Attracting visitors to your nonprofit’s  website is an ongoing challenge  – but it’s  only half the battle. Your site also needs to be user-friendly. You need to make the experience pleasant enough that visitors choose to stay and engage with your content once they get there.

Here are five simple techniques you can employ to improve nonprofit website usability.

Make all links open in the current tab

A common request I get from clients is to have external links (links pointing to pages on another website) open in a new browser tab or window by default. The only reason for this request that I’ve ever been told is to stop visitors from leaving the site

This makes some dubious assumptions about visitors. All web browsers have a “Back” button; why assume that your visitors don’t know how to use it? And if there’s a fear that people will lose interest in your website simply because you’ve sent them to another one, then perhaps you should revisit the quality of your content?

My primary reason for advising against this practice is because forcing external links into a new tab takes control away from the user. When links open in the current tab by default, the user still has the option of opening them in a new tab if she so chooses. Conversely, if links open in a new tab by default, then that would be the user’s only option. Leave this choice in the hands of the visitor.

Preserve white space

White space is the empty space – which may or may not actually be white – between elements on the screen. Considering everything that nonprofits have to promote, it can be tempting to use all available space, including white space, by filling it with messaging or images. This can be a particular problem for organizations with many departments all vying for real estate on the website.

The truth is, your content can often make a greater impact by taking advantage of white space. A website element that is contained in white space and allowed to breathe can jump out at the visitor and draw attention more than one that’s competing with many other elements packed together. White space can also help to prioritize elements on the screen and guide the visitor through the experience of interacting with your material.

Don’t be too concerned with “the fold”

Many website decision-makers in nonprofits argue that all the important messaging on a website should be displayed “above the fold,” meaning it should be visible without having to scroll down. This fear comes from the print industry: people passing by a newsstand would only see the top-most content of the newspapers on display.

This is highly debated topic among Web professionals, with some maintaining that the fold remains important, while others present evidence suggesting that much of a visitor’s attention is focused below the fold.

My position is that the fold is no longer as relevant as it once was now that scrolling is so familiar to people (Apple is so convinced of this familiarity that it removed the scrollbar from its operating system entirely in 2011). The important thing is not to stuff all your content above the fold in attempts to get the visitor to see it. Instead, spread out your content through the length of the page and encourage visitors to scroll down for more using in-page anchor links; graphic elements like downward-pointing arrows; or narratives that span the length of the page. Let visitors know that more content is available lower down so that your messaging has room to stand out.

Disregard the three-click rule

Something I still see frequently in design briefs is the directive “all pages should be accessible  within three clicks.” The thinking here is that if people can’t find what they want in three clicks, they’ll get frustrated and leave.

This is another myth that comes from the early days of the Web. Back then, webpages took a long time to load, so the more pages they had to wade through, the more wait-time they had to endure. Now, however, your audience is probably enjoying high-speed Internet, even on mobile devices. And if your website is built correctly, every page loads within a second or two.

Many of your visitors will reach your site’s pages through a search engine or your site’s own search function, which makes the three-click rule even less relevant.

It’s been found that sites that follow the three-click rule are perceived as neither faster nor better by users.

The more appropriate approach is to design your site in such a way that even if some pages require more than three clicks to find, the path that the visitor takes to get there is logical. Users are less concerned with getting there fast and more with feeling like they’re on the right track.

Invest in usability testing

The best place to start to improve the usability of your website is to invest in actual usability testing. Usability testing is simply the practice of observing a visitor using your website and talking through their steps. The idea is that if the participant has trouble using some part of your site, you may need to work on that part. I’m amazed at how often nonprofits neglect this opportunity to learn more about how their audience really interacts with their website.

There is a perception that usability testing is complicated and expensive, but it need not be. Usability experts maintain that just three or four participants are all you need to find your site’s biggest usability concerns, and there are many services on the web that allow you to do usability testing quickly and affordably.

Usability testing need not be done during site development alone. You can test the usability of your site at any time, and the results can help your site evolve in a positive direction. You can even test the sites of your competitors to see what’s working for them and what’s not, and use that as a guide for how you can improve yours.

Most of the marketing effort that nonprofits put into their websites is centered on attracting visitors, and then promoting calls-to-action once they arrive. It’s important to remember, though, that just because they came to your site doesn’t mean they’ll stay. These techniques can help with that.

Is your nonprofit taking advantage of these usability techniques? What other methods to improve user experience have you applied?

Mike Mella

Mike Mella

Web designer, developer, and strategist at Be Like Water
Mike Mella is a skilled Web designer, developer and strategist with a passion for making the Web more beautiful and usable. Mike has been creating websites since 1999 and today works primarily with non-profit organizations and medium-size businesses. Through his company, Be like water, Mike promotes a principle of adaptability helping his clients to stay current on the Web.
Mike Mella