Monday, March 30, 2009

User experience and the much neglected non-profit sector

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox today was on usability of non-profit websites. It is a wonderful summary of a large-scale usability study on numerous non-profit sites in different sub-sectors. He found that about half of the sites had usability problems that kept prospective donors from getting around the site effectively, and more than half lacked the content that donors were looking for.

It made me think of the online user experience for non-profits in general. Every year, I hunt down non-profits that support causes that I think family members believe in, then donate in their name, as a gift to the family member. Usually, I come up with about 10 different causes that I need to research. I was not surprised by the results of Nielsen's study, but I think that it neglects to focus on a couple of other things (see caveat below):
  • Passion is lacking in the design of most non-profit sites. I don't know why, but many non-profit sites look amateurish, busy or generic. This is so sad, because the people who work for these non-profits are amazingly passionate about their causes. Here's an example: Paws with a cause is a non-profit organization that trains guide dogs for people with disabilities. Really great, right? Their site, though, looks unimpressive. The home page is not convincing, and many of the content pages are huge text documents, really, posing as web pages. Compare that with Charity:Water, which is a non-profit that raises money to build wells in poor countries. Charity:Water has a very rich, visually compelling website. It benefits from the fact that the founder is a photojournalist. Most non-profits aren't so lucky. But, I would argue that the people who founded Paws with a cause are just as passionate. It's just their site that is lacking passion.
  • Design... color, fonts, layout. Many non-profit sites end up using really, er, interesting choices. Compare the New Hampshire Food Bank with it's grey, purple, green, blue (at least 4 shades of blue on the home page) to Second Harvest of Orange County with it's black, orange, khaki and yellow. I don't love either of these sites, but the latter is more "professional-looking" because of it's choice in colors and imagery. I'd certainly trust my $ to them.
Non-Profits, like other companies, should consider the user experience when designing their websites. They should have a deep understanding of the customer's (donor) needs, create content that gives the customer the right level of information and interaction, and leverage all the best practices in design to deliver an experience that delights.

I think I know how I'm going to try to spend my volunteer hours this year... helping a non-profit with their online user experience!

caveat: I read Nielsen's Alertbox, not the full report, so there may be information like design and passion in the findings.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Handcuffs and Forcing Functions

This morning on the way to work, NPR did a really quick blurb on something going on on the space station. Apparently, the astronauts put in a pin backwards yesterday, which is causing some kinds of problems that they are trying to resolve today. Such errors can be avoided by creating a forcing function... making it impossible to put it in any way other than the correct way.

Forcing functions have been on my mind lately, ever since reading the Fast Company article on "Make it stick: Build Handcuffs" in the April 2009 issue. The article talks about people's desire to have mechanisms that force behaviors for the things they feel they "should" be doing, but aren't necessarily. They give examples, like a "piggy bank" and the guy who sent resignation letters five years in advance. I have some of these forcing functions myself. For example, in my Quicken file, I have "fake" accounts that I "transfer" money in and out of for saving for vacations, childcare, property taxes, etc.

It is an interesting angle to take, but a risky one. Remember Quicken Financial Planner? No? That is because while customers "said" they wanted to do financial planning, they really didn't. So, they didn't buy the product. On the other hand, there was no forcing function to ensure that they would do the thing they thought they should be doing.

Are you trying to solve for something that people feel they "should" do? Is there a way you can leverage a forcing function in your solutions?

ps. If you can figure out an effective forcing function to get me a daily workout, I'd love to hear it!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Environmental Influences on Creativity

Does where you work make a difference to how creative you are? I started thinking about this a while ago when I contemplated the differences between different corporate workspaces. Way back in 1999, IDEO touted it's flexible and playful environment as being necessary to encourage the type of creativity that is needed to be innovative, in the famous Nightline "the Deep Dive" episode. The Stanford dSchool has adopted this practice and has a very flexible environment consisting of red IKEA couches, whiteboards and tables all on casters. There are so many examples of really creative places of work. What do they have in common? Does it really matter?

A peek at some places: