Pretending to be your donor

2468506922_c1ed495959_z - Sybren A. StüvelI found myself wondering the other day – as I struggled to make sense of the less-than-clear instructions on my business’ quarterly sales tax return – how often anyone from the Department of Revenue actually goes through the process of filling out their own paperwork as though they were a business owner like me.

If the folks who process returns, the people who manage the people who process returns, the department heads and the political appointees at the top of the org chart … if any of these folks had actually experienced the process of filling out a return, they might be inspired to improve the design of the system, or at the very least prepare clearer instructions.

I suspect, however, that most of these folks don’t actually use the system they run, so most have no idea just how complex, frustrating, and difficult it might be for the end users.

It’s easy to poke fun of large government agencies for not bothering to use their own services, but I’m willing to bet that most nonprofit folks don’t do it, either. When is the last time you walked through any of your user experiences, not with the eye of the program manager or executive director but as though you were the customer, user, visitor, or client? If it’s been more than a few months, it might be worth revisiting.

  • While pretending you are a first time prospective donor to your organization, visit the website and see how easy it is to find the information you think you might want to know.
  • Go through the process of making a donation while pretending you are a supporter of the organization but unfamiliar with the donation process … visit the website, find the donation page, and actually make a donation. Any annoyances? Any steps where you might be tempted to give up and do something else?
  • Try signing up for your newsletter. Was there any friction in the experience? Now unsubscribe to your newsletter. Was that as easy as it should be?
  • If you sell products online, are there any annoyances in the shopping or purchasing experience, or it is smooth and delightful?
  • Try playing the part of a long-time supporter experimenting with a new service or tool for the first time. Did you easily figure out each step? Did the process make you feel valuable?
  • If your nonprofit provides a facility or a service, this list gets a lot longer: imagine being a first-time visitor to the museum, or a first-time customer of the service.

Walk through every step of the process thinking about how that user will experience it. Every user touch point sends a sharp signal to your supporters and potential supporters. It tells them how much you care about them and their contribution. And beyond the symbolism and messages, the more friction and the less pleasant your user experience, the fewer who will actually complete the transaction.

When we run programs, websites, and organizations, we often think about their design in terms of what’s easiest for us. We pick the donation tool that most easily integrates with our database and our bank. We design the navigation on our website in terms of how our staff uses the website. We design the sign-up forms for our membership programs, field trips, and services based on what’s convenient for managing those offerings.

We often don’t think about the experience of our supporters, visitors, customers, and clients. The result: the user experience is often neglected, filled with unnecessary points of friction, and can even be simply unpleasant.

And, unlike the Department of Revenue, we can’t compel people to use our services.

(Photo by Flickr user Sybren A. Stüvel).

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

A terrific (if unlikely) new website

It’s a truism that government agencies are incapable of designing and implementing great websites. But it’s a truism that happens to be untrue, as the Milwaukee Police Department is making abundantly clear with their new site.

And if it’s possible for government agencies to build great websites, surely more nonprofits can, as well.

A hat tip to the Fast Company blog for both the link (“A Radical Police Rebranding That Starts With A Superb Website“) and a great walk-through of what makes it so strong.

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

Stopping SOPA

UPDATE: Senator Mark Udall took a clear position opposing PIPA this weekend and Wikipedia is getting a lot of attention for its plan to “go black” on Wednesday in protest of PIPA and SOPA (along with a bunch of other sites, such as Reddit and Boing Boing.

I support sensible tools to limit internet piracy. While I think there is often much to gain by making your intellectual property as widely accessible as possible, I think people who create and own intellectual property – books, film, software code, technical innovations, and the like – deserve to have control over what happens to that property. As an author (my first book will be out next month) and the co-founder of a startup whose success will depend, in part, on building effective software, I believe I should have the right and ability to govern who else uses the intellectual property I create.

But it’s easy to craft anti-piracy tools that get it wrong, and two bills currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress fail miserably. Under the pretense of protecting intellectual property, and I say this as someone whose livelihood is now connected to the creation of intellectual property, both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) overreach in very destructive ways. A bunch of folks have written thorough, cogent explanations of what the bills would do and why they are so harmful to innovation, free speech, and the security of the internet.

The most ominous of their many problems is the way in which they basically enable anyone to force web sites to remove access to other web sites simply by claiming piracy. The structure of intellectual property law in the U.S. is a mess, heavily privileging those with resources over those without, independent of the actual merits of a particular infringement claim. But SOPA and PIPA would actually make it worse by undermining the ability of entrepreneurs to create and protect intellectual property.

Critics span the political spectrum, from the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to MoveOn.org, and they include technology giants like Google and Facebook, entrepreneurs (e.g., a letter signed by 200 prominent entrepreneurs), publishers (e.g., O’Reilly Media), and investors (e.g., Brad Feld and Fred Wilson) alike. Nonprofit folks like Beth Kanter have been stepping up as well.

In a sense, the fight is about the old media (primarily Hollywood studios and record labels) trying to protect their incumbent but dying business models. Steve Blank has an interesting take on the refusal (inability?) of old media giants to innovate.

Thankfully, the White House is now saying it opposes both bills as well and the tide seems to be turning.

And while this is an important fight in its own right, it’s also a tremendous example of a smart political strategy married to a terrific organizing effort.

To App Or Not To App

Photo by flickr user AxsDeny.
This is the question Fast Company and many others are posing more generally, but of course the question applies to nonprofits as well. Social Fish lays out a thoughtful argument against associations creating mobile apps (which I think might agree reasonably extend to other nonprofits as well): too many barriers to the app being used, popular app types don’t track to what associations can offer, and not enough members use apps at all.

Sensible arguments all the way around. SocialFish is joined by Holly Ross on the Frogloop blog and others in making the case that organizations should focus on developing mobile-friendly versions of their sites before thinking about apps. This, too, seems like sensible advice given growth in the PDA market. Although market penetration by smartphones is still small, it is growing quickly. (SocialFish also argues for focusing on social network optimization before building apps, as well.)

Mobile-friendly probably should be a priority over apps, and I think SocialFish’s take is sensible enough, but I also think that mobile apps offer sustained engagement opportunities that might just be worth the investment. For one thing, as Wired Magazine argued in their provocatively-titled headliner last year (“The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!”): we are witnessing a real shift in how people access the web, away from conventional web browsers and toward mobile devices. An increasing proportion of mobile web-based activity simply bypasses the browser altogether. While making your site mobile-friendly (if not mobile-optimized) is almost certainly worthwhile, it only captures those people who are using mobile browsers in the first place. Companies like Urban Airship are doing really well (check out this Robert Scoble interview with their CEO, Scott Kveton) precisely because of this shift in how people interact with the Web. This argument is bolstered partly by the data on app-based financial transactions. As Kveton argues, the vast majority of mobile app-generated revenue results from ongoing transactions between a mobile phone customer and a specific app . . . users of that app continue to spend money on the app in order to access new value.

Well-designed apps also can offer high-value interactions that mobile phone users actually want. Obviously geolocation tools and gamification design elements are two (sometimes combined) approaches, but mobile apps can offer very engaging experiences and value that users don’t typically find through browsers. If you can build a really compelling app, maybe you should. Finally, apps also have a built-in mechanism for repeated interactions. Every time you publish an update or some other sort of push notification for your app, like Urban Airship does, everyone who’s got the app installed gets a fresh reminder about having it, and it gives you a chance to get them excited again about whatever value your app offers.

What you get with an app, as Fast Company suggests, is a self-contained experience, but it’s clear that without a real self-contained experience value proposition for potential users a mobile app strategy isn’t likely to do much for your organization. If you can offer high-value information, relevant deals, or a genuinely engaging experience through an app, on the other hand, it may be worth the effort. If you see mobile apps as an opportunity to deepen engagement, not just as a donation-making channel, I think they offer a lot of potential.

But all that said, most of this conversation about whether to app or not skips what I think is the more fundamental question: who is your audience, and how and why exactly do you want their engagement? MobileActive does a nice job of laying out some of the right questions to ask, but they all boil down to the same questions you should ask about any potential strategy: 1) who is your audience; 2) can you build an app in which they find value and through which can increase engagement; and 3) what are the costs of building and deploying an app compared to the benefits?