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Kick-start Your Website's User Experience

The Plenty Team
July 22, 2015

There was recently a gathering of intellectually curious nonprofit professionals from all over the world here in Chicago. The group was made up of people who are not only curious, but also especially interested in using data to better serve social good causes. For some, this gathering is known as the Do Good Data conference, powered by Data Analysts for Social Good. For me, it is known as a little piece of heaven. 

This year, one of the best sessions was lead by the User Experience (UX/UI) Designer from The Onion and was on how to use data to inform user experience decisions. The speaker talked extensively about the work being done at The Onion, and as all good speakers do, made sure that the content was useful for everyone in attendance, even those less familiar with the concept. It really was conference gold. But if you do have any skepticism about how good the session was, consider this post the proof of its quality, because here I am, a few months later, and I’m still thinking about what I heard. Even more importantly I am thinking about what it means for the nonprofits we work with every day.

At Plenty, we talk a lot about the rising expectations of constituents when it comes to their online experience with your website and fundraising platforms. As these expectations become harder to meet it is important to remember that they are not created in a vacuum. In fact, they are a result of every person, company, and organization your constituents have interacted with online, which includes groups like Google, Amazon, Spotify, Facebook, and – you guessed it – The Onion. You may not realize this yet, but this is a game-changing concept.

This means that your nonprofit isn’t just competing with the last version of your website, or other groups working for the same cause, or even the philanthropic sector. You are competing with everyone on the Internet. You are working, innovating, and optimizing to obtain the attention, time, and money of a shared audience, which means you have to step up your game.

Don’t feel overwhelmed. You may not have the same resources at your disposal that Google does, and you may not have the staff power of Amazon, but in the same way your audience is visiting these sites and adding to their knowledge of what a good online user experience is, you can too! Here’s what you need to know about the wide world of user experience:

Observation #1: For-profit organizations are investing significant resources in UX.
You know that moment when you’re becoming increasingly annoyed because you have to enter your credit card information online for the 20th time and, well, Google should just know it by now? Or perhaps you remember that time when you felt slightly agitated because Facebook served you an engagement ring ad (again) and you couldn’t be more single? Needless to say, I know that story.

So why did we feel annoyed? Ten years ago we would never have expected a browser to remember our payment information, and we sure wouldn’t have expected a website to know if we were single (at least I hope they didn’t know.) The truth is, technology is light-years ahead of where it was ten years ago, and with its evolution our expectations have become harder to meet. We expect companies and their websites to know us, to know what we do and don’t like, our general location, who we are connected to etc. We’ve talked about this idea before and how important it is to speak to your audience in personal and meaningful ways. And in order for you to do this effectively you have to really get to know them. One way to achieve this is to incorporate user experience best practices and knowledge into your strategy.

Take The Onion for example. They are heavily focused on testing and building their user experience, all the way down to whether a button says “prev” or “previous.” They’re testing whether it’s positioned top-left, top-right, bottom, left-side column, right-side centered; whether it’s blue, green, red, slightly more red etc. The point here is that they’re really thinking about what their audience wants in every possible way. 

As a result we in the nonprofit space have to do the same. We can’t rely on speaking to our constituents based on their demographics alone; it’s not enough anymore. The rest of the online market and our constituents’ expectations have evolved past this point. Which means our next step should be to invest time and resources into understanding what our constituents want at both a high and tactical level, and respond accordingly. The Onion and others in the for-profit sector are investing in understanding market preferences down to every minute detail, and are nimble enough to be able to redirect their efforts and offerings based on those preferences; how does your organization compare?

Observation #2: Others in the marketplace are thinking about their website as a storyboard.
Your website is one of the most important resources to capture interest, drive engagement andfundraising, and educate the public about your impact. It’s an important tool, so much so that the potential can be a bit paralyzing. We hear from many of our clients that sometimes it feels like there is an unending list of ways to optimize or reconfigure their website, making it unclear where to start. 

Luckily, there is a simpler way to approach it from a user experience perspective. That is, think about your website as a story that you are telling via your constituents’ experience. With that thinking, your constituents’ website journey is just that, a journey, from entry to exit it is organized around their likely or natural path. Organizations like The Onion take the following approach when it comes to thinking about their website:

  • If someone visits our website, what are they looking for?

  • What makes sense next?

They start by thinking through various scenarios that might bring someone to their website. And for each scenario they construct a story for how that person might logically think to access information. From there, they make sure their website is set up accordingly so that those visitors can actually access the information they are looking for in that preferred way.

The bottom line here is that it’s no longer enough to organize your website around how your organization is set up. Instead, a constituent-focused organization has an obligation to organize their content based on how their constituents what to access it.

Here are a few tips for kick-starting your user-centric thinking:
  • Tip #1: Embrace SEO. It’s time to embrace the evolution of SEO: it’s now all about mobile and authenticity. Google recently announced changes to its algorithm that will penalize sites that aren’t mobile ready and responsive when it comes to SEO. Additionally, it’s becoming clearer than ever that Google is on to you if you write website content specifically for SEO. The opportunity here is to trade out content filled with strategically placed keywords and endless link tags for writing that reflects how you’d speak to a real person – like your constituents.
  • Tip #2: Test, test, and test a little bit more. As your constituents’ needs change, so should your priorities around how you’re speaking to them and how you’re engaging them via your website’s story. Assess what’s working through user testing, identify opportunities for improvement, and hone in on what will make the biggest impact in your users’ experience.

  • Tip #3: Supplement testing with asking. Do you have any volunteers who are constantly asking how they can help, or people who have reached out about non-financial ways that they can contribute to your organization? Bring them into the office or connect over the phone to pick their brains about your current messaging tactics and language, or have them walk you through how they approach finding specific information on your website and/or a competitor’s website to better understand the pathway they prefer. These real-world insights can add depth to testing by demonstrating the perspective of a valued user – your current constituents.

As the for-profit sector continues to rapidly move forward with their conceptualization and optimization of user experience methods, we here in the nonprofit space, are left with a huge opportunity to learn from what has worked and what hasn’t. Even if you’re not ready to invest in UX/UI at same level The Onion is, that’s okay. There’s always somewhere to start.

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