Steve Walker

Some less or more well-organised thoughts

Donating online – limits of usability?

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This week, Jacob Neilsen’s ‘Alertbox’ “Donation Usability: Increasing Online Giving to Non-Profits and Charities” summarises some research of his company’s looking at the usability of online donations (thanks to John Naughton for the link). The article highlights difficulties that his test users had in deciding which organisations to donate money to. The article may be useful in helping to understand better how to optimise a web site to donating, but I think it’s wise to treat this with a little caution.

Firstly, it would be interesting to know how realistic a user task this is. While I’ve donated money online, it’s never been as a result of thinking ‘I want to donate a tenner; now who should I give it to?’. The decision making process is rather more complicated than that, and is typically made well before I get to the web site. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the aims and objectives of an organisation in making such a decision. Am I typical? I don’t know, but I doubt I’m that atypical among online donors.

Secondly, and more widely, this type of usability report says little about ‘what’ such a website should be doing in the first place. As part of the Practical Design for Social Action project, we conducted several case studies of how not-for-profit organisations designed technologies (primarily web sites). In one case, a large medical support charity consulted its users about their preferences and desires from an online web site/community. Here, new users were often people recently diagnosed with serious illness and their friends and families. It emerged from the consultation that requesting donations from such new users was not felt by them to be terribly appropriate. In the redesign of the site, requests for donations were reduced in prominence, and the support functions of the web site increased. Of course, this may lead to a reduction in income, at least in the short term, though it seems plausible that engaging more users in the online community may well increase future donations. Either way, users gave feedback that the charity acted upon, changing the priorities of the web site.

The unspoken assumption in Neilsen’s article appears to be that the primary purpose of a web site must be to generate donations. Neilsen goes on to argue that “the worst user experience erosion in this study was caused by heinous integration of local chapters with the higher-level organization”. Now, of course, this (that is, the reported erosion of the user donation experience in a controlled test) may well be true, but also there may be strong reasons for an organisation to want to ‘integrate heinously’ that are unrelated to income generation. It may be about providing a service, mobilising support or encouraging participation, for example.

Findings like Neilsen’s clearly have value, but might be rather more useful if they acknowledged their own context and assumptions rather more clearly.

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Written by Steve

March 30, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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