Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Favorite Links: November 2013

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

Why Tablet Magazines Are a Failure
gigaom.com

Hey, Designers: Stop Trying to Be So Damned Clever
Fast Company Design

Welcome to Dinovember
Thoughts on creativity – from medium.com

Why I’m Filming a Documentary About Social Impact Design
Design on GOOD

Favorite Links: July 2013

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

The Slow Death of the Homepage
eConsultancy

Tell a Four-Word Story
Medium.com

Have You Asked Them What They Need?
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Can Four Economists Build the Most Economically Efficient Charity Ever?
The Atlantic

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Don’t Wait for Perfection

The web is an amazingly flexible medium that can be updated at a second’s notice, yet many people seem to forget this when launching a site. A website needs to be functional and well designed when it is unveiled, but waiting for perfection is a trap that can delay a launch indefinitely. Here is how to avoid that trap.

Set realistic goals
Websites often get delayed because the scope of the site is too big to execute given the manpower. Don’t plan for content that no one has time to write or interactive features no one has time to build. Distinguish between functionality and features that are necessary and those that are simply nice to have.

For example, many organizations struggle with how to integrate social media into their website. While social media is an attractive feature, it adds little value if no one has the time to sustain it. Instead of setting up blogs, a YouTube channel, and an account on every networking site, determine how many channels you realistically have the time and passion to maintain. One well-maintained social media channel will be more effective than half a dozen that are not.

Not all problems can be avoided
Sites can be delayed by endless hypothetical questions. A common one I hear is: What if members of my audience are using a dial-up connection or an outdated browser? Yes, it’s possible that someone will want to access your site on Netscape, but frankly the number of people fitting this profile is statistically insignificant.

Be as thorough as possible when planning for the ways different people will be accessing your site. Make sure it is easily accessible from multiple browsers, screen readers for the visually impaired, and for smart phone users. However, it is impossible to prepare for every scenario. Inevitably, some people will encounter a few bugs.

Encourage people to report problems by including a link to your webmaster in the footer of your site. If enough people have the same problem, they will identify where the site needs improvements. Don’t waste time worrying about hypothetical scenarios. Wait and troubleshoot the real ones.

Embrace the web’s flexible nature
You may think your site won’t be perfect until that interactive slideshow is finished, or until you have time to write a great blog. Get over it. Don’t delay releasing new content or a more user-friendly interface just because a few bells and whistles aren’t ready. In fact, adding features at a later date can be to your advantage. New features draw the attention of search engines and give users a reason to return to your site after the redesign.

A good website is always evolving. Regularly adding new features and content should be the goal, not a reason to delay launching. If your organization’s website is perfect when you launch it, you’ve waited too long.

– Claire Napier

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

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

Expand Your Way of Seeing

In the modern business environment, nothing is trusted more than cold, hard facts. Simply using one’s own eyes and ears to observe how people interact with your product or service, on the other hand, is an underappreciated skill.

Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments, so you can get a holistic understanding of their world. – LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist

While it’s not necessary to be a trained social scientist to benefit from observing others, like any skill, regular practice increases proficiency. When communicators put themselves in others’ shoes, they begin to see beyond their own preconceptions, leading to more compelling stories and experiences.

What’s bugging you?

If you’ve ever been to an airport, chances are you’ve got an opinion or two about how the whole experience could be better – from parking to check-in to boarding your flight. When it comes to personal preferences, you’re probably not as unique as you think.

Keeping an ongoing, personal “bug list” is a good place to start training yourself to note patterns of behavior in real-world settings. Those behaviors will provide clues to where opportunities for improvement exist.

Take the time to gather new insights. If you’re far removed in age and experience from your target audience, curiosity is the key to obtaining new points of view. When it comes to honing your powers of observation, look for a few people that fit your target audience. It’s better to know a few people deeply than many people superficially.

Imagining action

When conducting on-site research is impractical – maybe you’re planning for a winter event in late summer – it may be useful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns.

Take a college, for instance. Don’t think of class registration, think of a specific student registering. This involves action – all of the steps and processes around this activity. Is there a building that registering students need to visit? Picture that environment. Are there forms to fill out? How could they be simpler? Imagine the experience of a real person moving through the necessary steps to register for classes.

If you know your organization well, you can “see” that experience. Where are the opportunities to improve communications? If that experience is improved, does it present marketing opportunities?

Define the problem.

The tighter the focus of your observation, the more valuable the insights will be. For example, broadly trying to encourage more people to make donations isn’t nearly as helpful as asking: What are the competing priorities for young, first-time donors?

Removing barriers to communication will make interacting with your organization more intuitive. Once you become more attuned to audience behavior, keen observational insights will make your communications and marketing more powerful, clear, and well understood.

Related content:

Ethnography Primer

Don’t Bury the Information in the Experience

The web allows designers to create interactive experiences that are not possible in print. However, it is tempting to let the “experience” get in the way of providing people with information.

Recently, as part of a site redesign, we conducted usability testing on a number of university websites. Many of the home pages featured a large section devoted to creating an interactive experience, with beautiful slide shows or video and elegant navigation. However, none of our test subjects explored these features, skipping straight to the main navigation.

This reinforced our belief that most web users, even first-time visitors, have a goal in mind when they enter a site. Users are usually looking for the fastest way to obtain specific information.

In my own experience, MySpace is a site where my need for information trumps my design sensibilities. I frequently use the music section of MySpace to get information on my favorite artists. These pages are usually a cluttered mess, with distracting backgrounds and poor visual hierarchy. But despite these disadvantages, I find myself turning almost exclusively to MySpace for information rather than to the artists’ official .com websites.

Why? Even with the less-satisfying visual experience, actual content is fairly straightforward and easy to find on MySpace pages.

When using the web to find information about an artist, I am usually looking for one of two things – music to listen to or tour dates. On an artist’s .com site, I am never sure what to expect. Often these sites require waiting for Flash to load and have cumbersome animated menus. Also, custom music players necessitate a learning curve for each one.

MySpace Music pages, on the other hand, have a predictable and basic layout with a limited number of options. While the components of each page may vary somewhat, everything is on one page. Once you’ve seen a few MySpace pages, the consistency of the available options makes finding information easy.

While including animation and interactive features can supplement the web experience, it’s easy to get carried away. When designing a site, I always try to remember that the users’ primary need is information.

– Claire Napier