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Hey, Nonprofits, 'Usability' Is More Than a Tech Term

January 08, 2013

(Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based creative fundraising agency. In his last post, he urged nonprofit development professionals to join the donor revolution.)

Usability_5componentsMy mother isn't a techie. And because I'm a so-called "digital native," I tend to serve as her tech support, troubleshooting problems with her iPhone and laptop. Let me put this as politely as possible: serving as Mom's tech support requires a certain level of patience.

Recently, over the Thanksgiving holiday, she asked me to go online with her to look at some Christmas gifts she was thinking about buying for my wife. After watching her inch the cursor across the screen and type a Web address into the browser that led us to a "page not found" message, I jumped in and suggested it might be faster if we used Google. So we went to the Google home page, typed "cute personalized Mac travel case" into the search box, clicked on the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, and voila! -- link after link to sites offering cute personalized Mac travel cases.

Good comparison shoppers that we are, we decided to click on a link accompanied by a great short description and the promise of a steep discount. When we clicked on the link, however, it took us to a site that looked about ten years old. As I scanned the page, Mom said, "Derrick, we aren't going to buy it from here, are we?" I had already decided we weren't, but I wanted to hear her reasoning. When I asked her, she said, "Well, it looks like it's a scam. I mean, we should buy from a site that looks like the people behind it have been in business a while, right?"

Then I asked her to explain something that led me to write this article: "Tell me specifically what you don't like about this site." To which Mom replied, "Other sites just look nicer. They have easy-to-click buttons, and I feel like I can trust them with my credit card."

My mom is like millions of other ordinary consumers who have been exposed to a variety of e-commerce experiences. She has been trained to expect simple user interfaces and straightforward navigation schemes that allow her to easily find and purchase the item(s) she's looking for. What my mom doesn't realize is that someone, a developer or programmer, designed the Web page or site that enables her to do just that: to easily find what she's looking for, learn more about the item, and, should she choose, purchase it with a minimal amount of fuss and bother.

In the Web development/design business, this is known as usability, and it typically comprises five components:

Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they visit a site?

Efficiency: Once users have become familiar with a site, how quickly can they find what they need?

Memorability: When users return to a site after having not visited it for a while, how easily are they able to reestablish their proficiency in navigating the site?

Errors: How many "wrong turns" do visitors to the site make? How deflating are these mistakes and dead ends and how easily are visitors able to recover from them and find what they were looking for?

Satisfaction: How pleasant is the user experience?

Companies and organizations that have mastered usability with respect to their Web sites are able to get customers like Mom coming back to purchase more of their products or services. Straightforward navigation and simple transaction mechanisms help to establish a level of trust with the individual customer/visitor and make it easier for her to learn about additional products and services. In short, sites that offer a good usability experience make it easy for folks like my mom to move quickly from being a potential consumer to becoming an informed buyer.

And that's exactly the kind of experience that every nonprofit should provide to  prospective online donors. Organizations need to think about the online donation experience in terms of usability. This includes taking the five critical components of usability noted above and applying them to your online donor cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship pages.

Learnability: How easy is it for a prospective donor to understand the mission and purpose of your organization? Is it clear why your organization is asking for money and the ways in which donated funds are used to assist your organization's constituents? Are donors able to actively engage with your organization the first time they visit the site?

Efficiency: Once a prospective donor understands the reasons your organization requires additional funding, how easy is it for him or her to make a donation? Is the process quick and painless, allowing the donor to act on impulse? Is the experience one that instills trust? And, most importantly, does it build on the knowledge the donor gained during the cultivation process?

Memorability: When a donor returns to your site after a period of time, is it easy for her to reestablish the connection she made with your organization the last time she visited? Was her previous experience on the site memorable enough to inspire her to return, learn more, and perhaps make another gift for a larger amount?

Errors: How many "wrong turns" do potential donors make during the donation process and do they affect their willingness to donate? Could donors' navigation mistakes and dead ends be avoided if your organization provided better tools, easier options, and/or additional support during the donation process?

Satisfaction: Do donors leave the site feeling satisfied? Are they satisfied with the additional knowledge they gained, the efficient donation process, and the overall user experience?

As I hope the above makes clear, usability is not just a "techie" term. It's a way of thinking and a way to ensure that current and future donors' experience with your organization online is educational, efficient, and satisfying. Indeed, nonprofits that are busy acquiring new donors tend to be ones that have solved the usability puzzle. And their donors tend to return year after year -- and sometimes more frequently -- to support the important work the organization is doing.

So ask yourself: Does your organization's Web site pass "the Mom test"? Or is it more like the ten-year-old site that no one really trusts and wants to spend time on?

-- Derrick Feldmann

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