What Would Google Do?


Why should nonprofits engage in user experience research? Because they can’t assume that once they build a program, clients will start knocking on the door.

Over the last two decades – thanks to my husband’s working for tech companies - I’ve had a chance to see all kinds of jobs (like DevOps, shorthand for collaboration between software development and IT operations) emerge in the tech industry and then filter more widely into the private sector.

Now it seems nonprofits are getting in on the act. A recent article in Fast Company touting the nonprofit jobs of the future focused on ones - Culture Officer, Data Scientist, UX Researcher – that are commonplace and widely recruited for tech jobs.

The piece is talking more about what should be rather than what currently is (You might be saying: “Nonprofit data scientist? My organization has a hard time collecting attendance!”). But that doesn’t mean these jobs are unnecessary. In particular, I’m very interested these days with bringing UX style research to nonprofits and social impact organizations.

UX research as we know it today began in earnest in the tech world as companies began creating - not variations on familiar products, but rather new products that asked consumers to interact with them in unfamiliar ways (think Apple). UX researchers examine how someone interacts with a service or product - from first encountering it to integrating it into their day. The goal is to make the user experience not just worry free, but engaging and seamless.   

Tech companies, like any for profit company, have generally straightforward outcomes centering around growth: total sales, net profit, total daily users, click through rates, etc. While these are obviously the numbers that indicate effectiveness, tech companies know their outcomes are in large part a result of everything they’re doing internally – a result of how well their product is designed and implemented. They know that if they rely only on outcomes they won’t have enough information to be responsive to customers - to change course, scale and, of course, innovate.

That’s why user experience research has been so important for tech companies. As they’re creating products and services for which there may be few models for comparison, companies need to understand how existing users are reacting. This helps them make informed decisions around not just retaining these customers, but acquiring new ones. How can AirBnB, which asks people to engage in the unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable act of letting strangers stay in their homes – often while they’re still living there – make that service work across countries and cultures? How does Etsy make it as tempting as possible to browse (and buy from) a website that’s offering a bewildering multitude of niche products?

User experience research – done through ethnographic and other social science mixed methods – provides targeted data and insight to inform product development, to create goods and services that customers are excited to engage with.  User experience is not focused on understanding what users want, what they profess to like. The focus instead is on understanding what users do when interacting with a product - with making their experience so satisfactory that they become regular customers and recommend the service to others. 

When I first discovered UX research, its simultaneous newness and familiarity made it feel like finding a long lost cousin. As applied to nonprofits it’s a subset of program implementation research, focused in a very substantive way on understanding and being responsive to constituents. Rather than viewing people receiving services as an undifferentiated block of “need” that needs to be “met”, nonprofits engaged in UX work gather feedback from constituents and prototype and test out solutions with them. They take into consideration factors like culture, geography, demographics, the existing marketplace - and how they all come together to shape behavior. They think carefully about not just why the program exists and what they hope to achieve, but how they will provide services to their target users.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself – NO WAY! UX research is about consumerism, fueling internet addictions, and making it impossible for anyone but rich techies to live in San Francisco.  It has nothing to do with my nonprofit work, which is about helping people on the thinnest of margins.

But – just like tech companies – nonprofits need to make their interventions and programs not just effective, but also attractive to potential clients; they need to make sure they’re designed and disseminated in a way that retains existing customers and brings in new ones. Nonprofits – just like for profits - are selling their services. They’re competing in a marketplace of organizations who are going after the same clients (customers) and sources of philanthropy (revenue). A thoughtfully designed program or intervention, a service that adapts to its clients’ behavior, is more likely to maintain and grow users than one that is built without a strong understanding of how current and potential clients interact with it – and why they may not be willing to use the service.   

Nonprofits may be addressing a clear need – but they cannot assume that simply building a program will bring in clients. The international development field is rife with examples of programs and services that were designed with the outcome in mind, but gave little thought to the end user until it was too late.

Partly because of these and other well documented failures, and partly because they have relatively large budgets compared to many US based nonprofits, international development organizations have started thinking more about users, about how and why products and services work - and don’t. As the research conversation moves from “only outcomes matter” to “hey, understanding implementation is also key,”  I’m interested to see whether more US nonprofits start to explore UX research, and whether philanthropy partners with them to support the work.

If you are currently thinking about how to collect data that goes beyond basic output-to-outcome metrics, try emulating some of the most successful tech companies and conduct some UX work of your own, remembering to:

·       Adopt a “test and learn” approach.

·       Start small

·       Look for people with the right skills to help you.