For many organizations, a website is the biggest window into their work and values, helping their supporters and other audiences understand what the organization believes in and stands for, what it does, and why its work matters. In many cases, it also is a critical component of the day-to-day operations behind those efforts, whether as a publishing platform for knowledge sharing and thought leadership, or as a direct link to the organization's events management and CRM systems.
Nonprofits, educational institutions, and businesses whose work is dedicated to advancing positive social or environmental change must not only make sure their websites meet all the criteria by which the success of websites in general are measured (i.e., usability, visual design, and compelling content), their websites also must paint a much bigger picture of the organization — elevating its issue(s), educating audiences, and generating action while clearly communicating everything in the context of the organization's mission and values. No surprise, then, that at Constructive we believe that as purposeful as organizations tend to be about developing the strategies and actions needed to drive change, they should be equally focused on the decisions that determine whether their websites contribute to those goals.
Unfortunately, many organizations with incredibly inspiring missions too often end up with a website that falls flat and leaves their audiences more confused than committed, more exhausted than energized.
Why is this?
The Discontent of Our Disconnect
When organizations set out to redesign a website, the problems in need of solving on every organization's list inevitably include things like: "confusing; not user friendly," "content and resources hard to find," "not engaging or visually appealing," "difficult to update," and, most telling of all, "fails to clearly communicate our mission and work."
It is baffling how so many organizations can go through a lengthy website design engagement and still wind up with something that fails not only in website-specific areas like usability, visual design, and technology, but also in terms of the most important strategic goal of all — clearly communicating an organization's mission.
The reason, I believe, is actually quite simple.
Clearly communicating something as complex as an organization's mission, strategies, and impact requires both the client and the design firm to have a clear, shared understanding of all those things — as well as a simplified way of communicating them to different audiences. That said, it's asking a lot of a website redesign to carry the burden of distilling all the complexity of a social change organization and its work, and to translate it into an online experience that is easily understood by anyone.
Not that you can't learn a lot through a website design process. It's just that, as with most things, execution follows strategy. When we try to solve a problem as fundamental as an organization's failure to clearly communicate its mission and work, the answers we will get — if the lens we use to arrive at them is website design — are almost certainly going to be website specific. And while we might end up with a better looking, better functioning, more "user-friendly" website, what remains is the underlying brand confusion that caused many of the problems in the first place.
Forget User Experience!
The commercial Web is only a few years past its twentieth birthday. And as it has matured, we've learned a lot of valuable things about designing online user experiences. But it's time we move beyond UX design's limiting definitions of success (e.g., "user-friendliness," "aligning user and business goals") and take a broader view.
If we are working to address a significant social and environmental challenge and hope to create significant impact, we need to see the people who visit our website as more than just "users." (After all, as I was often told as a teen growing up in the 80s, "Users are losers"). In other words, we must define success as something more meaningful than the nature of the user's experience.
Now, I'm not saying that designing an effective user experience isn't a worthwhile goal; it definitely is. It just happens to be a limiting one that fails to take into account the bigger picture.
When we design and develop a website, we aren't simply creating an online user experience, we're creating something much more meaningful for our audiences; we're creating a brand experience. Consumer brands have focused on the principles of customer experience design for some time. For social change organizations, it means creating an experience that is more ambitious than the "buying cycle"; it means creating experiences with the specific objectives of educating our audiences, deepening their engagement with our cause, and, ultimately, helping people from different backgrounds and with different skills and resources to contribute to solving a serious problem — often one that requires a willingness to give us support despite the difficulty inherent in measuring progress toward our goal.
Because while it's easy to see how a website designed to meet "user needs" and "business needs" can help us more effectively order our groceries online or find the best airfare on flights to Florida, it is less clear whether such a mindset contributes much to the task of tackling climate change or ending intergenerational poverty.
Build Brand Experiences
In other words, if your organization is looking to redesign its website and has never taken the time to develop a brand strategy, now would be a good time to do so. Yes, it will require time, money, and patience. But it is an investment well worth making — and one that will pay you back many times over. What's more, not only will your team be energized by the process, you'll be amazed by how much easier decision making about things like website structure, navigation, content strategy, and design is when it's clear to all what the real value of your organization to its audiences is.
Now, some of you may be wondering what you should do if your organization already has a website redesign in the works and, for whatever reason, simply can't commit to developing a focused brand strategy.
In that situation, my advice is to find ways to bake elements of the brand strategy process into the research and planning stage of the website redesign. You won't gain the organization-wide benefits that follow from developing an effective brand strategy, but at least one of your organization's most valuable communications tools, your website, will be positioned to do a better job of advancing your organizational strategy. When clients turn to Constructive to design and develop websites as standalone projects, we walk them through a brand process that helps them answer three simple but essential questions: "Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter?"
Whichever approach you take, before you jump into the website redesign, be sure to pull your key stakeholders together and engage them in the kind of no-holds-barred brainstorming that should inform every branding process. Doing so will enable you to build your website — and a compelling brand experience — around the deeper, underlying values that do so much to energize staff, volunteers, and donors in support of your mission.
Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based brand strategy and experience design firm dedicated to helping social change organizations achieve greater impact.