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Designing digital tools for changemakers

You know your audiences. We ask the right questions to pin down exactly what they need, and design a tool to deliver it.

Project type: digital design

Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 1,300 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage. 

Its theory of change (TOC) integrated the collective expertise of more than 150 member organisations, partners and other experts to map out the critical strategies needed to end child marriage and support married girls.

It has three parts: a visual diagram; a background brief with the insights that informed its structure and content; and a user guide to help members use the TOC in their work.

Girls Not Brides tasked us with creating a digital, interactive version. The goal was a user-friendly product that let users explore the TOC, understand how the different elements fit together, and dive deeper into additional information where needed.

“The problem we had with the TOC was in trying to build a common understanding among all the organisations and actors working to end child marriage - the visual version looked quite complex: we wanted to make that more accessible for our members and partners, and make it more shareable - so that it wasn’t going to scare people away.”
Ellen Travers
Head of Learning, Girls Not Brides

A complex design challenge

This was a complex design challenge from the outset. The Girls Not Brides team had spent months developing the TOC through a participatory process with many diverse stakeholders. The result was a clear and comprehensive but very detailed document. How could we communicate this depth of information without overwhelming the user?

And they wanted much more than just a clickable version of the TOC. Though complex on first viewing, they knew that once members explored the TOC they found it very useful.

So the digital version would have to encourage that exploration – and make it easy and enjoyable. 

paperwork used to build the Theory of Change from

Photo: the GNB Theory of Change documentation.

Developing a clear design brief

We knew that developing a clear, focused design brief to guide our work would be crucial. We worked with Girls Not Brides team to challenge assumptions about what the digital tool would do, keeping the focus firmly on its target audience.

The GNB team know their members best: we provided templates and training so they could develop user personas and user journeys themselves. This gave us the essential insights we needed. How would the tool be used, and in what context? What questions might a user have? What should they gain by using it?

This process let us get to the essence of the brief. Above all, the tool would need to:

Allow users to easily zoom in and out to see the big picture and specific details

Allow non-linear user journeys showing how different strategies, actions and outcomes could relate to each other

"Smith&Brown took us out of the weeds and helped us understand our audiences - they made us us 'audience-led' and not 'content-led'. They helped us to stop talking in vague generalisations about our audiences, and made us think about who they were, where they were, what they were doing and how and why they might engage with a product like this"
Laura Dickinson
Communications Officer, Girls Not Brides

Helping users navigate complexity

Our final design had three key features.

First, a ‘Russian Doll’ structure nested the key components of the theory between the problem and vision statements. As users explored any one section, they would always be aware of the other parts of the theory, how these related to each other, and the overall structure.

Second, a hideable navigation sidebar provided the user with a visual tool telling them where they are within the theory, and enabling quick access to any other part – with a single click. 

Lastly, the direction users take to navigate through the theory would determine the type of information accessed. You move through the theory vertically, and access additional or supporting information horizontally.  

Early design for layout for the interactive theory of change
Using the tool – and getting results

User personas and user journeys are brilliant, but nothing beats real user feedback. A few months after launching the interactive Theory of Change, we got to run user tests with Girls Not Brides members from all over the world. Their feedback was universally positive. 

Best of all were the stories from two small grassroots NGOs. Both told us how they had used our tool in meetings with donors to explain how child marriage could be ended, exactly where their work fitted into this, and the outcomes and impact they were working towards. They felt it had really helped them with successful funding applications – it was incredibly rewarding to hear that our design was having a practical, real-life impact for the work they were doing.

"Most importantly, Smith&Brown helped us articulate exactly what it was we wanted and why, when it was not initially completely clear to us. We were working in a new area, and they asked the right questions - many of which we hadn’t considered - and guided us through a clear and very well thought-out process to make sure the final product was the right one."
Ellen Travers
Head of Learning, Girls Not Brides

"Smith&Brown brought respect for and understanding of the work we were trying to communicate. They understood the need for the TOC and what the work was trying to do. They asked tough yet important questions about what was needed, understood the need for diplomacy with partners who had contributed to the TOC, and did not attempt to over simplify the resulting product. They always kept an eye on the end goal, and guided us successfully through the journey of developing a product like this."

Laura Dickinson, Communications Officer, Girls Not Brides