Nonprofit vs. for Profit for the UX Designer

24 Oct 2009 - 1:34pm
6 years ago
9 replies
2351 reads
Denise McDermott

I'm curious how many people here have case studies/experience working
with nonprofits in building effective websites.

For ten years, I have a worn the many hats required of nonprofit web
teams. One thread that has remained consistent is evangelizing a UX
approach to workflows, design and content development, which has not
be an easy process.

Nonprofits typically do not have the resources to hire full-fledged
UX designers, so I've had to fulfill that role along with many
others and would love to share war stories, and strategize on how we
can transition our careers to forprofit environments and/or
transition nonprofits into understanding how crucial UX design is to
achieving success.


25 Oct 2009 - 6:31am
Yvonnia Martin

Hi Denise:

I am so glad you brought up this discussion! You see, I'm a newbie
to UX/ID (still going to school). I thought I would be able to get
experience at this non-profit I'm currently working for. It seems
like that might not be the case. I spend more of my time using the
content management system--which is an absolute UX nightmare in
itself! Sometimes I get to build sites, but they have to be up so
fast for some funder that usability, findability, anything related to
UX/IA/ID is not even a thought or concern to them. Plus I'm a newbie,
so sometimes I don't notice any UX issues up front, so without
getting some real testing in, I don't see it. I've now resorted to
'grandma testing' by running sites by this old lady that works in

I would like to try to evangelize, but I don't even know where to
start. What's worst is that we have an M.I.S. department with a
developer who is apparently building applications that I don't even
get to see. Since I'm a web producer, the M.I.S. department may
think I have no business looking or helping to improve what they are
building, eventhough, what they are building might not be as good of
a UX as they think it is. Ugh!!

We are now entertaining the idea of developing an online project
request form. I'm going to, again, evangelize and try to get my
hands on that because it is still a user experience.

This place, Ugh!! I don't know. Maybe I should hold a meeting all
about the ROI on building usable products. If you've got some advice
and insight for a newbie that would be great!

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26 Oct 2009 - 8:14am

Hi, Denise. I work for NPR and just wrote this case study for the AIGA
covering our recent redesign.

Callie Neylan
Sr Designer, NPR User Experience Group

26 Oct 2009 - 10:28am
Denise McDermott

Thanks Callie. Great work. For a nonprofit, you have a rather robust
web design team compared to issue-based nonprofits.

What was also striking is the commitment of NPR to train editorial
staff in creating multimedia. Is that training technical only? And
Owen must work for a very small company ;-)

Yvonne, you can of course gain a lot of valuable experience, it just
won't lead you to an agency right off the bat. You'll have many
more opportunities to do different things, so be sure that any
documentation or design you create is something you can show to a
potential employer.

Also, nonprofits have many competing priorities, and its a great
exercise to be part of defining one or two goals that would inform a
design project. Listening does take practice, and you'll learn a lot
from your team members during planning phases.

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Posted from the new

26 Oct 2009 - 2:22pm
Ariel Spaulding

Ugh - this is a topic I don't tend to discuss but I'll give my
experience here.

UX with non-profits has for me, been a very painful experience. The
leaders of the organizations having so much of a strong desire over
the presentation that it might be easier to pull my own teeth out
than to assist with usability. Getting from the "Its not about you
and me, its about the people who are going to be using this" is a
tough thing to get over when the non-profit organization is a "my
baby" scenario.

I hope that my experience is an exception to the rule, but I've
worked with 3 and all three, though they were widely different
audiences, all ended up being nightmares with the end result being so
much of an eye-sore that I won't even list them as something that
I'd had anything to do with.

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Posted from the new

27 Oct 2009 - 9:50am

I work on the IA and Design team at Convio. My team does user-centered
redesigns for nonprofits. I do agree that it can sometimes be a
challenge to make the case for doing the research, but have found
that it makes such a difference to have actual data to get all of the
stakeholders aligned. I think it's also valuable to have a consultant
driving UX activities from outside the org. I've heard from several
clients that they know what needs to change, but until the rest of
the org hears it from an outside expert, nothing will happen. Here
are a couple of UX success stories from our portfolio if you're

Lacey Kruger
Senior Information Architect
Convio, Inc.
lkruger at

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Posted from the new

27 Oct 2009 - 10:55am

Just to chime in a bit here... since 90% of the work we do at fluency
has been in the non-profit area I figured I'd share what I've

The one thing we often lose sight of which I think is true for
for-profit or non-profit organizations is the inability of us as
designers (myself included) to make an adequate BUSINESS CASE for UX

In larger organizations where budgets may be a bit more free flowing
the use and value of research is understood if from no other point in
its ability to avoid wasting resources. Ironically in non-profit orgs
where resources can be scarce and fundraising may take up as much of
60% of the organizations time they tend to have the most resistance
to anything PERCEIVED as inflating project budgets. I'd argue though
that for the non-profit org justifications for expenditures need
precisely that, justification.

Undoubtedly, there are many, many short sighted orgs who don't see
the value of understanding their constituency, what their needs are
and how those needs can be handled via the orgs website in a way that
saves the org precious resources, those organizations are not what
I'm talking about as their very approach dooms them to irrelevance
at best. What I am talking about are organizations that are well
meaning but honestly don't see where the value lies in doing this
(UX) work which often means not enough emphasis is made to illustrate
where that value lies.

In my experience, whether you do it verbally (worst way), in writing
(a little better) or visually in a diagram (best) you have to show
(assuming the project is worth it) where the ineffienciencies are,
what their audience wants and where the current website falls. This
can be done with a simple survey or focus group session--both of
which are techniques you can break apart from an entire redesign and
use to justify moving forward.

Also I find abandoning our jargon for their jargon or business speak
(within reason) works well. If you talk about how by focusing on the
brand experience & UX can improve their organization (via customer
service, fundraising, promotion, constituent connection, R&D etc.)
and possibly save it from oblivion and trust me you'll have their

In the end I find the job to vividly & persuasively communicate the
work or the value of the work ultimately lies with us and this is
true of non-profit or any other business we're approaching
(especially in this economic climate) as clients.

My .02 - Fritz


fritz désir
chief experience officer, partner

45 main street, suite 406
brooklyn_ny 11201
cel: 917 217 0342
fluency. A digital branding consultancy.  

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Posted from the new

27 Oct 2009 - 2:28pm
Denise McDermott

Fritz, you are so right about the goals and jargon. I can see you've
experienced the tug between program people who are fine with
"raising awareness" and the development teams who want to
fundraise. I think too often, nonprofits bring in web consultants
before they even have their goals defined. Perhaps the lesson is to
ask this upfront, and if they don't, ask if they have a plan to
figure that out.

Lacey, your point is well taken, but I think it would behove
organizations to trust/encourage their internal staff to facilitate
a UX process (once they have defined goals). Relying on outside
vendors (at least for smaller projects, not full redesigns) to
substantiate what internal staff is saying, is not only inefficient
and costly, but also inhibits the growth of internal web teams, and
often leads staff to be managers of vendors rather than full-fledged
UX professionals.

Of course, I've hired/worked with vendors, and the management was
distrustful of their assessments because they felt that the vendor
didn't have a full understanding of the issues to really offer
helpful solutions. Comparing apples to oranges (animal rights vs.
human rights for example). Another anomaly is that the staff person
is often evangelizing on behalf of the vendor and not the other way

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27 Oct 2009 - 4:19pm
Hallie Wilfert

Hi Denise - -

I'm jumping in late here, but this is a topic near and dear to my heart!

I did my "training" in IA/UX as the web manager at a not-for-profit. I was a
web staff of one (though we had a web dev firm actually building the site)
and one of the many hats I wore was as an evangelist for good user
experience. However, even though I thought of that as one of my roles, I
never gave that role a name. All I said was that I wanted to make our web
site and intranet as easy to use as possible. I received no objection to
that goal. I chose my battles wisely, but overall it's hard for even the
most opinionated (and important) person at the organization to counter an
argument that's centered around making people's experience better.
Non-profits are all about getting the user to the content or to the donation

The things I did to construct a good IA or improve the site UX would be
recognizable to people in our field - wireframes, card sorts, usability
testing, user interviews, analytics - but I never said that I was "doing IA
or UX" - I would have been met with blank stares. I think that in the case
of my organization, the more buzzwordy I got, the less support I received,
so keeping it simple helped me get support for things that might have been
rejected otherwise. In the long run, I like to think that my subtle
evangelizing paved the way for the org to welcome in UX-savvy people/firms
for work they did after I left.

Once I decided that I wanted to do IA/UX work full time, I moved to a
for-profit environment and now do government consulting. There was no way
that the non-profit needed a full time person dedicated to UX, but I'm so
glad I got the experience that I did since now I've seen both sides of the

Best, Hallie

28 Oct 2009 - 1:51pm
Denise McDermott

Hi Hallie!

I know the stares of which you speak :-) It's great you were able
to make the transition to the for-profit world. It's something I'm
trying to figure out myself now. I am not "formally" trained in UX,
but it's the framework from which I've approached my work, and only
recently realized this is where I want to focus the next phase of my
career. As you know, you can wear many hats, but eventually, you have
to pick one before you can leave the house.

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