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Five Tips to Strengthen the Design of your Nonprofit's Website

Is your nonprofit ready for a website redesign?  Are you the one charged with making sure the organization “gets it right this time?”  Before you ask a web designer to produce that first round of homepage comps, you will need to take some initial steps to set yourself up for success.  Follow these tips to get started.

1. Establish a style guide and stick to it.
 If your organization doesn't already have a style guide, invest in the time to create one.  The style guide can be simple and contain basic information on logo use, color palette, fonts, and style of imagery.  This style guide should be used when creating all of your promotional materials – web, video, and print.  By using this style guide steadfastly and consistently, you will strengthen your organization's brand by enforcing the look and feel across all media channels.  It shouldn't matter if an individual is looking at your brochure or your website – the visual message should be the same.

2. Prioritize your website goals. 
Before starting the design process, it is important to not only list the goals of your website, but prioritize them.  This prioritized list will guide the design by establishing a hierarchy of information. When deciding what goal should take the top spot on your website list, ask yourself, “If I could only deliver ONE message to users, what would it be?” The goal that best supports the answer to that question should be ranked #1 and be the visual focus of your homepage.  Other goals should take second and third seats.  After all, if every element is given equal visual prominence, your user won't know what to focus on, your message will get lost, and you won't achieve your goals.  Also, make sure that one of your top five goals is to introduce first-time visitors to your organization.  You can't expect new users to know what your organization is about upon their first visit to your website. Telling users who you are and what you do will establish an initial baseline of trust.

3. Just say “no” to design-by-committee. 
Too often, organizations fall to the pressures of allowing anyone and everyone to participate in the design process. As a result, the design becomes more about compromising participants' opinions than about creating the most effective solution (Examples: “I really think we should highlight what my department is doing on the homepage,” “Maybe we could color-code these sections,” “Let's include this photo of our director in the main feature area”). This is not to say that design shouldn't be a collaborative process – it should – but, ideally there should only be one final decision-maker.  This decision-maker should have a deep understanding of the site goals and brand so they can collect feedback from stakeholders and determine what ideas best support the site goals and brand.  For example, the idea to include the “photo of our director in the main feature area” might be a great idea – it might be a high quality photo that shows the director in action.  But, is it helping the organization achieve one of the site goals?  Is it consistent with the visual brand of the website?  Maybe not.  The decision-maker must evaluate this to make the proper determination.  If your organization works with web consultants they can also make recommendations from a strategic, design, usability, functionality, and execution perspective.

4. Present problems, not solutions.
When working with your designer to draft the requirements for the initial design comps, present problems you hope to resolve (or concerns you hope to address), rather than solutions.  For example, rather than presenting your designer with a solution such as, “We need to have a slideshow of all the logos of grassroots organizations and government officials that support us,” present them with a problem such as, “We want to show that our issue is supported by a wide-range of grassroots organizations and government officials.” A slideshow might not be the most effective solution to emphasize the fact that your organization is well-supported.  Your designer can help you figure that out.  This is not to discourage you from conducting your own research on user interfaces and design techniques used by other websites.  In fact, this exploration is encouraged and can help you communicate your preferences to the designer.  However, be prepared to explain WHY you like something.  If you like the green used in a partner organization's website, try to assess why you like it.  Is it because it feels “fresh” or are you drawn to it because it offers a nice contrast from the dark brown background?  It may be that there are other ways to accomplish that “freshness and contrast” that does not necessarily use that specific shade of green and that aligns more closely with your branding guidelines and your site goals.  In the end, you'll have an original, customized design that is more than a just a patchwork of your favorite elements from other sites.

5. Understand that design requires ongoing maintenance. 
Frequently clients tell me, “We want our website to be as effective design-wise as Obama's campaign website.” Having served as the campaign's design manager, I can tell you that the reason the design was effective was because we had a team of 12 super-talented in-house designers and developers creating and improving upon the site daily (and nightly!).  The website was a living and breathing document that required things like new feature images for every major initiative -- and those images were custom-created to match the look and feel of the website.  Naturally, many nonprofits do not have the luxury of having a large in-house team focused on design every day.  In fact, most often there are no in-house design resources.  If you are working with a professional firm or designer to create your website, you will need to prepare for ongoing design maintenance.  This might mean hiring a contract designer or signing a maintenance contract with a web design firm.  If you don't have the budget for design maintenance post-launch, make sure that you communicate this during the design process.  That way, the designer can create a design that errs on the side of minimal design maintenance.  Yes, the more “designed” feature images might look better and serve your brand more effectively, but if your organization can not maintain that style, the look and feel of your site will only be as good as the day it was launched.

*This article was written by Jessica Teal, the Creative Director at Fission Strategy.  Prior to joining the Fission team, Jessica served as Design Manager for the Obama presidential campaign.

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Reader Comments (5)

All great tips and it's really great that those behind the Obama campaign's online success are willing to share their methods. But as someone who works in online communications for a non-profit this stands out for me: "I can tell you that the reason the design was effective was because we had a team of 12 super-talented in-house designers and developers creating and improving upon the site daily (and nightly!). "

Everyone, including us techies, needs to understand that the Obama team had a huge number of resources working over a set time period. What they did can inform our best practices and the average non-profit can benefit from looking at what they did, how they did it, and what they achieved but that it's just not feasible to expect the average under-resourced web department to achieve all of those things at once. Yes, we want to be doing all that stuff, but we've got to sleep sometime.
September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Dougherty
Great points, well made!

Giving feedback well and keeping random suggestions / design by committee under control are both challenges that take conscious project management skills that can be hard to develop or maintain- especially where the board is involved. Writing a good project brief can really help, too- for more on that, check out this blog entry written by a Design/Copy creative team:

Good stuff.
September 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Durham

I think those are five great tips for making any Web site succeed. My comment is on #3 - just say no to design by committee.

This has long been a challenge for my organization. We end up focusing more on what internal staff perceive external audiences need than how external audiences actually behave. The problem has been that if the communications team acts in (what we perceive to be) the interest of the external audience, we lose buy-in to the messaging.

One method we've had success with recently is emphasizing goals and using the myriad tools available to measure action on the Web. We steer planning discussions back to the unit's or organization's goal for the page, implement changes to accomplish it, and measure to see if it worked. This turns the discussion to measurements and facts instead of opinion.

We have a long way to go, but we are making progress. I'd be interested to hear if there are other ways that people maintain good design principles while keeping internal staff engaged.

Robin Deacle
September 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Deacle
Jess, excellent article. These are great points because they explain to the client, on behalf of producing folk, why we insist on seemingly quirky things like brand consistency or understanding goals before implementing "competitors" features. You're thinking about this from everyone's perspective. Keep up the great insight and I trust you're well! -Nate (from ad team)
October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNate
Thanks Your information....

its very useful
October 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterweb designer

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