Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Designing Experiences

Blurred people walking in front of SALE window displayTwo weeks before Thanksgiving we confirmed the guest list. We would be providing a feast for 14 people. Suddenly, the dining room chairs looked a little shabby.

On a rainy Saturday morning, we drove to the fabric store to purchase materials for reupholstering our chairs. The aisles were cramped with bolts of fabric stuffed in bins and spilling off shelves. There was little rhyme or reason to the store displays. An impatient crowd gathered around the cutting table, trying to win the attention of a harried store clerk.

Despite this, we pressed on, crisscrossing the store until most of our supplies were found. We made our way to the front of the checkout line though a gauntlet of candy, toys, and other irrelevant merchandise.

“How much is this batting?” asked the woman behind the counter. “I was hoping you could tell us. It was in the scraps bin, but it wasn’t marked.” She replied, “You will have to take it to the cutting table to be measured.” Helpfully, I offered, “I’ve got a tape measure. I can measure it for you.” “No. They have to do it.” We left the cart at the cash register.

What is design?
Opportunities for design are all around us. In the preceding anecdote, there are easily a half dozen instances in which better design would improve the customer’s experience at relatively minimal cost. By design, am I referring to logistics? Store environment? Customer service? Yes, all of the above.

At its core, I believe design is about making things better. This can happen in a variety of ways, most of which have nothing to do with a company’s logo or tagline. The guiding principals of good design include empathy, curiosity, and intelligence.

Empathy is vital to developing a keen understanding of the audience, recognizing opportunities for improvement, and adapting to unpredictable environments. Curiosity includes a tendency to challenge accepted wisdom, take risks, and explore new uses for materials and technology. Intelligence helps us navigate complexity, consider multiple options faster, and turn creative ideas into concrete solutions.

Design is a two-sided coin. The best ideas must meet customers’ needs while also serving an organization’s interests. The two don’t exist in isolation. To design better, we need to clarify problems, dig deeper, and collaborate with a broader cross section of people on both sides of that coin.

Design is a process, not a product
People familiar with the term “user experience” – or UX – design commonly associate it with website or app development. It really could apply to any product or service.

The design process is a virtuous circle of observation, creation, and adaptation. Observation involves identifying users and understanding their goals and motivations. We translate our research into themes and opportunities and create prototypes for testing. Finally, we collect feedback and measure results to make improvements.

UX – or human-centered – design considers everything that affects a user’s interaction with a product or service. It is as concerned with how things work as with how they look. It is about making what you do more useful, usable and desirable for your users, and more efficient, effective, and valuable for you. A host of organizational problems would benefit from this approach.

Design is marginalized when it is seen as a series of isolated projects – an invitation to an event, a logo, a website. By the time a designer is usually consulted on projects like these, the opportunity to make a significant impact is minimal. Designers make their most valuable contributions when thinking and working systemically.

Multidisciplinary teams
The most urgent problems tend to be large and intractable. To paraphrase Einstein, the same thinking that created these problems is unlikely to solve them.

Divergent thinking is a method used to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Designers happen to be very good at this. The method is enhanced by bringing different disciplines together – people with different perspectives. Together, they are able to gain insights and recognize patterns of behavior that would be difficult to obtain working independently.

This synthesis – an ability to see things not readily apparent to others – enables multidisciplinary teams to design better experiences, products, and services.

Investing in design
Design is an integrative discipline. The fastest growing companies align their business and design strategies. It is powerful when employed to solve complex problems in collaboration with leaders throughout an organization. Absent a deep belief in its value, however, design becomes a relatively inconsequential tactic.

So, rather than chasing the next viral hashtag, or obsessing over the headline kerning on a sales flyer, smart companies take the advice of Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian:

Give your customers excellent products, excellent service, and excellent value. Then let them do your social media work for you. They’re a lot less expensive than social media experts and a lot more reliable.

Investing in your customers’ experience means taking advantage of a designer’s most valuable skills. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need better advertising, they need to be designed better.”

Related content:

Designing Services that Deliver
Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence

Adaptation

Over 170 years ago on the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin made an interesting observation. The animals he saw on this remote outpost were not quite like the ones he had seen throughout South America during the survey expedition of the HMS Beagle. In fact, and more importantly, he noticed a tortoise or finch on one island was not quite like a tortoise or a finch on another island. They had adapted to their environment.

We all have seminal moments in our lives – events that prove to be major influences and shift our perspective or open our minds to new ways of thinking. Some moments become shared touchstones. Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? What were you doing when you heard about the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center? Others – like the teenager who hears Nirvana playing on the radio and ditches his trombone in favor of an electric guitar – are more personal.

Everything is relative
Seemingly everyone I talk to these days is in transition, trying to reconcile past experiences and skills with current and future market needs. Few planned on careers where it seems the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

In a networked, cloud-based world where nothing is fixed or permanent, how do communicators and marketers determine what will endure? How do our skills apply? Perhaps we should be asking: How will we adapt?

Everything is measured in terms of individual perception. To me, that little puppy is cute and cuddly; to you, it’s smelly and sheds all over the furniture; to another, it may look like dinner. If we accept that premise, then our real value is an ability to make ideas and information accessible to each individual in our audience. Fortunately, we have more and better tools to do this than ever before.

Theory meets possibility
The theory of evolution was not new when Darwin published The Origin of Species. He was recognized for synthesizing his experiences and insights with existing thought and making the principle of natural selection accessible to the public.

Similarly, the concept of creating adaptive or fluid websites is not new. With the explosion of mobile devices, web designers and developers debated the merits of various screen resolutions and wrestled with the lack of standards across multiple web browsers. The response has ranged from building a dizzying array of mobile apps to creating and maintaining separate mobile-friendly websites to doing nothing at all.

In the article Responsive Web Design, and subsequent book, Ethan Marcotte gives name to a better way forward. Responsive designs automatically deliver the best site for your users based on what you know about them – one site serving all audiences better.

Responsive web design
The prevalent model for displaying web content concedes that the user experience will suffer on some devices. Simply put, most websites are not user-friendly on mobile devices, and most non-profit organizations can’t afford to create and maintain multiple sites and apps. Responsive web design is a more flexible approach. As Marcotte writes:

Rather than quarantining our content into disparate, device-specific experiences, we can use [technology] to progressively enhance our work within different viewing contexts.

Responsive websites use new technologies and better browser support to rearrange, resize, add or subtract content to fit the device. Additionally, it forces the web team – designers, writers and developers – to rethink how that content is edited, organized and delivered.

Some early adopters of this approach include (drag your browser window larger and smaller to see how the page responds):

Serving the audience
Successful marketers have always aimed to serve an audience’s needs – to quickly respond with interest and enthusiasm. Responsive web designs not only meet your users’ need for relevant information any time, anywhere, on any device, but essentially eliminate the need to create and maintain separate apps and sites.

I believe this represents a seminal moment. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, as Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, then the tools we use are finally getting sophisticated enough to make our lives simpler – and that’s an adaptation we can all embrace.

Related content:
Responsive Web Design

Generation Flux

When Design Leaves the Box

Favorite Links: July 2011

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Ten Things You Need to Know to Raise Capital for Your Nonprofit
Fast Company

The Case Against Designing Mobile Apps
Imprint

Why Bosses Need to Show Their Soft Side
Daniel Pink, The Telegraph

The Right Tool For The Job

Last weekend, I agreed to help a friend install his new home theater. First, we needed to remove the baseboard so we could keep all the new wires hidden from view. Lacking a crowbar, my friend grabbed the nearest screwdriver and proceeded to gouge the wooden baseboard and scratch the painted wall. As any do-it-yourselfer knows, using the wrong tool can make a small project a lot bigger.

Smart communications professionals recognize the importance of gathering consumer insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, they also reach for the wrong tool.

Lack of focus
When seeking audience opinion, the tried-and-true focus group is often the research tool of choice. Get a moderator, some pizza or doughnuts, and 8-10 people in a room, then watch the insights fly. But qualitative research from a group of strangers gathered around a table may not yield the insights you need.

Focus groups are best used when you have little knowledge about how your product, service or organization is perceived. They can give you a good starting point for further, targeted research. More often, you need specific information.

Simulating behavior
If, like me, you’re lacking a degree in cultural anthropology, interviewing a representative sample of your users about their needs is the next best thing. Interacting with and observing individuals one-to-one often reveals truths that remain hidden in a group setting.

It’s common practice to conduct this kind of research when embarking on a website redesign. Individual test subjects answer questions and complete a series of tasks, giving designers insight into how the site can be made more functional.

A similar approach can be useful whenever “navigation” is involved, such as with magazines, forms, and environmental signage. With as few as 4–5 people, we’ve gathered useful feedback simply by watching and asking a few questions. For example:

  • How often do you currently read (or use) this [publication, form, building]?
  • What is your overall impression?
  • Do you find this valuable, relevant, informative, etc.?
  • Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for?
  • Are there other sources you rely on to get similar information? Where?
  • How does this make you feel about the organization?

By keeping things simple, it’s easier to commit to an iterative process, conducting tests early and often.

Quality, not quantity
Quantitative research is useful when an organization wants to benchmark results over time. Many people place their trust in cold, hard data – the more of it the better. Seeking statistically valid numbers, however, presents two big hurdles – time and budget.

Depending on what is being measured – and for what reason – the importance of sample size is often overestimated. If I’ve interviewed five people who have difficulty navigating your website, surveying 500 or 5,000 more provides very little benefit. There are diminishing returns with each additional data point.

Watch, listen and refine
Many decisions are better served by more frequent questioning of fewer people, refining as you go. Making a habit of interviewing your customers will make your organization more responsive and serve as a tool for continual improvement.

Related Content:
Don’t Make Me Think
To Focus Group, Or Not To Focus Group
Conducting a Needs Analysis

Day Traders

Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

At the turn of the century, as technology granted ambitious individuals opportunity to compete with institutional investors, we witnessed the growth of day trading in the stock market. Day traders obsessively buy and sell positions, attempting to profit from market volatility. Unfortunately, around 80% of all day traders lose money.

Flash forward to 2010, a year in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recognized as TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In his commentary on the social network’s influence, Facebook Puts All Brands on Notice, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring writes:

The power of Facebook is the relationships it fosters and how that gives individuals and brands influence over their fans and friends. Variously called social capital or influence, this ability to exercise influence means that brands become day traders in social emotion and continually manage their reputations.

Facebook’s unmatched ability to instantly connect millions of people has changed the way we do business – of that there is no question. Where I take issue with Mr. Mainwaring is in his assessment of what that means for marketers. Do we really want or need to influence our customer’s “social emotions” on a daily basis?

Affirming this as a goal seems a bit self-serving for the social marketer, as it gives license to remain ever busy providing up-to-the-minute (or second) brand management. There’s another emotion at play here as well – fear. What if I’m not doing enough? What if my competition is tweeting while I’m sleeping? How come no one “liked” our latest Facebook post? To me, this behavior seems unhealthy.

The question should really be: Do our customers want to have “relationships” with us? Based on consumer trends toward self-service, evidence seems to be mounting that customers aren’t seeking a dialogue. Here’s a sobering thought: Is it possible your customers are “just not that in to you?”

Being responsive to your customers is always good business, whether face-to-face or online. Investing in social media will keep you plenty busy, but removing daily obstacles to self-service may do more for your customer relationships than all the tweets in China.

Related Content:
Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You
Ads in the Age of Hysteria

Favorite Links: July 2010

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

The Art of Non-Conformity
by Chris Guillebeau

@Issue: The Online Journal of Business and Design
by Corporate Design Foundation

Web Teams Need Constant Feedback
by Gerry McGovern

Churn Baby Churn

A communications specialist at a Midwest university told me recently, “We’re putting out fires on a daily basis. Our department has six people to serve 15,000 students and we have no time to think strategically.” Sound familiar?

While too many organizations chase after the latest communications trends, adding ever more tasks to overworked staff, precious few seem inclined to ask: Why are we doing this? Or, better yet, should we be doing this?

Plan to make choices

Marketing should not be viewed as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If some is good, more must be better. It takes considerable discipline to take a step back and evaluate what is working and which activities are just distractions.

Practicing restraint requires having a plan – a communications strategy that defines objectives and target audiences, and sets priorities for the key messages and media channels used to reach them.

Economy of time

If time is currency, you don’t want to spend yours – or worse, your audience’s – foolishly.

In Kristina Halvorson’s excellent essay on The Discipline of Content Strategy, she writes: “Until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.”

Do fewer things well

The benefit of taking time for strategy is that it encourages action with a purpose. It also allows staffers to shed activities that have been less effective, freeing up time to handle more promising ventures. The only downside to business as usual? Occasionally having to say “no” to colleagues. Or bosses.

By measuring your marketing efforts through a communications strategy, you’re more likely to provide valuable content that your audience cares about. And you can let the fire department handle the fires.

Related Content:

3 ways in which low quality content can damage your business

Building a Solid Foundation

Website projects often start with a lot of enthusiasm. People are tempted to jump right to the “fun” parts of web design, getting excited about the potential new look, features and functionality. This is like picking out drapes and paint chips for a new house before a blueprint has been made.

People within an organization usually begin a website redesign with ideas for how to change the existing site. And while that’s a good place to start, the most valuable ideas should come from your site’s users. To improve your audience’s experience on the new site, consider the following:

Analyze your existing site

The first thing you need to know is what content your visitors are looking at. Your web host should be able to provide statistics on web page views and how people find your site. Google Analytics can also be installed on sites for free. Often, people are surprised to find which pages are being looked at and which are not. Ultimately, a thorough website content audit will answer two questions: What’s there? And, is it any good?

Gather insights, not just facts

Website statistics only provide information about existing content. Focus groups or one-on-one interviews can help identify needs that are currently unmet, or features that are difficult for your visitors to find or use. Focus on understanding your user’s needs rather than on current habits. Ask why they visit your site, what other sites they visit, and what needs are met there. What are they not finding on the web? Can you fill that need?

Users can also help you organize the site. Find out what categories they want to see in the main navigation, and what information they would expect to find in each category. While no two people will organize a website exactly the same way, look for patterns that will help you choose the best path to information.

Test your assumptions

Make time for usability testing. You don’t need video cameras, statistically valid samples, or white lab coats. Conducting a web usability test can be as simple as sitting with a test subject at a computer. Ask them to articulate their needs. Ask them to perform tasks. Then watch and listen.

It’s important to conduct usability tests early (and often) in your project. As web usability consultant Steve Krug says in his book Don’t Make Me Think, “Testing one user early is better than testing 50 near the end.” This allows for an iterative process in which your design continually moves closer and closer to the ideal solution.

By employing a process that includes data analysis, insights from your site’s users, and usability testing throughout, your new website will have a solid foundation. This provides the best chance of building a successful website, one which meets your audience’s needs.

Next, onto an even tougher problem: settling on a content strategy

– Claire Napier

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

The shopping experience at my local “super” retailer often goes something likes this: I walk into the store hoping for a quick trip to pick up a roll of masking tape. After half an hour searching in “Office Supplies,” an employee finally takes me to find it in the hardware section.

When we’ve conducted web usability tests, we have seen a lot of people with experiences similar to my shopping trip. They enter a website with a specific task, then get frustrated when the information they seek is not in the expected section.

When web users get frustrated, they tend to give up. A recent report on university websites underscores the importance of easy site navigation:

  • 92% of prospective students will be disappointed or walk away if they can’t find what they’re looking for.
  • 65% said that they would be more interested in a college because of a good web experience.

In our research, we have found web users overwhelmingly prefer indexed navigation. The idea is similar to a sitemap, but instead of showing the whole site the navigation shows only the most relevant information. Indexed navigation eliminates much of the site users’ guessing by showing what kinds of things each category includes.

Image of indexed navigation.

Indexed navigation (highlighted) is organized by topic and provides users easy access to the information they seek.

When creating an indexed navigation it’s important to ask users what information is important to them, and where do they expect to find it. What kind of categories are they looking for in the main navigation? What kind of information do they expect to see under those headings? Does the wording in the navigation reflect what falls in those categories?

The answers to these questions may be surprising. External audiences often view your website differently. What seems obvious or interesting to you may not be important to someone who’s visiting your site for the first time.

When organizing a site, it’s important to show your users the big picture. The easier it is for people to find what they’re looking for, the better the website experience will be.

Examples of sites with indexed navigation

University of Minnesota

Boston University

 

– Claire Napier