Designing digitally: Start with the need, not the technology

Whenever discussing new ways of working the most important question for a charity is how it affects their mission. But this makes creating digital services more problematic than it first appears, because ‘digital exclusion’ is a very real thing among some of the key groups that many charities target.

The 2016 internet usage data from the Office of National Statistics showed that while 87.9% of adults in the UK have recently used the internet this drops down to 71% of disabled people with 25% of disabled people having never use the internet. Older people also show a far lower level of online engagement.

Yet while there is certainly the possibility of excluding people through badly done digital services the massive loss of opportunity caused by failing to embrace the digital revolution risks even more harm.

So in order to use the full potential of digital technology offers without isolating vulnerable users you need to consider two things:

1. Does your product cater for the needs of your users?

Start with the need, not with the technology. It sounds obvious, but it is something that people can get wrong. Citizens Advice’s analysis of the universal credit pilot, for example, found that 66% of its target users were unable to fulfill the core criteria of ‘getting online’.

The product should be designed and tailored specifically to meet your user’s needs, and not just because you want to ‘do digital’. Take MeshPoint, a project set up with the help of Techfugees (currently in a late piloting stage) to provide a mobile Wi-Fi point to refugees. The crucial point is that it lets refugees and those around them connect to the internet while on the move. Like many projects supported by Techfugees it involved refugees in the design process, which helped them create a product that is effective and usable for the people it is aimed at.

Tailoring a product to your users’ needs should also take into account what tools are already in use. For example there are a number of screen reader tools designed to help people with vision difficulties access the internet. This means if you are dealing with a group such as the elderly or diabetics, who are particularly likely to include those who use these tools, it is worthwhile spending some time testing whether your product interacts well with them—and if not working out what can be done to improve its accessibility.

2. How can you support your users to make use of your product?

The second element is to understand the position of your users: their digital skills and what will motivate them to engage with the product. Because even when your users are involved in the design of a digital product, many may still need support and encouragement to reap its benefits.

The Family Independence Initiative, for example, provides a dashboard which lets people keep track of their progress through a number of different services. The dashboard helps to keep them motivated and engaged with the service by showing them progress, which in turn encourages them to continue to use the system. The Initiative also created a system whereby when the users input data they receive a small monetary reward. This not only teaches users about the value of their data, but also provides further motivation.

Supporting your users to engage with a product could also include putting on training, or even providing users with the equipment they need to access your service—be it a smart phone, or adaptive technology for a disability. It is also important to consider where your users are based. If you are predominantly dealing with rural communities you should not assume the same easy access to mobile Wi-Fi as for users based in cities.

Addressing these two issues requires you to communicate and engage with your beneficiaries throughout the design and building process, and to tailor both product and the infrastructure around the product to their needs. As with any service, digital or analogue, tech products must have the user at their heart.


  1. Dear mr Weston,
    thank you for mentioning MeshPoint as a good example of user-centered design.

    I happened to be in the middle of a really big crisis situation and saw first hand that in crisis situation, being able to communicate and having Internet access becomes as important as health and nutrition, especially for the children who have the right to protection from family separation.

    But what surprised me the most is that all big international humanitarian organisations aren’t equipped or trained to establish reliable communications during emergencies.

    Rebuilding communication infrastructure during crisis situations is really hard, slow and expensive. We want to make rebuilding communication infrastructure fast, easy and affordable while providing extra services that help with anticipating, assessing and managing crisis situations and that help create child friendly spaces in emergencies (e.g. learning centers).

    Currently, we are conducting two pilot studies. The first one is being conducted in collaboration with International Organization for Migration.

    We employed two MeshPoint devices that serve asylum seekers in Zagreb and Kutina. Asylum center in Kutina is dedicated to the most vulnerable amongst asylum seekers – single mothers and children. In Zagreb we have one MeshPoint device serving 600 persons that are currently living in the asylum center, and with the traffic of over 1000GB of data used per week.
    The second pilot study is being conducted in collaboration with the city of Osijek.

    We started installing MeshPoint devices during this winter (December 2016) which gave as an opportunity to test MeshPoint’s endurance in low temperatures, snow, cold winds and freezing rain. This pilot confirmed that MeshPoint truly is weatherproof and that it can stand low temperatures down to -22°C without any problems.

    I would be glad to answer any additional questions you may have so don’t hesitate to contact me.

    Best regards,

    ps. there is a small typo in article, it should say “MeshPoint” not “MeshPiont”

    • Dear Valent

      Thank you for your comment, I suppose one of the difficulties of planning effective communication when dealing with the next big humanitarian emergency is that each situation you are dealing with has a new set of infrastructure needs in a new environment so any communication plans you do develop can quickly become out of date. This links to one of the things I really like about MeshPoint as a technological platform, that it seems to have the flexibility to be used in lots of different environments suggesting it could help with more flexible planning to help organisations prepare for future crises.

      It was also really interesting to read about the work your pilot is doing and particularly the scale that it’s been able to achieve.

      • Dear mr Weston,
        you are completely right, planning for any emergency situation goes only so far, and if we would be able to predict them then we would also be able to easily mitigate them.

        Currently crisis communication is done by some really great teams who are very dedicated people and their actions definitely help save lives.

        But what we see more and more is that crisis situations aren’t concentrated in one small area, they are often distributed over larger areas, and current approach doesn’t scale because any of these awesome teams can only be in one place at same time.

        Out mission is to empower local volunteers and crisis teams to rebuild communication infrastructure with easy to use building blocks.

        This approach scales much better and that is why I see MeshPoint being used similar to Lego bricks for crisis communication.

        Best regards,
        Valent Turkovic,
        founder of MeshPoint.

  2. Hi and good day to you both @Andrew and @Valent. When I looked at the design model on I was very excited that a group of young talented techies are out to truly make a difference and not being primarily driven about money.

    I agree that meshpoint is going to be a true tech disruptor in the Wi-Fi device space. I am also looking forward to the release/launch day.
    Crisis situation for us in Nigeria is not only in our refugee camps but almost every where.

    I am looking at crisis in terms of very poor and rip-off social infrastructure like POWER, INTERNET, transportation etc. for self development, small home business start-ups and global connectivity to information.

    I often quote that give a man steady power supply and internet and poverty will be mitigated. Internet is so expensive here and the cheap ones are so badly messed up to the point of frustration. Power is picking up but still very much below what you guys will rate as fair in your respective countries.

    I have been looking for such a Wi-Fi device that will be able to power on battery/solar and that has wider coverage strength to provide free hotspot to people in my community then expand to other localities. That is what meshpoint offers.

    My question is am I going to be able to purchase this product from Nigeria when you finally launch?

    I will subscribe for mail update and follow on GitHub for latest development. Thank you so much Valent for this innovation and thanks Andrew for bringing this to our knowledge.

    All my best wishes to you both.


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