Understanding the user experience is vital to an organization’s mission. Yet many nonprofits struggle with how to conduct meaningful user experience research that can help improve employee morale, improve services they deliver, and demonstrate real impact to donors.
You’ve probably heard the metaphor that likens a saw to an organization’s ability to remain viable: sometimes you’re so busy sawing, you forget to sharpen the blade.
Many nonprofit leaders deal with this tension every day—that is, getting the work done (sawing), being able to measure and analyze the short and long-term impact of that work, and then applying that information to improve systems, strategies, and outcomes (sharpening).
Developing robust monitoring and evaluation systems, investing in data collection and analysis tools, and effectively communicating impact to stakeholders can be costly endeavors for nonprofits, especially those that are understaffed with limited admin budgets.
That’s where user experience research—the discipline of conducting regular check-ins with your organization’s stakeholders—can be a powerful and cost-effective tool for gaining valuable, actionable insights directly from the people you’re serving (whether that’s your employees and volunteers, your beneficiaries, or your donors) that will inform decision-making, strategy development, and improve overall stakeholder satisfaction.
Implementing a user experience research program in your organization needn’t be a complicated process. However, it does require breaking free of the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. and a commitment by leadership to fostering a culture of continuous improvement where the organization’s stakeholders are a regular part of the process.
Below is a basic blueprint for how to conduct user experience research to:
- uncover and understand your stakeholders’ needs;
- how they are benefiting from your services; and
- how what they say can help improve the operation of your organization and the services you provide.
The User Experience Research ToolBox
An array of digital tools—i.e., apps that are often free or available with a nominal subscription—can help non-profit organizations implement a cost-effective user research program. You’ll want to upload these essential tools for enabling your user experience research:
- a dedicated calendar that allows you to easily schedule interviews and share your availability
- an online audio/video chat platform that allows you to record a conversation
- an audio transcriber that can translate audio to text, preferably with an AI functionality that automatically organizes the transcript into sections and highlights key points in the conversation
- a pencil and paper for sketching out key impressions and connections from what you recall of the conversation
Of course, tools in and of themselves don’t make a strategy. Saying that you communicate with your stakeholders doesn’t mean you’re actually gleaning what they are telling you they need. (Have you ever wondered how those robo surveys at the end of a service call are actually used, anyway?)
Getting to the Why: Ask the right questions
By following these steps, you can effectively implement a user experience research program, gather valuable insights, and foster a culture of continuous improvement within your organization.
- Designate and empower the person or team who will be responsible for overseeing and conducting user experience research as part of their job description(s). This team can consist of individuals with various roles, (e.g., marketing, finance, development).
- Determine who you will interview to gather the insights you need. Do you want to know how the users of your services are accessing them? What kinds of support your volunteers are getting or needing more of? Select a small number of people to interview who are representative of a broader demographic you’re trying to serve or identify. Develop a few key user personas (a fictional character who possesses an amalgam of particular characteristics of your target stakeholders) to help guide the identifying of potential interview subjects.
- Determine the techniques you will use. Try to include a few interviews with people who don’t use your services or aren’t very familiar with your organization. Aim to conduct at least 10 interviews to identify patterns and common themes among customers’ experiences and needs.
- Schedule the Interviews. Aim for one-on-one, 20-minute conversations that allow enough time for introductions and for building rapport.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions. Avoid questions that elicit a yes/no answer. Avoid leading questions (e.g., “We’ve helped you, right?”). Keep questions specific and straightforward, and limit the number to four or five. Allow your subject time to gather thoughts. Use prompts to encourage the subject to delve deeper e.g., “tell me more;” “can you explain more about what you mean?”
- Capture Insights. After each interview, immediately sketch out from memory what you heard using a pencil and paper. Map out the responses in a numbered list, steps or “bubbles” to visualize emerging connections between words and phrases used by different subjects.
- Synthesize. Create a table with columns that delineate, e.g., wants vs. needs, does well vs. needs improving, etc. Highlight memorable quotes, and any themes or intersecting issues that emerge.
- Summarize Your Findings. Create an easy-to-digest bullet point list of no more than 5-10 key insights and opportunities.
- Sharpen Your Saw Regularly! Foster a continuous improvement culture by emphasizing the regular occurrence of user experience research, and using insights gained to make real improvements in the way your organization operates and serves all of its stakeholders.