businesses earn most of their income from trading and a similar proportion (58%) depend on a single source of income, lacking the resources to capitalise on doing more digitally also makes them unduly vulnerable to more capable competitors, sudden changes in demand or losing funding.
Consider what your community business currently delivers. How many separate services do you provide?
How can this guide help you?
Whatever the primary or supplementary services your community business currently delivers, this guide can help you consider where ‘digital’ technology and processes can help you design, deliver, market and evaluate those services as well as how to go about introducing a new service, or adjusting a current one.
This guide draws on widely recognised and long-established practices in service design3 to help you understand what your community needs from a digital service, how to design that service and how to implement it success-fully.
We’ve drawn up some guidelines, hints and tips, although these can never replace the peer advice, local knowledge and community engagement that really help community businesses flourish. Learning from what others have done can give you a sense of what is achievable, but it’s not only important to compare your business with others that operate in the same way but also with those that share other key characteristics – like scale, location and facilities. You might find it useful to look at similar organisations to see what you can learn from com-paring their approach to yours.
We hope this guide will help you get started, with some of the answers you’re looking for:
• What are your community’s needs and how do you explore what digital services might meet them best?
• What are the elements of your service that can be delivered digitally?
• How can you develop and deliver your digital services?
Why might you want to deliver a service digitally?
At Power to Change we have noticed the same theme kept cropping up in our interactions with community businesses. They told us they were spending too much time on administration and collecting data, and not enough time doing what mattered – supporting their local community. It’s the reason we developed Twine, to support community businesses that use digital technologies to work more efficiently.
Community businesses aren’t alone in facing these challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic simultaneously showed how many others were struggling to use digital technologies in their everyday work or move their services online. But it also showed how easy it was to do when it’s required.
Delivering your services digitally can have multiple benefits, not least be-cause the way everyone looks for resources and support has radically changed. Most look online first. That means if your services aren’t accessible online, fewer people will know about them. Those in need might miss out on your support, potential customers will not see your products and services.
Moving online raises your profile and enables you to reach more people. Not only is this an important way to generate income from beyond your immediate community, but it is also an important way to deliver your services and support to those who need them most. This is especially important when it is impractical for them to access them physically.
Digital practice can help you with devising, delivering and assessing the impact and effectiveness of a new service, or support the development of your exiting approach. It can help you identify what your users need, and guide your development of your services to help.
You may be one of those businesses whose usual provision is more challenging to migrate online, or impossible to deliver digitally - those operating venues, providing sports and leisure facilities, running childcare services and community pubs, for example – but there remain substantial benefits to considering what other business processes can be improved by doing them digitally.
Delivering services digitally can cut down paperwork and administration, by automating processes previously done manually. For example, asking users to register for events or workshops online significantly reduces the number of emails, phone calls or paperwork required.
Whatever services you provide, appropriately designed digital processes can help business management, administration and engagement become more cost-effective and efficient and improve a user’s experience – all of which can liberate managers, staff and volunteers to focus on delivering the responsive, sustainable service for clients, customers and beneficiaries that’s at the heart of their social function and ambitions.
- Covid-19 support The Coronavirus Tech Handbook contains a wealth of information for how to use technology to respond to the crisis. It is a live document which is being updated regularly: https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/itandinternetindustry/bulletins/ecommerceandictactivity/2018
- Further advice on service design SCVO have compiled useful advice for delivering services during the pandemic (both online and face-to-face): https://scvo.org.uk/support/coronavirus/services
- Privacy and security Further advice on reducing risks and managing consent can also be found here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1oLqmZBMcCcnt0q4TgwX3iDEKJktQluPO4PlejkZVmkM/edit?usp=sharing
- Support A list of events specifically for community businesses: https://www.powertochange.org.uk/events/
How do you decide what services you should develop?
Embracing the opportunities digital technology can offer isn’t just about doing different things, it’s as much about doing things differently – the variety of areas for which community businesses apply for funding and support gives an idea of the breadth of impact a more ‘digital’ approach can have on your business and the community you serve. Scoping what might help you is about identifying what of your emerging user requirements, business problems or operational challenges might be overcome with a combination of different approaches, new skills or updated equipment.
If a service is ‘something that helps someone do something’4almost everything that a community business does could be considered part of its service.
Typical services provided by community businesses might include:
• producing food or providing catering
• delivering training courses or educational support
• mentoring, counselling or providing access to wellbeing support
• providing healthcare or social prescribing
• managing a venue that hosts community activities
• providing support for those seeking employment or a return to work
• running a library
Services are typically delivered in three ways:
• completely in-person, like having your eyes tested or being measured for a wedding dress
• completely remotely, like making an insurance claim or tax return online or downloading music
• a mixed service, like ‘click and collect’ from a supermarket or department store.
A digital approach can make whatever services your business provides for the community more efficient, effective, widely available and profitable. It can help transform any and all aspects of your business and the experience of the users you serve, as well as the people and facilities that help you do that.
How can we become more efficient and effective as an organisation?
By ensuring your basic digital infrafstructure and systems are all monitored and maintained, up-to-date and connected, so they can help you continue meeting your social purpose, while digitising the way you are operating. ‘Business as usual’, but done more digitally.
How can we help our staff be more effective, efficient and confident, and ensure our users and customers can access and use any digital tools or services we introduce?
By devising inclusion and digital skills training programmes to build staff confidence and capability, and the awareness and knowledge that users need to enjoy a fruitful and stress-free experience.
How do we meet an increasing demand for our service while still improving the experience for all our customers?
Designing a new service might help meet an emerging new need, an existing need better, or the changing expectation of your users.
How can we let people know about our existing or new services and build our reputation?
A digital engagement programme can help you target and distribute the accessible information that current and potential users need to understand, access and use your services, offering new ways for you to learn from feedback. Digital channels and social media can help you broadcast more promotional content, sharing news of your activity and stories about your success.
How can we make sure we’re meeting social needs?
What you already provide to regular users can be made more widely available to others in particular need but who face challenges in accessing the physical services you provide. Providing information, education and sign-posting material digitally online can help those who are housebound access the advice and services they might need without having to visit your premises.
Considering the broadest view of your everyday business requirements and how you need to respond to any emerging challenges, can help identify where a digital approach might not only enhance a service, but also transform your whole operation. Including digital practices in your thinking and planning can help you redesign your organisation and transition to new ways of working that better meet the needs and expectations of your community. It can help you respond more flexibly to changes in the economic climate and build your resilience and sustainability.
Conducting research into your service users' needs
You may feel confident that you know what services you want to deliver digitally, or you might not have a definite idea yet - in either case it is important to conduct some user research.
User research can help deepen your understanding of your users, highlight possible problem areas, and help you explore new possibilities. Most of all it will help you ensure you are designing your service for your users needs with the most up-to-date information you can have.
There are many ways to conduct research, some ways to get started include:
One of the best ways to gather qualitative research is conduct semi-structured, conversational interviews with some of your users or prospective users. It is best to collate a few open-ended questions to help steer the interview, then allow your user to direct the conversation to the areas that interest them. This exploratory style of research can be a great to dis-cover new ways you can help your users. Remember to ask ‘why’ your users do certain things and feel the way they do, as understand their motivations can be crucial when designing your service.
These interviews can be a great way of getting a lot of good quality insight when you do not have access to a high number of research subjects - you can conduct quality user research with as few as five interviewees.
Structured/Jobs to be Done
Another form of more structured interview is the “Jobs To Be Done” framework. The concept behind this framework is that users employ a product or service to help them complete a goal. The better we understand that goal and the steps the user is already taking to achieve it, the more we will know about what our service needs to do.
Let’s use the example of booking an appointment with a dentist. Start by asking the interviewee when the last time was that they booked a dentist appointment, why did they want the appointment, what motivated them to make a booking.
Then ask them to detail each step they took, while you document them on a whiteboard or sticky notes, being sure that wherever you record the steps you make sure the interviewee can see them and correct you if necessary. For each step, ask the participant how they felt that this point, why did they carry out that step – was it their choice or mandated?
Going through a process like this in detail allows you to answer important questions like when does my user need reassurance or feedback, and when is the process laborious and un-necessary.
After mapping the same process a few times with different people, the patterns you see will show you where you can make this process better and how you can help your user achieve their goal.
Surveys can be challenging at times. We are often inundated by companies asking us to complete surveys about this service or that, and as such, they are often ignored. However, when used properly they are an effective tool.
It is important to remember that surveys can be powerful for supporting or challenging a particular hypothesis, providing you are able to ask a large enough sample size for your answers to be representative. What surveys will rarely do is give you ‘new’ ideas, as your questions are ‘closed’ – i.e. they have definite answers.
Coming up with ideas for your service
Once you have completed your research, you will want to start coming up with ideas for what your service might look like. This can be challenging, but there are some techniques that can help you structure the process and involve more members of your organisation.
Problem-spacing mapping and “How Might We”
This technique can be a useful tool in turning your research into ideas, it’s also best done with a small group.
Start by writing down all of the ‘problems’ your users have told you about during your research on to sticky notes. One problem per sticky note, write as large as you can and then stick them up on a wall where everyone can see (there are some digital whiteboard tools like Mural that can help you do this remotely).
Once you have all of the problems mapped out and up on the wall, start to collect together similar problems and organise them into themes – removing duplicates only if they are exact duplicates.
Now, ideally using a different coloured sticky note, try turning each of these problems into ‘How Might We’ statements. For example, if you problem your user has is “I find it difficult to work because childcare is expensive”, this becomes “how might we provide affordable childcare during working hours?”; or “our high street has become rundown and is less used” could become “how might we bring people and pride back to our high street?”.
This might seem quite a simple and formulaic process but it can help in moving your thinking from finding problems to thinking about possible solutions.
Prototyping is the best way to test multiple solutions quickly and cheaply, while still gathering enough useful data for you to make decisions. We recommend you prototype any service as early as you can before building anything ‘for real’.
The golden rule in prototyping is to build as little as possible to be able to get good data.
If your service involves a webpage, try using Microsoft PowerPoint to mockup the screens you need to show your users. If you need physical or paper items in your service – such as a paper food menu or an automated telephone service, do the minimum you need to ‘fake’ the experience you would like your user to have, create one copy of the menu or have a per-son pretend to be the automated telephone responses.
Your prototype isn’t designed to last or be the foundation for you to build the real service, it should be some-thing throwaway that you use to learn what might work.
How do you transform or design new services?
As a community business, you are already delivering services to meet the needs of the community you serve – those who use and buy your services. The principles that defined the approach you took to developing those services are the same you’ll need when working on your digital transformation 5.Whether you are planning to improve or convert an existing service by turning it into a ‘digital’ one, or looking to build something brand new, we recommend following the same process, from the very beginning.
Everything starts with identifying and understanding what your current or prospective users or customers need from you – enabling them to complete what they set out to achieve and deliver the outcome you intend. Although ‘your user defines your service by what it is they want to achieve’6be aware that what they say they ‘want’ may differ from what they really ‘need’ from the service you are providing or developing. A user of a community hub might claim, for example, they ‘need a smartphone’ to check their emails, when what they need is ‘to check emails’, which can be more effectively and efficiently met by providing access to a computer that provides services shared by all hub users.
There are planning tools and techniques to help – we’ve provided links to those in our resources section – but the simplest and best way of starting to define what your users really need is to speak to them, the wider community you want to serve and others successfully providing comparable services already. Anything you then design is more likely to be:
• useful, accessible and desirable from their perspective
• effective, efficient, and distinctive from yours 7.
You’ll already have an idea of a user’s ideal ‘journey’ through your services – a seamless stream of events that includes the moment they consider a task until they have completed it – and any support they require from you on the way. You’ll need to ensure that is as smooth and beneficial as possible and you can start to identify where digital processes or technology might deliver or enhance their experience and yours, to your mutual benefit.
Starting from the beginning allows you to correct existing issues. No approach is perfect and existing processes can develop and embed bad habits, and need updating. Starting fresh with the design process means you get the opportunity to bring the experience you have from running those services, and crucially avoid repeating anything unhelpful.
Your digital version of a service might also need to be fundamentally different from an existing one. While your new service might cater to the same users and meet similar needs as existing services, their design might be very different – what’s required to deliver training online, for example, will differ greatly from what’s needed in a physical venue.
The process itself can offer a lot of unexpected additional value for your organisation. The design process asks you to consider your users’ needs. Inviting users into that process, including your staff and volunteers, exploring what your partners and supporters think, can help you understand your community better, think differently about your own people and your service users, generate new service ideas or new ways of delivering them, and opens up potentially fruitful ongoing conversations within and with others outside your organisation.
Designing a digital service
Because every community business has been established and developed its services to meet the distinctive needs of its own unique community, every project to design a new service or adjust an existing one will also be unique. While each business will need to take account of its own particular set of circumstances and challenges in its approach to designing digital services, there’s still much to be learned from how other businesses have successfully developed their services, and there are practical steps in widespread use that can help ensure you are approaching your own design process in a tried and tested way.
As we hope is already clear from the information and guidance here, it’s crucial for any project looking to change or introduce a new service to begin by identifying and understanding what users will need from you. ‘Your user defines your service by what it is they want to achieve’7 and, put simply, the service you devise to help them achieve what they require should be easy to find and use, responsive, safe and secure, supported and sustainable.
Understand the needs of your users and customers
You can develop the insight you need not only through doing your own original surveying and by interviewing service users, your own staff and volunteers and other community stakeholders, but also by drawing on existing re-search and analysis others have done. All this can help identify what a community like yours might really need, what the demand for a new service might look like, what’s already available that you can adopt or adapt, where there are gaps in provision that you can help to fill, and what’s worked elsewhere.
You can always test your thinking at concept stage ‘on paper’ or in focus groups, or by producing prototypes to pilot with small groups of users to find out what might need changing, before progressing to building any final versions. Evaluation should be built in at all stages of development, and when the service is live, so you always have feedback to draw on when reviewing progress and assessing your effectiveness.
Your users will have goals they want to achieve – your service has social aims and outcomes to deliver. Identifying how you can best meet your users’ need for support to deliver their objectives conveniently and reliably, will help you deliver yours more effectively.
Make your service easy to find and simple to use
Ideally, users must be able to find your service with no awareness of your organisation or what it provides. Use language they recognise, and that assumes no prior knowledge of your services or how they might be delivered.
The support a community business provides for people struggling without work, for example, should refer to what it offers as ‘help finding a job’ rather than ‘employment programmes’.
As it’s rare for anyone looking for support to know exactly what it is they need – and more than 90 per cent of people who go online for a new product or service use a search engine to help them find it – it’s crucial to use the same simple language they would use when they’re starting to search. Will they recognise what they need in how you describe your service? And are the services you offer visible online, easy for users to recognise and understand when they do search?
When users are engaged, your service should be consistent and feel like one service throughout, regardless of the channel it is delivered through. Language should be consistent, as should any interactive elements and visual styles.
Your service should work in a way that is already familiar for a user. If there’s an established or customary process for your service that provides a benefit to users, then conform to that – there’s no need to introduce unnecessary novelty. Users will be used to receiving an email confirming they’ve signed up for something new, for example, and how they can expect to be dealt with. You should make sure you provide what’s anticipated and needed, and avoid anything that’s inefficient or has been widely superseded – no one expects to be receiving a pre-selected tick-box subscribing them to receive marketing information anymore.
Your research might have revealed how similar, already established and successful, services operate – drawing relevant aspects of those services into yours means you’re not only benefiting from something tried and tested, but the familiarity will mean it’ll be easier for your own users to understand.
A service should require the minimum possible interaction for a user to get what they need. You might even be able to meet their needs proactively, without them starting to interact – information you provide at their first en-counter with you may satisfy them without the need for any further contact. Users who have indicated they’re seeking information about local welfare support, for example, could be provided with a document or a link with the resources they need, or signposts to relevant services, to take the next step satisfied they’ve got what they came for and without needing anything more from you.
The best services are ones that don’t require users to be experts – in your service or your organisation – before they start using them. Make sure you understand what the minimum knowledge and skills are required to use your service – avoiding anything that exposes users to the internal structures of your organisation or the technical process you use to deliver your service – and then explore how you can reduce what’s needed. This will simplify the initial encounter, and accelerate the onward journey through your service.
Regardless of whether or not a user is eligible for your service, it should direct everyone to a clear outcome. No one should encounter a dead end or feel stranded within a service without knowing how to continue. If your service is not for them, try to direct them to something else that can help instead.
Your service should be designed to respond quickly to any change in a user’s circumstance, and be sufficiently joined up to make any change consistently throughout the service. If a user changes their phone number or marital status online, for example, it should be recognised in correspondence and during a face to face session.
Support your users
Although your service should be accessible to, and usable by, everyone who needs to use it and regardless of their circumstance or abilities, there are some who may be unable to access any element of your service you provide digitally or online. Although 93 per cent of UK households have internet access, and virtually all adults aged 16–44 are regular users, there are still more than five million who are classified as ‘non-users’ 8. That’s one in ten adults who would be unlikely to be in a position to access a service provided online. Nearly half of those are aged over 75 years, and likely to be able to benefit from many of the services typically provided by community businesses. It’s clear that while this kind of ‘digital divide’ persists, you will need to ensure that the way you deliver your services avoids excluding potential users by providing alternative routes to the same support, or suitable convenient access to the skills development or technology they would need to benefit.
Although all elements of your service need to be usable by all users and they should be just as easy for all users to use, designing completely inclusive services isn’t easy, and the best practical step is to research and test with as diverse a group of users as possible, and include particularly those who you know may find access or use a challenge. If you test early, often and widely, you’ll be better placed to avoid problems before they become in-grained in your design.
The purpose of the service must be clear to users at the start of using the service. That means a user with no prior knowledge must understand what the service will do for them and how it will work.
So that you can set, meet and manage the expectations of your users, your service should clearly explain what will be required from them to participate and benefit from the service, and what they can expect from you in return. This should happen early on in their journey with your service and include things like how long something will take to complete, how much it will cost, or if there are any restrictions on who can access the service or use the support you provide. If the user of a community library expects to be able to order books or reserve time on a shared computer online, for example, these are requirements that should be built into the terms of the service that’s provided and communicated.
Although your service should be as simple as possible to access and navigate, users are likely to need, and will expect, access to guidance on using it. ‘How to’ and ‘Help’ guidance can help, and that can be delivered in a variety of formats – suitable combinations of text, graphics and audio-visual material can help even complex things be more easily understood.
When a decision is made within a service that impacts on a user, it should be obvious to them why and clearly communicated at the point it is made. You should provide and communicate a route for users to have it reviewed, and to challenge anything they feel is inappropriate or unfair.
Any service should provide an easy route for users to access help from a human about any issues. However well-designed and delivered a service is, things can go wrong and it is vital for the experience of users and your reputation that you provide understanding, supportive and compassionate help when things go awry. Human assistance might be in person or by phone or webchat. Some problems are rare enough that you won’t have designed for them and the easiest way to fix these quickly and pleasantly for your user is to provide a human being to help.
Protecting users’ privacy and keeping them safe
Data privacy and safeguarding vulnerable people are understandably among the ‘non-negotiable’ elements of any digital service.
While you would never willingly or deliberately place your users’ safety or privacy at risk, it can be easy to over-look some of the stricter, more technical, requirements while you are in the process of designing the core elements of your service with accessibility and support in mind. Like inclusiveness, privacy and safeguarding are not issues to be addressed solely in the latter stages of design. Instead they need to be considered from the beginning and revisited regularly.
While there are many helpful resources that cover everything from current legislation to best practice, this is also an area where you should consider seeking specialist professional help. The Information Commission-er’s Office (ICO) is the UK's independent body set up to uphold information rights and has provided some simple pointers for community organisations:
• Keep it clear: let people know what you are doing with their personal information. Tell them why you need it, what you’ll do with it and who you will share it with. One way to do this is through a privacy statement, for which the ICO has provided a template.
• Keep sharing: data protection law does not prevent you sharing personal information where it is appropriate to do so. For example, you might need to share information on vulnerable residents with your local council, so that more support can be provided to them. It’s important to think ahead about this, consider the information you may need to share and in what circumstances, and how you can do it securely.
• Keep it lawful: when handling users’ data, consider the following:
• legitimate interest: would your users expect you to be handling their data in this way?
• consent: have they explicitly agreed to you using their data?
• vital interests: is their health and safety at risk if you don’t use their data?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you can handle and share this type of information.
• Keep it secure: Look after the personal data you collect and hold. Keep it secure on your devices. The ICO has collated some basic security tips to help.
• Keep it to a minimum: only collect, use and keep what you really need.
• Keep a record: try to keep a record of any decisions you make that involve the use of personal information.
Observe, measure and react
Service design is never really ‘done’. Especially when such fast-paced change in technology is driving user expectations so profoundly, it is essential for any organisation that depends to any extent on digital delivery to be monitoring, measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of its services. Only by understanding how well its services are delivering, and what changes might need to be made to deliver improvements, can a community business be confident it’s continuing to maximise its impact for the community it serves, while adjusting its approach to ensure it has a sustainable future.
You must make sure you observe your service in progress, directly or by a proxy like surveying users or using ‘analytics’ software to provide helpful indicators of performance. It’ll be important to ‘see’ each stage in the process, from search or referral and first contact and throughout the lifetime of a user’s journey within your services, until ‘departure’ – whatever the mix of online, digital or real-world delivery.
There’s a huge variety of ways to measure what you see, helping you build a rich picture of the efficiency of your service, the experience for users, and how effectively you are delivering your business and social aims. It’s likely you’ll find a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods useful in delivering those ‘metrics that matter’.
Whether you’re measuring the effectiveness of your digital presence online in delivering the kind of users your service was designed to help, the contribution of sales via digital channels to your turnover, or the outcomes of an online training programme, the most reliable and helpful measures are often ratios or comparative measurements rather than numerical counts. Simple quantitative indicators can provide too little detail to inform action or change or risk over-simplify a complex situation. Capturing and reporting just the number of users that pass an exam, for example, might lead to an assumption that services were performing more impressively than would be revealed by a more sophisticated but still simple ratio of those who sat the exam who passed – 10 passes out of 15 represents a much more impressive pass rate at 66 per cent, than the numerically higher but less notable 15 passing out of 30 (50 per cent).
Ratios also help with benchmarking against businesses operating in similar ways or providing similar services. They also avoid what can be described as ‘vanity metrics’ that prioritise the highest or most conspicuous looking numbers over meaningful measures of delivery that appear less impressive but can prove more fruitful in improving your service.
Make sure what you capture is reliable, timely and good quality, and relates to the service you’re offering and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s best to measure fewer relevant things accurately than gather a vast array of data you’re unlikely to have the time or skills to analyse. A mix of a minimum of three or four key meaningful measures will likely serve you most effectively.
The final stage in the virtuous circle of evaluation is to react to what you have measured. Once you’ve started collecting good, accurate data about the things that matter, it is important to set time aside to reflect on what you’ve learned and consider whether there’s anything you should be doing more or less of, or differently, that will improve the effectiveness of your service, or users’ experiences of it.
Typically, and if you’ve designed the service well, it will be seen to be running efficiently and effectively and in need of little change. Occasionally, an issue that’s been identified will need more investigation before any significant changes can be developed, tested and implemented. If there’s an appetite and available resources for change, the design process begins again, and you will need to start working on identifying how to adjust your service to meet your users’ needs more effectively.
Choosing the right tools and technology
Identifying the technology you need to support any change in your services can be daunting for any organisation, but particularly for those community businesses who are choosing to trans-form how they deliver key services by migrating them online, or who might lack the internal experience and skills to inform decisions about what is often the greatest single outlay of the whole process. More than two-thirds of charities, for example, rate their Board’s digital skills as low9 .
This is the area where you are most likely to benefit from additional advice. If you feel ill-equipped to make decisions yourself, you may find you’ve staff or volunteers with the skills and experience to help. Your board and trustees may include members with the specialist knowledge or professional experience you need to explore the market on your behalf, and confidently provide you with recommendations for what can best meet the needs of a business in which they already have an informed knowledge and vested interest.
Here are some tips to help your thinking:
• Avoid over-engineering: Technology products are often marketed on their volume of features or functions. Keep things simple by only focusing on what you genuinely need and how efficiently and cost-effectively that technology can help you deliver that.
• Consider ‘open source’: As distinct from proprietary software this is made freely available for use and modification – it’s functions in familiar ways, but is often much cheaper to both operate and maintain.
Experiment where you can: By making use of open source technologies, free trials and ‘lite versions’, you can often experiment before making your choice. This can help you better understand the benefits and trade-offs you are making, with limited expenditure.
‘Interoperability’: As well as considering the standalone performance of your technology – how it will meet the requirements of the service you’ve designed – it is important to consider how it interacts and integrates with other widely used systems and software. Can any application you develop work equally well on the most commonly available mobile platforms? Is it compatible with the variety of software you already use to run your business, or want to introduce to support users? Can it easily handle the data you might want to store securely, manage or draw down to support your evaluation?
Operate a reliable service
Designing and delivering a digital service that meets your requirements and the needs of your users in principle, needs supporting and reviewing in practice if it’s going to make the most effective contribution to delivering the true social aims at the heart of your community business.
Users expect most digital services to be available to them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – few things are likely to discourage potential users from accessing your service more than it being unavailable when they try to access it.
There are some simple ways to maintain a robust and reliable service:
• Prioritise the minimising of ‘downtime’ over introducing new features – you don’t want to risk losing loyal users while you develop services for potential future beneficiaries.
• Build inspection and testing into every phase of your digital service projects – these help maintain the integrity of your service, make sure it’s ‘fit for purpose’ and that problems are immediately dealt with. This ensures your business requirements, and user needs, continue to be met.
• Continually monitor your service to ensure you can anticipate and respond rapidly to any shortfalls in performance.
How ready are you to 'go digital'?
Our guide has drawn from the principles and practices of good service design, to help you understand what your community might needs from a digital service, and how to design and implement it successfully. We’ve looked at what you need to consider when introducing a new service, or adjusting a current one and where ‘digital’ technology and processes might be able to help deliver a modern and efficient service capable of ad-dressing new and changing needs
While much of this is good business practice and common sense, easily integrated into your business plans and processes, how fast and how far you’re able to embrace the opportunities in delivering more services digitally, or integrate digital technology throughout your business to transform how it operates, will depend on a number of factors that will be distinctive for your particular business.
Given the variety of services provided by community businesses, and their capacity and capability to manage technological change, ‘going digital’ will look very different for each one of them. Only you will be able to judge how ready your business is to manage the impact and implications. While it would be challenging to attempt to provide authoritative guidance that would be relevant in all circumstances and take account of the speed with which technology develops and expectations change, we can offer some observations and questions that might help stimulate your thinking and inform your decision about what’s right for your business and appropriate for the community you serve.
Developing digital services has implications for the people you serve, the technology you employ, your business processes and digital infrastructure, and involves fostering an understand-ing of diversity and inclusiveness, and a culture where digital can thrive.
How users will view 'digital’ services depends on their needs, experience and expectations. And those can change rapidly and profoundly.
Before 2007 movie fans might have waited three days to receive a selection of DVDs they’d rented from online service Netflix, the novel successor to high street video rental services, watching them with a takeaway meal they’d ordered on the phone. Today they could have bought, immediately downloaded and started watching their choice of film before the meal they’d ordered online at the same time was delivered.
However innovative when they launch, digital services that don’t continually review how effectively they’re keeping up with contemporary user expectations, can be quickly superseded by more nimble competitors and dismissed by previously loyal customers.
Making the best use of the available technology to satisfy your users’ needs means being aware that expectations will change, and that your service might need to change too.
Considering the expectations of your service users, think about:
• What similar services offer them?
• What access they would expect to have to your services? Weekdays, during office hours, or 24/7?
• How they expect to access your service? Online from home, on the move from their smartphone, at your premises? Any combination?
Services you provide digitally will not exclusively use technology, but also involve manual processes often now conflated with systems regarded as ‘offline’. Your technology-enabled services might be designed to use a distinctive mix of digital and non-digital processes either to meet the expectations of a range of different kinds of user or reflect your own business priorities:
The ‘digitally native’ have grown up in the digital age, and take for granted services and media that only exist by virtue of technology – social media like Facebook and Instagram and instant communication platforms like Snapchat.
• If these make up a large proportion of your users, will you need to consider designing services for them that are exclusively available digitally?
• (Near) fully digitally delivered services are provided by many organisations whose business model depended on migrating the majority of users online, where they could be more efficiently and cost-effectively handled. ‘High street’ banking has evolved into internet-only services where all transactions and interactions are managed online. Most continue to offer telephone services for re-solving complex queries or shortfalls in performance.
• Can you see a comparable business model that requires you to manage how your users access your services to deliver efficiency savings or economies of scale?
• Hybrid services necessarily include physical aspects where digital delivery is impossible. Supermarkets offer ‘click and collect’ services, and online retailers need storage, distribution and delivery to complete their services. Some fast food and pub restaurant services, and in-store catalogue outlets, offer digital ordering and payment services to help them manage staff productivity and custom-er waiting times.
• Can you see aspects of your service being more effectively and efficiently provided through a combination of digital and physical elements, to reflect the mixed environment in which you can deliver for your users? Are there elements of any physical services that you currently deliver that you might provide even more effectively online?
How far you can develop digital services depends in large part on how integral physical components are in what you provide, and what your users genuinely need or expect.
Some things simply cannot be digitised or are not practical or desirable to automate. You can introduce digital aspects to nearly all aspects of a catering service but, like room rental, retailing, libraries and cafés, physical elements will always remain.
Some decisions are informed not just by dispassionate practical considerations. It would be reckless to underestimate the huge reputational impact of requiring all users to register online, when they come from vulnerable groups with high proportions of lacking access to technology or with basic literacy skills.
Considering all the individual elements of your services, and the processes you use to deliver them:
• What can you realistically digitise?
• What follow-on processes are impacted by this digitisation – does anything block progress?
• Which elements are core physical-only processes which you should defend? How do you identify these?
• Can digitising certain steps reduce costs, improve efficiency and productivity, or free-up resources and time for other activity?
Digital infrastructure includes the tools or equipment that makes digital services possible. Physical infrastructure can restrict digital transformation. It may be too expensive, inappropriate or impractical to install Wi-Fi in the business premises. Your existing digital infrastructure is just as important and can constrain as well as enable development. Some organisations lack an effective Wi-Fi service. You may want to start capturing demographic data about your service users to better understand your audience. If you don’t have an existing database of those people, there’s no scope to add data on top – you’ll need something that meets both needs. If you already have a customer relationship management (CRM) system but it can’t accommodate additional data, your existing dig-ital infrastructure is challenging your new needs.
Identifying what you really need from your digital infrastructure, auditing what you have and what it can do, exploring how to close any gaps and assessing what resources you can make available to help, will guide the nature and scale of any services you might develop.
• What would the ideal solution look like, and how close to that can we get?
• What do we need it to do and why?
• What personal data will we control, are we comfortable doing that? What are our obligations?
• What digital services are our service users likely to be comfortable with using?
• How easy is it for our staff to use?
• How effective is it likely to be in our setting (I.e. one venue or many?)
• What budget do we have available?
• Can we afford to pay for it?
• The constraints you must factor into a solution including time, cost, existing physical or digital infrastructure, staff skills, future needs.
• What existing strengths can you build on, or what strengths do you have access to, through staff, volunteers, trustees, charitable sup-port schemes, partners, suppliers?
• Can you create infrastructure that meets your needs and benefits others? Along with your own WiFi, can you provide it for the lo-cal community, or make computers available for public use?
• What have other similar organisations found effective, what would they advise you to avoid?
• Do any funding organisations or networking groups have recommendations?
Inclusion and accessibility
Ensuring that your service is inclusive and accessible to as wide a range of people as possible, and all of your target audience, is at the core of good service design. This is magnified when designing services in a community business setting, where you may be serving a high proportion of people who have particular needs that need to be taken into account.
• Don’t assume there are ‘normal’ users and others with extra needs, as you can find you prioritise some users over others.
• Accessibility is key – we recommend the government’s accessibility guidelines as a good place to start.
• Inclusion is not just about technical accessibility – consider the language you use and how it might be perceived by different groups of people as well as the different experience levels and familiarity with the subject matter. It may be easy to access but is it easy to understand?
• Ensure diversity in your testing group. A monocultural test group can be a common way to embed bias into a design which is later revealed when the service is given a wider release.
Challenge your organisation to encourage thinking about diversity and inclusion, as we do at Power to Change: ‘What actions will we take to include people who, in the absence of such active effort, would be excluded?’
Not only is it important to have the infrastructure, skills and resources to develop digital services, it’s important to foster an environment where ‘digital’ can be a success. The National Lottery Community Fund’s Cassie Robinson describes good digital practice as moving ‘digital’ from something you do (or perhaps something that a few members of your team are tasked with ‘doing’) to something you ‘are’ 10
What can help you build a culture where digital working can thrive?
• Make use of what is already available – the Internet is awash with examples of standards, best practice and templates – we’ve provided links to some authoritative ones in the resources section. You’ll often find someone has already tried something similar, so you’ll not be starting from scratch.
• Get comfortable with ‘failure’ – when designing any service, we want to test things to find out what doesn’t work and well as what does. It is important to see any ‘failure’ of an idea as a vital learning.
• Value and foster transparency – when information is shared freely, early and openly, you can diagnose problems quicker, identify new opportunities and engage users and stakeholders in a more meaningful way. It can be a daunting prospect to share your new project before you feel you are ready, but the benefits can be transformative. Consider inviting your service users into a design workshop, or approach another organisation who is doing some-thing similar, share your progress and invite ideas.
• Build in accessibility and inclusiveness from the very start – deal first with your primary core users before addressing the needs of those on the margins. The Government’s accessibility guidelines will help.
We hope you’ve found our guide a helpful starting point for thinking about how your community business can develop and deliver digital services to support your service users, helping you plan for a more sustainable future.
As a general guide it can only give an idea of the range of services you can develop and deliver digitally, or existing ones you can provide differently online and only you can decide what will suit your business and the particular community it serves.
We’ve provided a list of some additional resources you may find useful. Re-member, you can always access up-to-date support from Twine at: https://www.twine-together.com...
The Coronavirus Tech Handbook contains a wealth of information for how to use technology to respond to the crisis. It is a live, crowdsourced document which is being updated regularly:
You may find the following section particularly helpful: https://coronavirustechhandboo...
The Catalyst – a network helping the third sector strengthen its digital capabili-ties – has also curated a directory of support available: https://www.thecatalyst.org.uk...
Further advice on service design
Design Council’s Double Diamond process is internationally recognised as a clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process. In this guide they provide practical tips on how to design services:
SCVO has compiled useful advice for delivering services during the pandemic (both online and face-to-face):
The Government Digital Service also provides a comprehensive manual for de-livering services online: https://www.gov.uk/service-man...
Case studies by sector and type of service (e.g. mental health)
Not every third sector organisation is the same, so you may have questions about what digital service delivery looks for your sector or type of service. SCVO has compiled a wealth of case studies here:
Privacy and security
The Information Commissioner's Office has provided specific guidance for com-munity groups: Blog: Community groups and COVID-19:
You can also find further advice on reducing risks and managing consent here: http://ow.ly/rEFW50zKBoa
NCVO have provided 10 tips for user research:
There are many sources for tools to collect insight from users.
For face-to-face user research, you may find the DIY social innovation toolkit: https://diytoolkit.org/tools/
It may not always be possible to conduct user research face-to-face. The Gov-ernment Digital Service have provided advice on this:
The Charity Catalogue provides a list of free and discounted tools for third sec-tor organisations: https://charitycatalogue.com/
Charity Digital Exchange also provide software discounts for charities: http://ow.ly/Di5K50zKBqa
A list of events specifically for community businesses: https://www.powertochange.org....
A list of free webinars and training for third sector organisations:
You can also access expert, free support from:
• Digital Candle: links charities with digital experts able to provide an hour’s consultation and advice: https://www.digitalcandle.org....
• Reach Volunteering: connects charities with expert volunteers, including those with digital skills and experience: https://reachvolunteering.org....