At Lightning Reach, our aim is to seamlessly connect people in financial hardship to a range of personalised support from multiple providers, to empower them to get on the road to financial recovery. To help us achieve our mission, we set up the Social Innovation Council in July 2021 to bring together a key group of organisations supporting people in financial hardship, with the aim of collaboratively co-designing and developing an online portal to streamline access to support.
It proved to be a valuable exercise - within the first six months we went from setting a vision for how to streamline the support application process for both individuals and the organisations supporting them, to successfully launching the beta version of the Lightning Reach portal with an initial set of support partners.
A year on, we’re reflecting on what we’ve achieved and what we’ve learnt from the collaborative process so far.
How we got started
The Lightning Reach portal was co-developed with a core group of founding members, including the Association of Charitable Organisations, the Royal British Legion, Smallwood Trust, the Charity for Civil Servants, End Furniture Poverty and Turn2us. We met for working sessions every two weeks and adopted a human-centric design approach that involved working closely with people with lived experience of financial hardship.
The portal enables people to find and apply for a range of personalised support from multiple providers. It’s easy to use, accessible on mobile, and takes just minutes to complete. The portal also uses innovative technology such as open banking to help organisations save time, reduce the risk of fraud, and ultimately provide timely support to those most in need.
What we've achieved so far
Within 6 months of convening the Social Innovation Council and setting a shared vision, we developed and launched the beta version of the portal in December 2021. To date over 10,000 people have registered on the Lightning Reach portal to find and apply for support, with 91% satisfaction rates, and we’ve helped facilitate over £1m in grants across our platform.
Challenges with collaborative working
We all know the benefits of collaborative working - sharing insights, perspectives, and expertise to help achieve a shared goal that will benefit all stakeholders. But it can often be very difficult to deliver in practice - either within or across organisations.
Many initiatives result in sub-optimal outcomes - sometimes because the organisations or individuals involved have different interests that become too difficult to align, competing priorities eat into commitments, or the project struggles to transition from talk to action. This can mean that a lot of time, effort and valuable resource has gone into an outcome with limited tangible value.
Mindful of these challenges going into the Social Innovation Council, we set about trying to approach our product development process differently and continued learning along the way.
What we've learnt
1. Design with and for real users
In keeping with our human-centred design approach, we involved users at each stage of the design process through 1-1 interviews, giving them a seat at the centre of the table. We gathered insights from people with lived experience of financial hardship to understand their challenges with finding and applying for support, and used these to inform our vision and design.
The result? We could keep the design process and outcomes focussed on the people we’re aiming to support, with most users finding the portal easy to use.
“It felt like we were conscious of the applicant throughout - as if they’ve been sitting in the room with us.” Cat Illingworth, Smallwood Trust
2. Leave organisational hats at the door
To design a solution that truly meets the needs of the support sector as a whole, it was important for members to maintain a level of neutrality throughout the process. We encouraged everyone to participate as individual experts within the sector, as opposed to representatives pursuing their organisation’s agendas. This meant we were able to work together to align on a truly shared vision for the sector.
“Not looking at it as an individual organisation meant we were able to remove the negatives, and look through a sector lens. We were focussing on the problem to solve, not what we wanted as an organisation.” Flavia Gapper, Charity for Civil Servants
Building in time to address ‘elephants in the room’ at regular points throughout the process also meant we created a space where everyone felt safe to share their thoughts and ideas, and we could address any challenges head on.
3. Keep things simple
Structuring the project around a human-centred design process meant the project had a simple and clear structure from the outset. By leading the project ourselves with our small team, we limited project management overheads and kept the project lean and agile.
Reiterating our vision and key outcomes at each meeting meant we were able to stay focussed on what we were trying to build and why - minimising scope creep for each feature set and avoiding a ‘frankenstein’, bloated product.
“Using the design process has been really helpful in keeping us focussed, despite the time lag between meetings. It would be easy to get lost in the detail without returning to the key points regularly.” Donal Watkin, Association of Charitable Organisations
4. Start small and stay agile
Starting small with an initial minimum viable product (MVP) was crucial so we could test our ideas as quickly as possible and get a proof of concept for the Lightning Reach portal. We put together a small cohort of users who could test wireframes and prototypes from an individual and organisational perspective. Through cycles of feedback gathering and iterating on features in bitesize chunks, we developed the initial beta version (MVP) of the portal from concept to delivery in just 6 months.
“It feels like magic! Not sure how we’ve got to the end product when thinking back to the initial meetings which were broad.” Cat Illingworth, Smallwood Trust
5. Get the right group together and commit
A key factor in the project’s success was ensuring we had a diverse mix of organisations within the core project group, while also keeping it small enough that everyone’s voices could be heard. We involved a relevant mix of stakeholders, which combined both ‘on the ground’ insights into people’s experience of applying for support (e.g. grantmaking charities), with more strategic perspectives (e.g. the ACO, the umbrella organisation supporting those charities) for the sector as a whole.
Adhering to the “2 pizza rule” of each meeting only being so large that two pizzas can feed the whole group, meant that no one’s ideas got drowned out. And for areas where we needed more insights, we held additional workshops to engage the broader sector.
Securing commitment to the process by asking for best efforts to join fortnightly meetings over the course of 6 months, ensured we were able to keep the momentum of the project hit our agreed timelines.
Having started the portal with an initial set of grants, we’re continuing to expand on this and are broadening the portal to incorporate a more holistic range of financial support including local authority discretionary/hardship schemes and social tariffs for essential household bills such as water and broadband. We’re also developing the functionality to enable support organisations to apply on behalf of individuals to ensure digitally excluded groups get access to the support they need.
We’re continuing to work with the Social Innovation Council to do this, and have set up three more core groups to co-develop and design the new features - taking the learnings from our first six months and building on our initial collaborative approach. We’re also aiming to host quarterly forums to provide opportunities for our members to network and exchange insights.
By working with a core, relevant group of stakeholders, keeping things focussed and working iteratively we were not only able to create a great product, but also develop a truly collaborative ethic within the group of Founding Partners. One that kept the end user at the heart of the product development process and helped realise a collective vision that each stakeholder is bought into.
“It felt like true collaboration. You don't always get that.” Cat Illingworth, Smallwood Trust
It has laid the foundations for the Social Innovation Council we have today, comprising a core set of around 30 core cross-sector organisations and a wider membership of over 500 on our mailing list. Working with the Council is enabling us to iterate and continue to develop the portal to meet the needs of the support ecosystem, but also developing a community amongst our members and facilitating collaboration across the sector.
You can find out more about the Social Innovation Council and sign up to receive regular updates here.