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The Benefits of User Research for Nonprofit Websites: 5 Insights You Can’t Get Without It

When a nonprofit redesigns its website, it can be tempting to not conduct user testing. After all, you know who your audiences are. You know (or think you know) their needs and wants. You’ve hired an agency that knows how to design a great website. And, since budget is not limitless at your nonprofit, you have to choose where to allocate funds. This all may be sound thinking—in isolation. But redesigning your nonprofit’s website without user research is a mistake that lessens the likelihood of a website that truly supports your mission. That’s because without increases the likelihood of designing with faulty assumptions that confuse or frustrate your nonprofit’s audiences rather than help them. So, what are the benefits of user research in a nonprofit website design process, and how does it help ensure that what you create is what your audience really wants?

No matter how much you know about your audience, design research can validate your assumptions about your users before beginning the design process and help avoid potential missteps. In addition, you’re likely to learn some valuable new things that you wouldn’t have otherwise, providing new opportunities to strengthen the relationship between your audience and your nonprofit’s brand. Here are just five important things that you can’t gain without grounding your design process in user research.

Unexpected Differences between User Groups

The differences between groups of users are often more complex than they appear at face-value: and even if you have a solid idea of who your audience is, you may want to revisit your assumptions. Users within the same group can often be subdivided based on differing needs and goals. For example, an education nonprofit we are working with originally defined two large main audiences — teachers and school leaders. During the course of interviewing teachers, we discovered that this audience actually consisted of three different groups, with very different content needs in terms of what our client could deliver to them. This insight ended up having a significant impact on how we ultimately decided to organize and display content on the client’s website. Having research to fall back on helped to guide our decision and eased the client’s concerns about a direction that they may not have considered otherwise.

How Users Actually Perform Tasks

One of the primary maxims of user research is that people are really bad at recalling what their typical behavior is when asked. Instead of relying on how you believe users will complete a task or achieve a goal, or how they’ve told you they do, having users perform tasks often reveals areas for improvement and insight into their actual behavior.

On a recent project for a philanthropy website redesign, we not only asked users what information our client provided was the most valuable to them, we had them show us how they typically find that information on the website or otherwise. One participant provided a particularly poignant insight when she walked us through a subscription-based feed where she normally accesses content published by the client, giving us important information about an avenue for discovery we otherwise might have overlooked while we were working on the client’s content strategy.

Possible Barriers to Adoption

Your nonprofit’s website is an expression of your organization’s brand and your audience will have input into how this is reflected. Often, your audience will notice and make decisions about who your organization is, what it does, and why it matters based on factors that you may not have considered. Indeed these factors are often intangible and based on users’ prior experiences. User research can help you learn how your audience perceives your organization through its website both through individual choices in structure, content, visuals, and holistically.

On the aforementioned education project, we needed to understand how teachers and school leaders gauge the credibility and trustworthiness of various curricular resources and how they ultimately decide what to use in their classrooms. Because education technology is a very crowded space, a strongly differentiated brand is critical to achieving impact and ensuring that audiences perceived our client’s content as trustworthy and high-caliber was essential to the strategy for their website. Ultimately, our user research helped us figure out how to best align this website with our user base and ensure that we’re projecting an overall message for the brand that resonates while avoiding potential pitfalls.

A Better Understanding of Users’ Mental Models

Learning what kinds of patterns your audience is familiar with when completing tasks similar to what you want them to accomplish on your website can help ensure that the new design will be easy for users to adapt to and meets their expectations for consuming content and completing tasks. Performing usability testing your own website in the course of research will help confirm what areas of the website meet these expectations and which don’t.

Additionally, asking users to complete tasks on your competitors’ or peers’ websites, either within the context of a usability study or as part of a wider competitive analysis, can teach you about what models they are comfortable with and what their expectations might be for a similar website. This isn’t to say that you should totally copy a competitor or peer’s web design, but the insights provided from this research can help inform the direction you want to go in further along in the design process.

What Features to Prioritize

In an ideal world you would have unlimited time and budget for a redesign and every single feature and function you’ve ever wanted would be fully incorporated into the new website. In reality, we often have to compromise and prioritize on a redesign, aiming to capture the most important features while figuring out what can wait to be incorporated after launch. Of course, brand and business goals need to be taken into account, but user research can help determine what should be addressed as a priority and what can wait, based on what functionality and content is most important to your users and where they are most likely to get tripped up while using your website.

If your team is at an impasse regarding what should be included in the scope of a redesign and what should wait, doing some quick testing, surveys, or interviews can help. When our client, The Legal Aid Society wanted to know where to start on a potential redesign, we used a combination of user research interviews and usability testing to prioritize the areas of their website to focus on in the near future.

In Conclusion

So, why should you do user research? At the very least, you’ll validate the assumptions you’ve made about your audience and avoid costly missteps should you be wrong. More likely than not,  you’ll also very uncover valuable hidden insights into your audience which could otherwise be overlooked—and with them, find opportunities to deliver a more meaningful brand experience. Want to learn more about how adding user research can make your nonprofit’s website even more effective in advancing your mission? Then please, get in touch!

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