Highlights: Nielsen Norman Usability Study of Non-Profit Sites

Nielsen Norman Group just released the second edition of its study on how potential donors use nonprofit web sites. EDF’s site was once again included in the study, and I thought I’d share my reactions to it.

First, my three top takeaways:

  • More than the first study, this edition emphasizes the need for plain language. The most memorable anecdote in the report was about a tester who found an organization’s mission statement so opaque that he laughed out loud (p. 14). (Thankfully, that was not a story about EDF’s site…)
  • A web site faces limits in winning new donors: “Most users commented that they had to be familiar with an organization and its work before [donating]” (p. 13). It can be a tall order for a site to make them feel familiar enough to donate if people come in with no context. We’ve seen evidence of this on our site — it appears that most visitors who donate arrive with that intention in mind and get right to it. Exploring the site doesn’t seem to increase the likelihood that people will donate, though it does seem to lead to sign-ups for the email list.
  • What makes the donate button obvious might not be what you think. The report gave an example of a site with lots of big, colorful donate options — which people missed entirely because they looked too much like ads! (p. 55) Again, we’ve seen related behavior on the EDF site. We tested changing the placement and color of our main donate button, and while the new button popped out more to us, it didn’t lead to more clicks.

The study has been a helpful guide as we’ve prepared for our redesign. I’m happy to say that it didn’t uncover any shockers that we didn’t know from our own testing, but it did help place the results in context. It found that users were confused about what exactly we do and how we use donors’ money. We’ve seen this in our own studies, too, and hope that our redesign will answer these key questions more concretely and clearly. On the good side, the study found our donation process simple and straightforward. (We’re not planning to tinker much with that…)

The biggest caveat I offer about the study is that it focused on one kind of donor with a specific task and perspective — potential new donors, presumably at low to moderate dollar amounts. It does a good job at that, but for our redesign, we’ve identified eight other audiences. (Don’t worry, we prioritized them!) The study doesn’t speak to what other audiences, such as potential corporate partners, want from our site.

That said, this audience is an important one for us and for most nonprofits. I have high hopes that the EDF site will meet that audience’s needs much better by the time the third edition comes around.