User-Friendliness Starts and Ends With the Users

Website’s Ease of Use Determines Success of Online Fundraising

by Daniël de Voogt

Websites are playing an ever increasing role in charity fundraising and across the world as a whole, with a considerable increase in online donation. Yet for many charities it appears to be difficult to present themselves well on the internet. A recent survey shows that the user friendliness of websites still leaves much to be desired.

As the organizations’ calling card and access point to the website, the home page must meet the highest demands of user friendliness. In today’s fast moving world a visitor remains on a web page for an average of only 27 seconds. A home page is at its most effective when the visitor can see what the site has to offer at a glance. The user must also be able to find his way almost intuitively without having to reflect. Only home pages which are so clearly focused in terms of ease of use can lead the visitor to look at the website in more detail.

Unwritten rules

The ease of use of the home pages is examined using twelve tried and tested guidelines (see below). These guidelines can best be described as web conventions or unwritten rules which have become widely accepted on the web over the years. Visitors expect a home page to respect these conventions. If these are ignored, many visitors will ignore your website. This will have unfortunate consequences ranging from less name recognition to missing new members or donations.

Twelve guidelines may appear to be limited. Jakob Nielsen however distinguishes between as many as one hundred and thirteen (Homepage Usability, 2001). These are, however, the guidelines which appear in each test to be decisive for the success of a homepage.

  • Header bar with description of organization
  • Short introduction to the organization
  • Example (article) of site content
  • Search field at the top of the home page
  • Links are underlined
  • Links have a distinctive color
  • Link names start with key words
  • No link to the home page on the home page.
  • Direct link to contact information
  • Direct link to (online) donation
  • Adequate lettering format and contrast
  • Varied size of lettering

Thirty charities

The study focused on the twenty largest charities in the Netherlands and ten smaller organizations with incomes lower than 1 million Euros. No single fund meets all the guidelines. The average score for all funds is 5.9 out of 12. On average the larger funds score somewhat higher than the small ones: 6.1 out of 12 against 5.6 out of 12. This image matches the supposition that large funds have more money and know how available for web development. But does this come to fruition?

If we look at the rankings, this does not appear to be the case. Six funds out of the top ten of the largest funds have a score of 6 or less. The majority (10) of the sixteen lowest placed funds are from the group of large funds. It is clear that greater resources do not guarantee a more user friendly home page.

A few guidelines under the spotlight

On average the funds examined meet the guidelines in 47% of cases. It is immediately clear that the guidelines are not well followed, particularly where content is concerned. As far as navigation is concerned, the average is somewhat better, while readability scores moderately. There are a few striking differences between large and small funds, however. Not one of the small funds has a search field on the home page. Yet this is a very important method of navigation. They score much better than the larger funds when it comes to the distinguishing of links through the use of a variety of colors. The small organizations are also far less likely to fall into the annoying habit of placing a link to the home page on the very same home page.

The two worst scoring guidelines

1. Header bar with description of organization (aims)
Average score: 20.0%

This guideline is different to the other one as the header bar is not a visible part of the home page. It is an instruction in HTML, the layout language with which websites are produced. It is only visible in the highest bar of the browser. Much more importantly, the title is prominent, extra large and underlined in the results of the search engines. If anyone saves a website in his/her favorites, the title will appear in the list. A clear title is a simple and very effective form of free online marketing. 

2. Short introduction to the organization
Average score: 23.3%

Visitors who are not familiar with an organization will want to find out more about it as soon as possible. This is particularly important for funds with an unclear name (Cordaid) or slogan (A just world. Without poverty). Very well known charities also wish to gain new donors or members and therefore they also need to tell new visitors about the organization. Details of the organization (and its aims) should therefore be set down briefly but powerfully.

The importance of improvement

User-friendliness extends beyond the home page of course. The rest of the website must also be clearly set out. The home page is, however, the starting point for most visitors. Compare it with a job interview: the first impression is absolutely decisive.

By neglecting the user friendliness of home pages, charities are missing great chances. This is a pity but not a disaster: of the twelve “errors” named in this study, a good half can be easily corrected without great expense. For the rest, money and effort invested in user friendliness often result in a 100% increase in visits to and conversion via the website (Nielsen, Web research: Believe the data, 1999).

Thus the most important recommendation is: first of all deal with matters which can quickly be rectified. This should bring quick rewards. Then devise a plan for dealing with the more involved aspects and call in expert help for this. If you wish to have an even more thorough approach, then don’t forget to carry out tests first and foremost. User-friendliness starts and finishes with the users and therefore they must be closely involved in any significant adaptation of the website.

Daniel de Voogt, Goede Zaken. An extended version of this article appeared in the trade journal Vakblad Fondsenwerving (Trade Journal Fundraising) in December 2006. It can also be found on the author’s website.