May/June 2007

Thinking about Updating the Look and Feel of Your Web Site?

by Melissa Roberts, Free Range Studiosand Susan Finkelpearl, Free Range Studios

Are you thinking about updating the look and feel of your Web site? After designing hundreds of sites for countless nonprofit organizations, we've found one of the surest keys to a successful redesign is when a Web site is viewed from the perspective of its target users. How can you find that vantage point? The tips below will help you get started. They are told within the context of one of our favorite case studies — the recently redesigned National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) site.

1. Get to know your users.
Before you start redesigning or restructuring your site, it's important to know who your users are and why they're coming to your site. This information should inform all of the decisions you make about your site architecture and design, as your site will only be successful if it connects with the people that are visiting it.

NPCA, at http://www.npca.org/, advocates for our national parks. The organization educates decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks for future generations, and convinces members of Congress to uphold laws that protect the parks and support new legislation to address park threats. The organization fights attempts to weaken these laws in the courts, and assesses the health of the parks and park management. Though NPCA's work is fairly broad, it assumed that one of its primary online audiences was "activists." Before it redesigned its site, the organization had an active online advocacy presence, and expected to speak to that audience as "activists" when the site re-launched.

Before embarking on its redesign, however, NPCA asked Free Range to assist in conducting audience research, to get a better sense of what its audience was looking for on the new site. Using targeted surveys (and a Park Pass prize giveaway), NPCA and Free Range collected information from more than a thousand active online audience members. The results were truly enlightening. NPCA learned that its action-taking audience rarely, if ever, identified themselves as "activists." Most (67%) called themselves "Park Enthusiasts." Others referred to themselves as "Environmentalists" (57%) and "Tourists/Travelers" (50%). But only 17% said they were "activists."

At the same time, 77% of respondents reported going to the NPCA Web site to "take action to protect the parks." In other words, while NPCA's audience valued the opportunities the organization provided them to act on behalf of the parks; they are not comfortable with the label "activist."

By doing this research before moving into the design process, NPCA was able to create a new site that continued to provide its audience members with the action opportunities they desired, while speaking to them in a way that matched how they viewed themselves.

2. Think like your users.
Do you currently organize your content in a way that reflects your internal organizational structure or your users' informational needs? (We hope it's the latter.) Internally, you might have "campaigns," "projects" and "initiatives." While the differences may seem really big to you, they are just confusing to your users. The public simply wants to know what you work on and how they can help. Do you protect forests? Do you coach basketball? Be clear about these messages, and indicate how your site's visitors can get involved in this work.

On the old NPCA Web site, users were faced with more than 30 navigation options on the home page. The organization was forced to choose between terms like "Campaigns," and "Take Action" or "Park Wildlife" and "Explore the Parks." These terms reflected the internal way NPCA categorized its work. In the redesign, we cut the number of links on the home page in half and streamlined the options offered. Now the main navigation offers users straightforward options that answer the initial questions they are likely to have in mind when seeking information about NPCA such as "Who We Are," What We Do," "Where We Work" and "Explore the Parks."

3. Tell your best stories.
Does your copy rattle off facts alone or weave a good story? We believe people think in terms of stories whether they are watching a movie or making a donation. Your home page layout, calls to action, and contextual donation asks should work together to build a coherent narrative. Make sure to also tell people how they can become part of your story. What is their role? To be a donor, an activist, both? The NPCA Web site employs numerous story-telling elements. On the home page, large, anchoring imagery makes it clear what the organization is working to protect. Beneath this, "Spotlight" vignettes describe ways users can align themselves with NPCA and join in its work. And the site employs colloquial phrasing such as "How You Can Help" to speak directly to site visitors.

Another good example of a Free Range-designed Web site that includes storytelling elements is the African Wildlife Foundation at http://www.awf.org/.

4. Ensure that your site is flexible and that you make the most of your content.
When disaster hits, an election is approaching, or key legislation is on the Hill, your users will look to you for updates and action alerts. In this regard, it's essential that your organization can "turn on a dime" and respond to current events related to your core issues. To gain this capability, many organizations set up a system that allows them to easily add, edit, or delete text, images, links, and documents to their Web site. This system, called a "Content Management System" or "CMS," also allows your organization to provide users with "related content" as they explore your site.

Free Range and Convio worked with NPCA to set up its CMS so the organization can easily add new spotlights, news items and action alerts to its home page. Throughout the site's interior pages, users are presented with "related content" that allows them to more deeply explore the site. For example, when users click on "Where We Work" and then choose a region of the United States to explore, the NPCA CMS pulls related content including "Featured Parks," "Regional Events," and "Regional Press Releases."

5. Experiment.
Don't be afraid to try things online. Test different page layouts and track user pathways. The more you experiment, the more likely you will find winning formulas that make your Web site work.

Contact Melissa Roberts, Web Project Manager, at melissa@freerangestudios.com or Susan Finkelpearl, Online Strategy Director, at susan@freerangestudios.com, or call 202-234-5613 for more information. Or, visit them online at http://www.freerangestudios.com/.

Thinking about Updating the Look and Feel of Your Web Site? | Convio