Designing Sites for Nonprofits

As user experience designers, we seek to create the most intuitive and usable site flows for our end-users. But what about the site admins who use the sites we set up? It's time to consider the usability of the sites themselves, and Myles Dannhausen knows where we can start.

Search “nonprofits and website usability” and Google will spit out dozens of great posts on user experience. What it won’t give you, however, is something that many cash and resource-strapped nonprofits value even higher – advice on how to manage the site. Where well-off companies might leave site management to a content strategist or IT director, nonprofits rely on us—the UX professionals building their sites—to find alternative solutions.

After many discussions with people in the nonprofit sector, I’ve learned that developers and consultants tend to focus on exciting features and intuitive user flows (as well they should), but neglect to discuss one key element with their clients: what will happen after the site launches? As a result, nonprofits waste valuable resources trying to work with sites their staff can’t manage to update or maintain. Their websites grow stagnant and unusable at a time when even the poorest of the people they serve are searching for online resources. Essentially, for small to medium-sized nonprofits (and even some small businesses), a great website is defined not by groundbreaking bells and whistles, but by the basic features many web companies overlook. In other words, in our efforts to provide an excellent end-user experience, we can’t neglect the site admin’s experience.

Last August I combed through the 77 applications for Chicago Cause, a competition in which a nonprofit is chosen to receive a free new website. Flipping through the applications, I found myself getting frustrated for these organizations—many of which couldn’t do anything with their websites. Here’s a sampling of what these nonprofit directors said:

  • “What I’d really like is to be able to update the calendar easily.”
  • “We need to be able to put our fundraisers on the homepage.”
  • “I just wish I could put pictures from our event on the site.”

These folks aren’t shooting for the moon. So how can we ensure we provide them with an intuitive admin flow and positive site management experience?

nonprofit

Website usability for nonprofits—getting it right

Nick Haas, Creative Director at Orbit Media Studios, has a sense for what has gone so wrong – and wasted so many resources – for all these nonprofits. Orbit Media is one of the founding companies behind Chicago Cause and donates a $20,000 website for a nonprofit to the program each year, so he has seen what many nonprofits are requesting.

The biggest problem, Haas says, is that too many web companies develop the site with themselves in mind, not the client. “The pain point for many of these smaller organizations is just so high,” he says. “Having the absolute basics is a huge need for them. As a developer, you’re often so focused on some of the advanced features that you lose sight of the core value of usability and being able to update it and keep it current.”

A small nonprofit rarely has the resources to put significant time into updating and managing their website; most are lucky if they can spend five hours a month on it. For these organizations it’s crucial not only that they have a great website, but that they are able to make simple updates – adding events, photos, press releases – without going down a rabbit hole of frustration.

In order for web design companies to do a better job serving small nonprofits, Haas has three primary recommendations.

1. Ask the right questions

We may be the web experts, but our expertise means little if we can’t put ourselves in our clients’ shoes. Creating a great site experience together starts with a client interview. Here, listening skills trump design skills.

A client interview should focus on in-depth questions, to learn what the nonprofit needs and how they plan to use their website. Every nonprofit is different, and even small budgets can be used creatively, to provide different sets of “basics.” Nonprofit A, which focuses on events, should not automatically get the same features and recommendations as Nonprofit B, which directs users to a variety of online resources, or Nonprofit C, which predominantly wants users to come visit their offices during set hours.

“Maybe the events section is extremely important to them,” Haas says. “[In that case] make sure that it’s easy to use, and it’s prominently displayed. Some organizations use their site primarily to attract and communicate with volunteers. In that case a volunteer registration form could be critical. Something like a volunteer registration form can have a big impact, as it saves the organization time in updating their database and managing paperwork and mailing lists.”

End-users want these functions too. A firespring.org survey showed that 68% of respondants want to be able to register to volunteer online, and 84% want to register for events. Three years ago, Chicago’s Inspiration Kitchen won a new website through Chicago Cause. Events Manager Mindy Neveaux called it “a life-changer.” The new site featured a better user experience, but as the event manager it also gave her features to make her job less time-consuming.

“Adding the event calendar, and making it easy to update, was huge for me,” she said. “I didn’t even have a place to put [events] before. Now we have much more focus on pictures and the blog.” Today the site remains up-to-date, with frequent blog updates, great photos, and reviews.

Some of the questions a conscientious web developer or UX designer can ask are:

  • What are the one or two things you’re actually going to do with your website?
  • What do you want to use this for? For example: marketing, branding, or primarily as a resource for your existing staff.
  • What are the capabilities of your team and how much time do you have to devote to the site?

This leads us to…

2. Learn the capabilities of the team

The specific skill sets of an organization define what makes a good site for them. A well-funded nonprofit may have an experienced staff member devoted to digital, but most will not—and the site should be designed with the nonprofit’s staff in mind.

If the organization is so small that it relies heavily on the executive director or a handful of volunteers, the site design must focus on simplicity. No one wants to waste time developing a custom menu that isn’t going to be used six months from now. “Balance what you can do as a developer with the skill set of the client,” Haas says.

While it seems basic to those of us who’ve spent years looking at the back end of a website, there’s a huge learning curve for most people when it comes to even a basic Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress or Concrete5. Those unfamiliar with CMS management benefit from sites that automate tasks, such as resizing uploaded images to a standard size and pre-coded padding. We can help our clients by recommending a guide to basic web-writing best practices, such as Andy Crestodina’s book Content Chemistry, or even creating a customized one-sheet on headlines and paragraph structure, to help them get the most from their new site and keep it functional long-term.

When Melissa Ripp started working for American Folklore Theatre, small nonprofit theater company in Wisconsin, seven years ago, they were forced to outsource their website, which was too complex for their internal team to update. “We were working with the graphic designer-turned web manager who created the site,” she said. “We had to ask him for updates, and it would take a couple weeks to get it done, which isn’t helpful for an event-driven organization.”

For Ripp’s team, a basic WordPress site would have been far more manageable in-house, and would have ultimately saved them the stress of dealing with an outside contractor. “Of all the things we could do, the web was our weakest point,” Ripp said. In this case, a CMS featuring an easy-to-use calendar and blog might have worked well, given their limited digital expertise.

3. Plan for growth

The web is not stagnant, and neither are the wants and needs of a growing organization. As a nonprofit grows, its needs will also grow, and may fluctuate over time. UX designers and developers must account for long-term plans, if they’re going to have a satisfied client with a truly positive web admin experience.

“If the client has events, make sure they can add an infinite number of events without breaking the site,” Haas says. “In this business, nothing is permanent. An organization should not have the same site five years from now that they have today. When they need a new site in three, four, or five years, they’ll come back to the UX designer who understood them, and set them up for growth. They don’t do that if the designer simply created a site, handed it off, and cut ties.”

Although none of us are psychic, we can plan ahead a certain amount and prepare for likely web changes over time. And the best way we can help our clients plan ahead is to prepare their site, CMS, and accompanying training for the elements they don’t know they might need.

What does that include? It depends on the company. A small nonprofit may not see a need for a blog or the ability to add pages today, but as the designer we can look into what their competitors are doing. If other, similar organizations, have blogs, it’s possible our client will find they want one in the future. What’s more, an organization often changes based on the talent of its staff – particularly when the staff are likely to change frequently. A new employee may have great photography or writing skills that the nonprofit will want to put to use, and they’ll need a place to feature them on the site. We don’t need to account for everything, but with a little competitive research we can identify the most likely additions for down the road.

It’s our job to anticipate what our clients cannot. We can set them up with a place to add content, and leave it turned off until they determine they need it. We can go even further by recording a how-to video for them to reference when they start to use a blog, photo gallery, or add pages in case that isn’t for several months, down the road—saving them, and their designer, a frustrated phone call!

A developer dedicated to producing the best solution for the organization will recognize the constraints a nonprofit is working within now while anticipating (as much as possible) the needs of the future.

There is no magic solution to solve all the problems nonprofits have managing their websites. That said, we as UX designers and developers can do our piece by focusing on approach over technology. Consulting, training, and planning ahead are three easy steps that can make a world of difference in the nonprofit community—and may be of use in the for profit world as well!


About the Author

Myles Dannhausen

Myles Dannhausen is a Chicago writer who has contributed to Running Times, Technori, Gapersblock, Chicago Athlete, and several other publications. He is also a content strategist at Lightspan Digital and has struggled through improving many a bad website. You can find Myles on Google+ or connect with him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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3 Comments

  • David Reply

    Glad to see this post. I’m actually creating websites pro bono for a couple of nonprofits via Catchafire and WOM, and the key thing for me is having several interviews with the client/project manager on what their needs, what they’re doing now, and how they envision the change to happen. One thing that I always do, but do not see written in your article, is to look at the analytics behind the experience and find out if the needs are being met based on design, user flow, conversion funnels, and other marketing initiatives that are dictated throughout the site. User experience lies heavily on marketing principles as well, so I try to make sure that their needs on updating the content is just as prevalent (and relevant) as their ability of their site to do what it needs to do.

    Overall, great work.

  • Martin Orton Reply

    User input is extremely important and based on that I try to accommodate a client on all levels in order to make the whole website experience as pleasant as possible for the end users visiting the website, as well as the admins of the website.

  • Laurie Neumann Reply

    We design websites for churches and non-profits, and you are so right in that many times, a non-profit or church has a great site created, but then they find it too difficult to keep it updated. It sits with old events and information on it. That’s why we use WordPress to design our sites – they are very easy to keep updated. That’s so important. If you spend the money to have a website designed, you should have a plan how to keep it current. Determine who will be in charge in updating different sections and have them trained on how to do it.

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