In a rapidly digitalizing world, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stands at the forefront, dedicated to embracing the power of technology to deliver development solutions. As part of this journey, I had the opportunity to play a pivotal role —to develop the UNDP Digital Standards.
This was no small task, but one that I enthusiastically embraced. Today, I want to share with you some of the behind-the-scenes experiences and key insights that helped shape these standards.
My journey with the UNDP Digital Standards was built upon a foundation of extensive experience, having been involved in over 250 technology projects at Mäd and also the multi-year journey of building Blue. Each project served as a stepping stone, adding to my understanding of the unique challenges and the vast potential that digital technology holds in the field of development.
Or, to put it more bluntly: I’ve fucked up more projects than most people have even started. 😂
Creating the standards for an organization as vast and diverse as UNDP, with approximately 21,000 employees worldwide, was a fascinating challenge. It required careful navigation through a sea of perspectives, stakeholder interests, and organizational structures. The scale of the UNDP posed an interesting paradox – the more diverse the viewpoints, the richer the collective wisdom, and the more complex the alignment process.
My distinct aim was not to try and please everyone, everywhere, but to actual have quite strong opinions on what “good” looks like. Standard 4 specifically came to light based on this mindset.
I aimed to harmonize these standards with the Principles for Digital Development, a guiding beacon for organizations seeking to integrate digital technologies into their work. Creating this synergy was crucial to ensure that our efforts were part of a broader, unified global push towards digital maturity in the development sector.
However, it was equally important to make the standards accessible and easy to understand, especially for those who might not be inherently tech-savvy. The power of a standard lies in its ability to be easily understood and widely applied. Hence, a key challenge was to distil the complexity of digital transformation into simple, actionable guidelines. This was not just about ‘speaking tech’ but also about ‘translating tech’ into the language of development work.
I also needed to ensure that these standards were not just theoretical constructs but tools that were highly applicable to the realities on the ground. They had to resonate with the day-to-day experiences of our colleagues based in country offices and the field, who are the real implementers of these digital initiatives.
In the end, the UNDP Digital Standards represent a shared vision for the role of technology in development, a compass to guide our digital initiatives. They are a testament to the power of collective wisdom, the essence of simplicity, and the practicality of field-oriented perspectives. They reflect the hopes and ambitions of a global organization poised to harness the power of digital transformation to improve lives and build resilient nations.
As I conclude, I want to emphasize that these UNDP Digital Standards, as they stand today, are intended to provide guidance, serving as a roadmap to navigate the complex terrain of digital transformation. They offer valuable insights and best practices but do not yet have the binding force of compliance.
However, my vision for the future of these standards goes beyond guidance. I believe that as our collective experience and understanding of digital transformation in development grows, these standards could evolve to have “teeth” – becoming a robust checklist that all projects must adhere to. This would not only ensure a consistent approach to digital initiatives across the organization but also foster accountability and enhance the impact of our digital efforts.
The journey of digital transformation is a marathon, not a sprint. It involves learning, unlearning, and relearning. As we continue to traverse this path, these standards will also evolve, reflecting the emerging realities and lessons learned.
And one day, I hope to see them serve not only as guiding stars but as firm pillars that uphold the integrity and effectiveness of UNDP’s digital initiatives. Until that day, we continue to learn, innovate, and strive for impact.
The UNDP Digital Standards provide guidance for UNDP teams on best practices when creating digital solutions for development.
The UNDP Digital Standards have been created to accelerate UNDP’s digital transformation and ensure the highest rate of success across our digital initiatives worldwide.
Digital standards are important for UNDP because they provide a framework for innovation and improvement. By setting standards for how digital information is managed and exchanged, and how digital products are created, UNDP can help ensure that new technologies are used effectively and efficiently to support its development goals.
Digital Standards also help UNDP to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology landscape. They provide a way for UNDP to evaluate new technologies and ensure that they are compatible with existing systems. This helps UNDP to avoid investing in outdated or incompatible technologies.
The Digital Standards build upon the Principles for Digital Development — but are UNDP-specific and leverage the experience and breadth of the organization.
Finally, by adhering to digital standards, UNDP can help build trust with our partners and stakeholders. When UNDP uses standard formats and protocols, it demonstrates our commitment to open communication and collaboration. This helps UNDP to establish itself as a reliable and trustworthy development partner and a thought leader in digital.
UNDP’s digital standards are therefore an important part of its overall strategy for using technology to achieve its development goals. The UNDP Digital Standards have been created through extensive consultations with internal and external experts, and with a real-world understanding of a variety of UNDP projects.
1. Start with the Need.
Building something that is not needed is the most significant risk in digital. Most technology startups and products fail. This is not because the technology doesn’t work.
It’s because they have built something that people don’t need or can’t use.
By understanding the needs of real people, UNDP can ensure that we do not make this mistake. More of our projects will have a real and lasting impact.
Don’t start with a solution or technology and then search for a way to use it. Start with a clear understanding of the challenge you address. Understand your intended user’s needs, context, and technology constraints.
Only then, focus on solutions that address the problem. There’s no such thing as a perfect problem statement, but there are definitely good and bad examples. A good problem statement should be clear, concise, and specific. It should be achievable and relevant to your company or organization. On the other hand, a bad problem statement can be vague, overly ambitious, or simply irrelevant.
It can also be too specific, making it impossible to solve. If you’re not sure whether your problem statement is good or bad, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the problem statement clear and concise?
- Is the problem statement specific?
- Is the problem statement achievable?
- Is the problem statement relevant?
Here are two examples of problem statements:
- Bad: Slow humanitarian response after earthquakes
- Good: Humanitarian community lacks on the ground information at the start of a humanitarian crisis because of limited and infrastructure communication networks. The implications are slower response and a lack of coordinated effort.
You cannot understand user needs in isolation by sitting in meetings and debating. Someone needs to speak, early and often, to the precise set of people who experience the problem and those already trying to solve the problem.
A significant amount of qualitative insights will emerge based on these conversations.
Be careful not to put too much significance on the potential solutions at this point. People often do not know the scope of available solutions, and you could be side-tracked.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford
The priority is to create alignment around the problem definition at this stage. Everyone on your team should understand and be able to articulate the problem(s) and unmet needs. Why is the problem worth solving?
The better your understanding of the problem and the users, the more likely you will create an impactful solution.
2. Bridge the Digital Divide.
This standard is linked to the following Principle for Digital Development: Design With the User.
Digital solutions can bring positive change and opportunities. Yet even with the best intentions, your solution is likely to exclude certain people. To Leave No One Behind, it’s vital to understand what barriers exist to accessing digital solutions.
To build inclusive digital services, be intentional about tackling the digital divide, and follow accessibility best practices. Be aware of your own bias, solutions co-created with the people and communities help us meet our shared objectives.
Understand who is affected by the digital divide and what barriers exist in your country and context. The following groups are more likely to be excluded: Women, Children, Elderly, Demobilised military, Persons with disabilities , Migrants, IDPs, refugees, and stateless persons, Informal sector workers, Indigenous people, Lesbian, bisexual, gay, transsexual, and intersex, Ethnic, caste, and religious minorities, Unattached youth (NEETs) and Rural residents.
Remember, the digital divide is not just about differing levels of internet access. It also encompasses:
- Access to devices & availability of infrastructure
- Digital literacy and skills
- Social norms that inhibit some people from using digital solutions
- Literacy and language barriers
No single digital solution can close the digital divide. Its causes are often complex and systemic and can’t be solved by technology alone. But UNDP’s digital solutions should exemplify how good design can help.
Specify which barriers are most relevant to your goal and context—plan to tackle them intentionally. Be ambitious, set targets, and measure disaggregated data to measure how you are doing.
3. Test Early and Often.
This standard is linked to the following Principle for Digital Development: Design With the User.
We test things to reduce the risk of failure later on. Every product or service is built on a series of hypotheses and assumptions. The larger the assumption, the more likely it needs to be tested. For instance:
- Desirability — Do users want this? Are we meeting their needs?
- Viability — Can we create enough value that people will use it? Can the solution exist in our local context?
- Feasibility — Can we legally do this? Can this be built with available technology? Do we have a third-party company that can provide this solution for us?
We test by creating simple prototypes. These can be as simple as a series of sketches or a design prototype made in a tool such as Figma. Prototyping tests your ideas in real life-context instead of describing your solution.
The feedback you receive from testing prototypes can help you make better decisions about your product and service without the time-consuming and expensive route of building the entire product up front.
The typical process is: Idea → Build → Launch → Learn.
Prototypes can help skip the build and launch phases, and you can go straight from Idea → Learn.
Testing should then be done repeatedly in your project lifecycle. Building a digital product or service needs continuous user feedback to ensure you are launching the right solution.
Be prepared to be wrong. Stay open to changing your original plan based on feedback. If things don’t work, iterate based on user feedback. Changing and testing a prototype is much faster and cheaper than doing so with a real product — so use this opportunity to prototype and learn!
If a picture is worth 1000 words, a prototype is worth 1000 meetings.Tom & David Kelley
4. (Perhaps) Don’t Build It.
This standard is linked to the following Principle for Digital Development: Reuse and Improve.
Most of the time, building something new is a mistake. Think: there is no need to ‘re-code’ the wheel.
The three options for any project:
- Use an off-the-shelf platform
- Build on top of or use existing open-source platforms and Digital Public Goods (DPGs)
- Build something new
The quickest and most effective option is to buy an ‘off-the-shelf’ platform using the SaaS (Software as a Service) model. You will not be able to change the code, but you will be able to change settings to customize the platform. There will be no need to hire a technology team, and you can focus on roll-out and implementation. For example, Microsoft Teams you use every day is an off-the-shelf platform.
Beware: it is not an ‘off-the-shelf product’ if it takes longer than 2-3 days to set up and you have to speak to a human being before buying.
Building on top of existing platforms will generally mean taking open-source components and editing the code to meet your requirements. The benefits here are that you’ll be leveraging years of other people’s experience and effort. You can have many small platforms working together instead of one giant system. You can launch products 5-10 times faster this way than building something completely new. Many Digital Public Goods (DPGs) are built in a modular way and will allow you to do this.
The third option is to build something new. Only consider this for smaller products or extensive opportunities where the solutions can be reused globally. The reason is that successfully making something new is incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive. To create a mature, scalable product or service, you’ll need to ensure a team and budget for a minimum of three years.
The critical question to ask yourself is:
Can you get 70-90 percent of what you need for 10-20 percent of the effort? If so, don’t build anything but try options #1 and #2 above.
There are exceptions to this, especially when building on/for government partners, then Open Source and DPGs should be favoured over off-the-shelf SaaS solutions, because of the nature of government data. But in general, the rule applies.
UNDP can work with government partners on identifying suitable existing DPGs for their problems (see the link to the Registry), and identifying if DPGs are a good fit. While they can be quicker to implement and give governments more control over their solutions, they might face limitations with regard to maintenance and customer support, depending on the maturity. A key advantage of using open source/DPGs is that they prevent vendor lock-in. Chief Digital Office can support in conducting such assessments with country offices.
5. Do no harm.
Digital technology can be an incredible force for good. But at the same time, digital technologies are often developed without adequate consideration of the potential negative impacts they can cause. Technology is not neutral. Most technology has been built with inherent bias (because it is built by humans), and can therefore have unforeseen negative impacts on people and planet.
This standard comes in two parts: Part A – Ensure Human Rights, and Part B – Protect the Environment.
Part A: Ensure Human Rights
The list of potential harms from digital technology is daunting, whether that is the suppression of speech, privacy violations, data leak or algorithmic discrimination. It is therefore our responsibility to integrate a human rights-based approach in all digital projects and effectively manage human rights risks associated with digital technologies.
It is important to keep in mind that harm may not be immediately obvious. For instance, AI models that are built by averaging data from populations have often sidelined marginalized communities and minorities, even as they are disproportionately subjected to the technology’s impacts. Moreover, if your AI dataset is biased against a certain population, your AI will also integrate those biases. See an example of what happened to Microsoft’s Twitter bot.
It is important to think about who is going to use and interact with the technology and their motivations and goals. For example, while helping a government create a health and education platform may have good goals in mind, is there a potential for the platform to be used to collect data that can fuel discrimination? Another example is that an algorithm on social media that optimizes for engagement can, as a by-product, promote fake news or extremist political content, as users will react strongly and share this content more than content that does not enrage.
Ask yourself :
- How can we ensure we do not lock people into future harms?
- Who can be harmed by your innovation and when?
- Which human rights are touched upon with this project?
- Who does this solution actually benefit?
- Was appropriate consent obtained by the end user?
- Is there any future good we might foreclose by implementing this solution?
You must map out the potential consequences and risks of implementing a digital solution, including first, second, third and fourth-order consequences (example HERE) and plan mitigation measure.
Part B: Protect the Environment
Technology can improve our ability to live in ways that regenerate ecosystems and mitigate climate change. Technology is helping us to use less energy, produce cleaner energy, produce food in more sustainable ways, shift to circular models of production, have cleaner transport options, better monitor our impacts on the planet, and easily share ways to do better.
However, technology can also cause harm to the planet, directly and indirectly.
The biggest direct environmental impacts that technology causes are increased energy consumption and material mining and waste.
Negative impacts may include:
- Algorithms that reinforce unsustainable behaviour.
- E-waste is a major concern in countries where e-waste facilities are not set up.
- Social media has driven increasing consumption of fast fashion and disposable goods.
- Globalisation has created a marketplace in which goods are shipped or flown all over the planet in wasteful ways.
- Companies are still accountable to their shareholders to drive for constant growth with an ‘extract > make > waste’ model that is detrimental to the planet.
- Technologies like cryptocurrencies, which save energy in the fast transfer of value across the planet, can consume huge amounts of energy in computing power to mine new coins.
In order to mitigate and prevent harms to the environment caused by technology, it is first important to understand the way the technology actually works. What are the sources of energy? What is the lifecycle of the technology product? How is waste managed? What might be the 2nd, 3rd and 4th order consequences of introducing this technology to an environment or ecosystem?
Understand Greentech and how you could use it to support sustainability goals. The main goal of Greentech is to minimalise the negative impact of new technologies on the planet, specific goals also include:
- Sustainability – fulling our needs in a way that does not have a negative impact on our environment.
- Innovation – finding new and more efficient ways to replace existing technologies with eco-friendly ones.
- Viability – adopting new methods of green technology and creating new jobs that facilitate them.
- Source reduction – reducing the consumption of resources, waste, and pollution.
6. Form the Right Team.
This standard is linked to the following Principle for Digital Development: Be Collaborative.
Launching a digital product requires a diverse set of skill sets. This includes software engineering, user research, UX (User Experience)and UI (User Interface) design, product and project management, and sector/industry/challenge specific knowledge.
At a minimum, there are three core skill sets required for any project.
- Designer — Someone who understands the problem and can design a solution. This is about designing how something works vs. just what it will look like.
- Developer — Someone who builds solutions and understands technology.
- Project Manager — Someone who manages stakeholders and keeps things on track.
You can find some of these skills within the UNDP, while other skill sets are scarce. Work with local digital practitioners and vendors to support the local digital ecosystem. Build relationships and partnerships with local universities, accelerators and boot camps.
You should only start to build the team once you fully understand the problem and the proposed solution. Otherwise, the team’s skill sets will not align with the problem you’re trying to solve.
When creating a team, aim to include individuals with similar lived experiences and organisations that have solved similar challenges before. This will ensure alignment and inclusion in your solutions.
You can leverage this experience to build better products, faster.
7. Measure What Matters.
This standard is linked to the following Principles for Digital Development: Be Data-Driven.
Every project needs a clear, upfront definition of success and failure. This means attaching numbers to measurable outcomes. You can then implement changes to move a project toward success.
The ideal scenario is that these numbers are automatically gathered from your product with an analytics platform.
Examples are how many daily/weekly/monthly active users you have and how many ‘outcomes’ are achieved where value is created for the person using the product. Think about the cost-per-outcome. For a telemedicine product, you would want to know the cost per virtual consultation. This is the number of virtual consultations divided by the total costs of launching and maintaining the platform.
Stay away from vanity metrics. These metrics make the project look good but do not shape future strategies. Pageviews and downloads are examples of vanity metrics — you can measure and track them, but they are not success metrics.
Think of the steps required to give users value from the platform. Track the number of people that reach each step and how many drop off vs. how many continue to the next step. You can use these metrics to fix usability issues in your product.
Measuring product usage allows you to correct bias and blind spots. There is often a big difference between what users will say to you vs. what they do on the product.
Measuring the performance of a digital solution is an integral part of improving it. Measuring continuous improvement requires a mindset shift. Rather than only thinking about long-term programme outcomes, you will need to gather short-term, immediate insights using analytics and qualitative insights. These insights will guide your decision-making. This can also help when working with and managing vendors and implementers.
Technology solutions are intended to drive development outcomes. Keep your programme outcomes front of mind as you contemplate, guide the development of, and implement digital solutions.
8. Follow The UNDP Data Principles.
This standard is linked to the following Principles for Digital Development: Address Privacy & Security.
Due to UNDP’s global work, we cannot take an informal approach to the data lifecyle.
UNDP already has a set of Data Principles that every project must adhere to:
- Safeguard personal data
- Uphold the highest ethical standards
- Manage data responsibly
- Make data open by default
- Plan for reusability and interoperability
- Empower people to work with data
- Expand frontiers of data
- Be aware of data limitations
The critical risks with data collection are:
- Security issues and vulnerabilities that leak data to malicious third parties
- Collecting unnecessary personal data that is used
- Oversharing collected data with authorised third parties
- Breaking local privacy laws in the countries where we operate
UNDP should manage data responsibly and effectively through the data lifecycle from collection to sharing, to maximise the value of data. Work with data experts to limit the collection of personally identifiable data and manage storage.
Be clear about:
- who owns it
- who can access and manage it
- what it can and cannot be used for
- where, how, and with whom it will be shared
- how it will be collected continuously
Assume your product has security issues. Work with cybersecurity experts to embed privacy and security in the design and audit the final code and infrastructure.
9. Default to Open.
This standard is linked to the following Principles for Digital Development: Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation, Reuse and Improve and Be Collaborative.
Building solutions ‘in the open’ allows for better collaboration and reduces silos. This applies both to the methodologies of the work and the digital solutions we use and build.
Make your project open-source, and use open-source components when possible. Publish your project code to UNDP Github and make it public after validating that it can be shared. This allows other country offices and projects to leverage and build upon your work. Key UNDP products can be turned into Digital Public Goods and receive corporate support for long-term maintenance.
But, be careful when sharing data. Ensure that you are not over-sharing or providing personally identifiable information to third parties.
Write about your key learnings to help others, and publish both a:
- Roadmap — Your plans for the future of the product and service
- Release Notes — The monthly changes to your product or service
Before you build something, check the Digital Public Goods Advisory website for solutions. Digital Public Goods are software, data sets, AI models, standards, and content that are free to use and contribute to sustainable international digital development. This will help encourage reuse and interoperability.
Where possible, provide open APIs (what’s an API?) to allow others to integrate into your platform and leverage your data and features to build upon your work. When building/implementing for governments, make sure the solution UNDP supports is interoperable with other government systems (and where applicable the private sector), to help build digital public infrastructure.
10. Plan for the Long Term.
Before you start a project, there are two key things that you need to consider:
- The plan for maintaining your product
- The plan for engaging the user who will use the product
Part A: Plan for maintaining your product
First, the cost of maintaining and improving a digital product will be significantly higher than building the initial version.
The reason is that digital products need continuous maintenance and need to provide a reliable service to end-users. There are technical bugs (errors in the code) to fix, underlining software libraries to update, and hosting/licensing fees for the website, app or platform.
On top of technical updates, end-user needs will change, so their feedback needs to be implemented. This is why we advise only building products from scratch if necessary.
Ensure clarity in long-term roles and responsibilities. Who will fund the solution, who will maintain it, how it will scale, who is allowed to re-use it, how the data will be used/shared, analytics and success factors, and how end-user feedback will be continuously gathered and implemented?
If a partner organization will manage the product in the long term, this requires a clear set of documentation and a handover guide and plan. Only passing the source code, servers, access information, and vendor details is insufficient. A handover guide needs to detail the critical processes required to run the product daily. Ideally, the documentation should be clear enough that little-to-no communication should be necessary on an ongoing basis.
When considering long-term funding, the costs to run the product are typically subdivided into maintenance, hosting/data storage costs, and licensing fees. Ensure that there are precise projections for these costs for the next 2-3 years so you understand the funding needs for the project. You may need to consider if there is a business model that can be created around your product. In addition, if your product is open-sourced and you work to replicate it in new countries and/or settings, you may consider if UNDP should be the long-term product steward or it should be handed over to another entity (e.g. a foundation, university, or social enterprise) to be the legal guardian, funder, and centre of operations and maintenance.
Part B: Plan for engaging the user
Second, creating a digital product or service is not enough; you need to ensure that end-users adopt it.
This requires a robust user-engagement plan that includes how users will discover, adopt and use the product. This can be a digital engagement plan, a change management plan, or a communication campaign.
The onboarding process and first-time user experience are fundamental to ensuring that users do not try your product once, have a bad experience, and then never use it again. To prevent problems for first-time users, you need to design an onboarding process, trigger word-of-mouth referrals, and optimize user acquisition, engagement, and retention. With these considerations in mind, you can create products that are not just successful but also sustainable over time.
The best strategy to enable word-of-mouth referrals is to solve a specific problem really well. But word-out-mouth is not a strategy that you can rely on. You need to have a plan that assumes word-of-mouth won’t work and find a way to reach your target audience regardless.
User acquisition, engagement and retention need to be part of the product development from the start. It also requires a specific set of skills (you may need to hire for these skills). Be clear about who will design and implement the engagement strategy. The cost and the time to inform and engage end-users are likely more than you think.
One key element of developing digital products or services is building strong relationships with users at all stages of the development process. You must have a proactive approach to ensuring users get the most value from your product or service. It involves working with users to help them achieve their desired outcomes using your product. This could include providing training, offering best practices, or simply being available to answer questions.
To be successful, customer success needs to be built into your product development process from the start.