We all find ourselves looking in the mirror at one time or another and asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can for the good of society. What’s it all for?
Those of us in the user experience (UX) profession can actually do something about it. As information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants, and developers, we don’t have to change our careers to do something good for society. All we have to do is connect with the right nonprofit: One that shares our goals and whose mission we support.
Once I asked myself that question, I decided to take a sabbatical from the commercial field and devote my time entirely to nonprofit entities. During my two-year nonprofit experience, I found that there are some differences in working with nonprofit organizations that can be monumental challenges.
The most important difference between nonprofits and commercial or government entities is how they do business. This trickles down to every aspect of working with nonprofits and will ultimately affect anyone’s decisions to work or not work with them. The following are some of the challenges I faced in my two-year commitment to only work with nonprofits.
Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are Creatively Divided
A non-profit’s cash reality—the uncertainty of income—is one perspective not shared by government or commercial entities, at least not to the same degree.
Nonprofits depend on their income from government grants or the public-at-large, so an inconsistent cash flow might make them want to scrimp and save. For this reason, many nonprofits tend to break a project into its parts and bid out the work to a variety of companies in an attempt to obtain the most inexpensive solution.
The bidding situations I’ve encountered in this fragmented approach have divided the project into the following parts.
a) Marketing/Campaign management: Most of the time, this is the highest priority and the conversation revolves around how to get donors, volunteers, or activists. Naturally, the conversation then moves to the campaign tool.
b) Design: As of late, nonprofit organizations have begun to pay close attention to the user experience and are actively sending their employees to information architecture, interaction design, and usability conferences. This is a big step in the right direction. If anyone needs UX work, it’s nonprofits since their mission relies on the public’s money, volunteer efforts, and activism. In this case, the user truly is king.
c) Technology: Is it a content management system (CMS) or a campaign management tool? I’ve done a ton of research on this and found no good answer. Large nonprofits almost always buy big CMS tools that they don’t need, many times as a result of politics but also under a false impression of perceived value. I’ve been surprised that, given the option to chose a smaller more effective tool, most nonprofits chose to go with the big CMS because they think they’ll need those extra features in the future. But that future rarely comes because the site design and—most of the time—the back-end change about every five years.
d) Implementation: This generally goes to the company that wins the technology part of the project, unless it’s Sharepoint or something that comes from a large corporation. In this scenario, there may be an intermediate company that does implementation, or the project managing or design vendor will have a group of developers who can implement.
e) Maintenance: This will most likely fall to the internal development team because the organization is looking to spend little money.
So, although in a commercial project I may win the entire project, with a nonprofit I would most likely be one of three or four partners in the project. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, I found that in many nonprofits, stakeholders differ greatly depending on the stakeholder’s position and department.
Stakeholder Expectations May Differ From One Person to the Next
Unlike most commercial projects, where I usually work closely with the marketing team, in nonprofits I worked with all the directors of the entire organization…and the expectations from each stakeholder are entirely unique.
I once found myself in a room with stakeholders who requested very different information. One stakeholder requested a chart of “quantified” user statistics from their current site; another requested “qualified” data. Yet a third wanted to see none of that…”too much information for me.” Managing those kind of expectations can be challenging.
A worst-case-scenario was when I was working on the Big Brothers Big Sisters design and I found myself in a conference room with the directors and CEOs of the federation’s organizations throughout the country. My challenge was to get all the stakeholders on the same page and comfortable enough to allow a handful of the federation agencies to represent the entire country. With my microphone clipped, a projector, and an amazing presentation assistant, I was able to walk them through design elements as they asked questions. By the end of the conference, I had met my challenge with seven agencies representing the entire country.
Focus on the Mission Can Leave Details Dangling
Nonprofits have a mission which is 100 times more amplified than a commercial entity selling products. A nonprofit, by its definition, IS its mission. Without the mission, the organization doesn’t exist. So, while the commercial sector is asking us how they can sell widgets using the web site, the nonprofit is asking how our work is helping the mission.
At first glance I thought this was great; this is what I want commercial companies to do since they’re so often focused on the widget. But it’s not that simple. In order to get buy-in on the big picture, I need consensus on the smaller pieces that make the big picture—usually from a large number of stakeholders. And if the organization is not paying attention to the smaller pieces, getting to the big picture can be difficult.
Creating Emotion in Design
Look and feel is extremely important for nonprofits because emotion is so intertwined with connecting the user to a specific issue or cause. Emotionally compelling creative connects design and the mission. The challenge here is in balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire the user to become a volunteer, donate, or call their congressperson.
So how can balance between design, good usability, and emotion be achieved? It all comes down to the designer. The trick is to find designers who can evoke emotion with their design. Having done that, directing good usability and strong design will create the necessary balance to inspire users to act.
One important lesson I’ve learned is that an appropriate design does not translate into a snazzy site with the latest gizmos or the latest in Flash. There are nonprofits who don’t want to look like they’re rolling in money; in fact, their goal is to look like they’re doing their job despite the budget. So, my job is to help them present a lot of information and make the user experience enjoyable. Information architecture professionals are very valuable to nonprofits because we tend to think about how people will find the content rather than how cool the site will look.
Our Work is As Worthwhile as Our Cause
In an ever-changing world, there is one thing that can’t be taken away from us—our conviction. In the past few years, nonprofits have begun to realize that good user experience design is one of the most effective ways they can achieve their goals, and they are beginning to set high standards for their cause. Despite the sometimes peculiar-to-nonprofits challenges, we should help nonprofits step up by adopting a cause and competing for the work—because we know we can do better.