Building a better website is often treated as a long-term goal. Nonprofit board and staff members recognize the importance of a strategic web presence, but the cost of hiring professional developers and designers is prohibitive. Pining after the elusive “optimized” website, we resign ourselves to making do with what we have until a later date, when we have money in the budget to afford a comprehensive redesign.
The truth is, waiting to improve our websites is costing us money. Every user who visits and leaves feeling frustrated or bored represents a missed opportunity to receive a donation, collect an email address, sell a ticket or register a participant.
The Chicago Arts & Business Council recently hosted a workshop called Online Fundraising: Crafting the Donor Experience. Tim Frick, the featured guest speaker, is Principal of Mightybytes, a creative firm specializing in strategic web design. During the Q & A session at the end of his presentation, I asked him:
“What are the most common mistakes you see on client websites, before you make them over?”
His responses translated into a list of “don’ts” that all of us can use to easily improve our websites in a single afternoon. (As of the time of this post, I myself am guilty of many of these website faux-pas – I have some work to do!)
1.) Don’t overcrowd your homepage.
We love to expound on the virtues of our organizations – and that’s great! But the homepage is not the place to do it. According to Frick, users appreciate the ability to choose the content they see. Nonprofits should consider the different categories of users they want to reach — clients, donors, volunteers, etc. — and then make it easy for those users to locate the information that is pertinent to them (and only the information that is pertinent to them).
The need to scroll down on the homepage should be limited or nonexistent. The more you have to scroll to get to the bottom of your homepage, the more likely it is overcrowded.
For example, some nonprofits make the mistake of including historical information or extensive organization descriptions on the homepage. If many of your visitors are repeat users, chances are they are not looking for background information. For them, text about organizational history may constitute an inconvenience to work around on the way to taking an important action (like donating or signing up for an event).
Instead of including background info on your homepage, make a separate “About” or “History” page. Before doing so, make sure you are clear on the purpose this page will serve.
As a general rule, less text is better with websites. Keep it simple, and save the lengthier content for newsletters and blogs.
2.) Photos are important, but don’t use a header with scrolling images.
According to Frick, scrolling headers on your homepage make it harder to load, and don’t add significant value for your users. User experience research suggests that users are not likely to click through the images on the header, or watch them as they cycle through.
In most cases, photos are a non-negotiable part of a successful website, and Frick encouraged the use of compelling, “share-worthy” visual content. However, a scrolling header is not the optimal way to display your images.
Frick and his colleagues address this topic in a Mightybytes blog post, 5 Alternatives to Using a Carousel on Your Website Homepage. The article includes a number of alternative suggestions, and cites research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of “web carousels”. (The Mightybytes blog offers lots of concise pearls of wisdom for improving website functionality.)
3.) Don’t work in a vacuum — ask for help
Many of us in the nonprofit sector have never conducted user experience research, even informally. Frick emphasized that it doesn’t take an expert to learn from users – even a few casual conversations with your constituents can reveal invaluable information about the quality your website. Ask them how they use your website, what they look for when they visit, and what they like and dislike. If possible, ask them to show you how they typically navigate the site. Conduct an informal focus group with a sampling of users, or use an online survey tool like Survey Monkey to gather feedback quickly from a larger pool of users. Many online survey tools offer basic, no-cost services for nonprofits.
Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither is the perfect website.
Web design is both a science and an art, which makes experts rare: they must cultivate an aesthetic and creative approach that is informed by hard data (hence the high price tag!). Luckily, there are those who understand the plight of the nonprofit, and who have offered tidbits of wisdom to help us raise more money, while spending only our time. Making small adjustments based on advice from the pros can help us move ever closer to that ideal website, while we look forward to the day when we can afford a professional overhaul.