Designing the Synagogue Member Experience

by Aimee Close

According to Wikipedia, design is defined as “the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams, and sewing patterns).” Imagine any consumer product, and one thing you can be certain of is that it went through a design phase before it was brought to market.

If you think about how mobile phones have changed over the past twenty years, you will see the impact that designers have on a product.  From the first large, clunky wireless handsets with one inch screens and an external antenna, to the flip phone, to the Blackberry, to the iphone, designers at the various manufacturing companies did research, held focus groups, and produced and tested prototypes, all to discover what people really wanted their personal cell phones to look like, feel like, and sound like, before bringing new versions to market. 

People who are trained in design are taught to probe deeply into the hearts and minds of their target consumers, to ensure that they truly understand their needs.  Who are they? What do they really value? What would make their lives better? What are they really looking for?

At this point, you may be asking, “What does any of this have to do with synagogue life?” Great question!

When I work with congregations beginning the strategic planning process, they usually have several problems they are trying to solve.  Most of them are predictable – how to attract more members; how to better engage the members they have; how to build a stronger leadership “bench”; how to raise more money, etc. 

What if we could apply the approach that designers use in developing consumer products to help solve the problems of modern synagogue life?  What might that look like?

In the case of synagogues, the “product” we are designing is the member experience. Let’s think about that for a minute.  What does it mean to design an experience?  How many congregations have ever even thought about intentionally designing the member experience?  Obviously, this is very different from designing a consumer product like a mobile phone.

Let’s begin by defining the member experience as the sum of every interaction a member has with the synagogue or any of its official or unofficial representatives, whether that interaction is in person, on the website, on social media, by mail, email, or by phone. Every such interaction has the potential to positively or negatively impact the way a person feels about the congregation – even bumping into the rabbi in the supermarket, running into the synagogue president at Hebrew School pickup, opening a piece of mail from the office, or checking the synagogue’s website for information on an upcoming program, can influence how a person experiences the congregation.

Obviously, not all of these things are completely within our control, but designing an experience means controlling all the elements that we can control, e.g. the website, Facebook page, brochures, mailings, email blasts, the atmosphere in the office, what the lobby looks like, what services are like (as well as the kiddush or oneg that takes place after services), how programs are run, the atmosphere in the preschool and religious school, etc. In order to design a better member experience, we need to do so consistently across all of these touchpoints.

Empathic Listening

In design thinking, the first thing we need to do is learn everything we possibly can about our “customers,” the people for whom we are designing the experience.  We do that by listening empathically, showing authentic curiosity, probing, and trying to understand people’s real wants, needs, and values, whether or not they are actually able to articulate them. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Case #1: The Millennial Who Just Moved Into the Neighborhood                                                     

Imagine that you are a member of a congregation’s strategic planning committee. In doing your initial data gathering, you learn that there is a sizable group of young Jewish adults that recently moved into the neighborhood when a large high-tech company relocated to the community. One member of the planning committee says that she recently met one of these young adults and would be happy to reach out. She arranges to meet the young man for coffee.  She listens empathically (and does not get defensive) as he talks about how little interest he has in traditional synagogue life with all of its rules and red tape, and how he really just wants to get together with other Jews his own age and celebrate holidays, maybe discuss Israeli politics, travel to places of Jewish interest, or go to a Jewish music concert. She listens to his hopes and dreams about what he is looking for in a career, in a potential life partner, and in a social life.

Case #2: The Disengaged Longtime Member

Now imagine that you belong to a congregation founded 20 years ago by young Jewish families who were looking for preschool and religious school for their kids. Those founders are now mostly in their 50s, and their kids are out of the house.  Though these folks were once very active, you know that many of them have now disengaged entirely from the congregation. They don’t come to services any more, they no longer volunteer, and they rarely come to special programs and events.  Someone from the strategic planning committee (a retired therapist) is assigned to interview some of these folks. She listens attentively as member after member tells a similar story of feeling progressively less connected to the congregation.  They talk about knowing fewer and fewer of the “newcomers,” of not feeling like the clergy knows them at all, of not being acknowledged for their contributions as founders of the synagogue, and of feeling like the only people that matter to the leadership are the young families.

[This is a good time to remind ourselves that when we are talking about the member experience, the only thing that matters is the member’s perception. In this case, perception is, quite literally, reality.  It doesn’t matter whether the leadership spends the same amount of time working with empty nesters as they do with young families. If the empty nesters are feeling excluded, that is their experience.]

Designing Something New

Once we feel that we have a deep understanding of the people for whom we are designing the product (experience), and we know the problems we are trying to solve (remember that we are talking about their problems, not ours), we can begin brainstorming ideas. To do this with a design mindset, we need to ensure that our team is made up of a diverse group of individuals with different approaches and backgrounds – someone who belongs to our target population, someone who is an “outside the box” thinker, and someone with a business sensibility would be a good start – with the goal of designing a new, holistic, member-centered experience that meets our target population’s needs and engages their emotions. This is where we want to be bold and think big.

What we are trying to do is to intentionally design a set of member experiences across all touchpoints, that addresses people’s needs, appeals to their emotions, and exceeds their expectations. The more creative and innovative the ideas, the better! Every single touchpoint is an opportunity to create something new, and if we have business-oriented folks on our team, they will help us consider our capacity and stay within our budget.

Here is an example of an experience with a strong emotional impact. It is from John Deere (yes, the tractor people!), and it is the experience they designed for a new employee’s first day:

Shortly after you accept the offer letter from John Deere, you get an email from a John Deere Friend.  Let’s call her Anika.  She introduces herself and shares some of the basics: where to park, what the dress norms are, and so forth. She also tells you that she’ll be waiting to greet you in the lobby at 9am on your first day.

When your first day comes, you park in the right place and make your way to the lobby, and there’s Anika! You recognize her from her photo. She points to the flat-screen monitor in the lobby – it features a giant headline: “Welcome, Arjun!”

Anika shows you to your cubicle. There’s a six-foot-tall banner set up next to it – it rises above the cubes to alert people that there’s a new hire. People stop by over the course of the day to say hello to you….

You notice you’ve already received your first email. It’s from Sam Allen, the CEO of John Deere. In a short video, he talks a little bit about the company’s mission: “to provide the food, shelter, and infrastructure that will be needed by the world’s growing population.” He closes by saying, “Enjoy the rest of your first day, and I hope you’ll enjoy a long, successful, fulfilling career as part of the John Deere team….”

Now you notice there’s a gift on your desk. It’s a stainless steel replica of John Deere’s original “self-polishing plow,” created in 1837. An accompanying card explains why farmers loved it.

At midday, Anika collects you for a lunch off-site with a small group. They ask about your background and tell you about some of the projects they’re working on. Later in the day, the department manager (your boss’s boss) comes over and makes plans to have lunch with you the next week.

You leave the office that day thinking, I belong here. The work we’re doing matters. And I matter to them.                                      

From The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath

It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to imagine designing a similar process for new members of a congregation. The new member receives a welcome letter from the rabbi via email, and then a phone call from a friendly member who is of a similar age or stage of life. The member tells the newcomer a bit about themselves, gives them some information about the congregation, offers to meet for coffee, and invites the new member to join them at an upcoming event. When the new member shows up for the event, their new friend is waiting for them in the lobby, and introduces them to some friends.

 

Prototyping and “Failing Quickly”

In the world of design, the ability to quickly test new concepts, go back, make revisions, and try again, is critical to the process. Since we are designing experiences, not products, what would this kind of “prototyping” look like? 

This is the part of the process that may be the most difficult for synagogues. Congregations tend to be conservative institutions which are not always nimble or flexible. The idea of testing out different versions of a concept, and going through multiple revisions, may be foreign to the congregational culture. Yet that is exactly what design thinking is all about. So, we need to acknowledge that this is a significant culture change.

Now let’s think about how we can visualize the new member experience described above. If we have someone on our team with some basic drawing skills, we could present this concept in the form of a storyboard. The first frame might be the new member (let’s call him Yoni) getting the welcome letter from the rabbi. The second would be Yoni getting the phone call from his new friend (let’s call her Ilana). The third frame would be Yoni and Ilana at a coffee shop.  The next would be Yoni arriving in the synagogue lobby for an event and seeing Ilana, who introduces Yoni to her friends. You get the idea.  A storyboard is a great way to illustrate this multi-step process.  If your team has people who are more comfortable acting than drawing, another option might be a presentation using role playing.

Once we’ve illustrated the process visually, it’s time to test it out!  Take your storyboard concept and try it with one new member.  Choose one person who has just joined, and have the rabbi send her a welcome email.  Find one member of the congregation with whom you think she would get along well and have her call and introduce herself, and set up a time to meet for coffee.  Train this member on how to connect with the new person and listen to her story, and then ensure that she arranges to meet the newcomer at a program or event, and introduces her to her friends.  You will find pieces of your process that don’t work the way you anticipated.  Great!  You failed!  Now fix it and try again!

Conclusion

A design focused approach based on authentic curiosity and empathic listening, followed by collaborative problem solving, experimentation, prototyping and testing, could be a real game changer in the synagogue world, with potentially transformative results.  Not only does it have the capacity to create innovative models of every aspect of synagogue life, from membership recruitment and engagement, to ritual, education, and leadership development, but the process itself can help to build more relational communities by giving people more opportunities to tell their stories while teaching others to listen empathically, by building truly diverse collaborative teams to creatively address community challenges, and by learning to be brave enough to fail quickly in order to succeed.

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Aimee Close is a synagogue consultant at USCJ, specializing in strategic planning and in serving small congregations.  Over the years, Aimee has worked in synagogue management and Jewish education, and has written articles and blogs on leadership and strategic planning. She is a life-long Bostonian and avid Red Sox fan, and lives with her family in Sharon, MA.

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