Providing actual—not hypothetical—experience in the classroom, especially as organizations want graduates who can hit the ground running, is a good thing. Even better? Taking on real nonprofits who can benefit from the pro-bono advice.
David Walczyk, professor
New York University
New York, New York, U.S.A.
What they did
The intent was to give students the experience, as closely as possible, of working within a design shop on information architecture and interaction design projects. Essentially this meant learning to work with clients and their constraints, learning to work within a small team creatively, and producing a complete and implementable design.
Nonprofits were chosen as clients because they tend not to have the resources to afford high-level design work. In this way, student projects could benefit nonprofits while also introducing students to social good.
How you can do it
Though David’s classes were specific to information architecture and information design, the methodology he used can be adapted to any discipline.
Tap your networks. If you don’t personally know potential nonprofit clients, put the word out about what you’re hoping to do in class. David asked around in his networks, and quickly a list formed. From the list, organizations were selected based on their fit with the course and the needs of the organization. You can also search for organizations in your area on Idealist.org.
Define the nonprofit's role. When you find some potential partners, outline what you expect the semester to look like, what you’ll require of them, and what they’ll receive as a part of their participation. Finding the right nonprofits is a delicate balance. Potential clients have to be willing to be involved, maybe more than they would with a regular vendor. For David’s classes, clients needed to attend class twice: once at the beginning of the course to talk strategy, and once at the end of the course to see the designs the students had come up with. They also needed to be available via email during the process, so that students could communicate directly with clients.
Make a syllabus. David structured his class with a section of reading and reflecting, then the client meeting, then a workshop-style section where teams met to put what they had been learning into practice. To prepare students to work with a client, he used a "boot camp" model. For the first four to five weeks of the course, students read about the principles they would need to know in order to work with a client and produce a design. This gave David a chance to assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses so that groups with complementary skills could be formed.
Plan the design process.David developed a blueprint for these student projects that was lean and streamlined, an important demonstration to students about the design process. Essentially, the blueprint involved three stages:
The first stage was the strategy stage and it lasted 3-4 weeks. In this stage, the class would first meet with the client to identify organizational goals and needs. From this information, a strategy document and customer profiles (personas) were produced. These were then used to constrain and guide the second phase, paper prototyping.
The paper prototyping usability testing phase lasted 3-4 weeks. Students developed, using paper, their design ideas, always with consideration to the strategy document and the customer profiles. At the end of this phase, the paper prototypes were tested with people who matched the customer profiles developed in stage one. Based on feedback from the paper prototype testing, tweaks were made to the design.
The final stage lasted 2-3 weeks. During this stage the design was formalized into high-fidelity prototypes. An executive summary, that linked the design back to how it achieved organizational goals and needs, was also added.
Create steps toward a final product. Depending on your discipline, this could look very different, but some very basic stages could include: a comparative analysis of other organizations, research into a nonprofit’s different constituencies, testing new ideas, and a presentation of student recommendations.
Keep the client in mind. When working with students in this way, it’s important to teach them to tap into their creativity, but to stay humble. In this kind of consultant role, it’s easy for them to get locked into being clever, but to be effective and true to their client, they need to be taught to be self-reflective and keep their client in mind first and foremost.
Success shouldn’t be measured by client implementation, because there are a thousand reasons why a nonprofit might not implement recommendations as presented. Instead, as David suggests, success can be measured by how many students begin professional work in the discipline, or how the skills and perception of students changes based on what they learned.
Provide feedback to each student group every week. Spend quality time with them. Get to know them. Treat them as a unique group of individuals that have come together for a very short time to create something useful.
Leave the client needs up to the students. That’s their job. Your job is to provide structure and support.