Ever left a website after you couldn’t find what you were looking for? A great design or even well-written content doesn’t mean that visitors will be successful in finding information and understanding your cause. Making a user-friendly website is the first step to achieving your goals and helping your supporters take action.

There are a lot of considerations when it comes to website usability and accessibility, and many people assume that these terms come with a lot of technical baggage. We’ll help you unpack what usability means and, even better, describe what a user-friendly website looks like so that you can identify any areas that you’d like to work on.

What is Website Usability?

The term usability refers to the ease of using a website, whether that’s clicking around, reading content, completing a task or loading a page. Accessibility is a component of usability that focuses on the skills and limitations of your website visitors and how those things influence the ways they use and consume information. For example, consider how someone with a visual impairment uses your site compared to a senior who is less familiar with the latest technology.

Why Does It Matter?

The more user-friendly your website is, the better chance you have of getting visitors to learn, engage and get involved. It’s pretty hard to join an email list, make a donation or sign up for a program if you can’t figure out where or how to complete those key actions. Or even worse, you’re able to figure it out but get so frustrated by the process that you give up.

When it comes to accessibility, you’re not just thinking about a handful of users with different abilities. The fact is, when you focus on making your website accessible in the most general sense, you’re doing everyone a favor. What’s user-friendly and accessible for one group makes life easier for all of your nonprofit’s website visitors.

Where Nonprofits Go Wrong

You might think that most nonprofits prioritize making user-friendly and accessible websites. It seems like a reasonable goal given the values and ethos of a lot of organizations. But it’s not as common as you’d imagine. Even with the best intentions, we regularly see nonprofits struggle to think about their websites from a user’s point of view.

The biggest culprit? Thinking that they are the same as their target audience. Same interests, same connection to the mission, same level of digital skills.

(We also see this struggle when it comes to fundraising and communications.)

Research on technology gaps shows us that most people aren’t as savvy as you think when it comes to getting around online. Like really, really not savvy.

One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that you are not the user. This is why it’s a disaster to guess at the users’ needs. Since designers are so different from the majority of the target audience, it’s not just irrelevant what you like or what you think is easy to use — it’s often misleading to rely on such personal preferences.

Jakob Nielsen

To start moving toward more usable websites, it’s crucial to nail down your target audience, the tasks they want to accomplish on your site, and what it will look like when they succeed. If you’re not thinking about usability from your visitor’s perspective, your website isn’t nearly as helpful as you think it is.

User Friendly Website Mistakes

7 Characteristics of a User-Friendly Website

If your nonprofit already has a website, or if you’re in the process of making a website, there are some quick ways to assess whether or not you’re creating a nice experience for your supporters. Look for these seven user-friendly website characteristics and signs that you’re on the right track.

Clear Structure, Navigation and Page Names

People can arrive on any page of your site, not just your homepage. It should be easy for them to get around on their own using your navigation and page names without any guesswork.

  • You don’t have jargon or unfamiliar abbreviations in page names.
  • The website structure is straightforward and organized logically.
  • The navigation isn’t overrun with too many options, opting instead for broad topics.
  • Visitors don’t find themselves at dead ends, like pages without links to related content or 404 error pages.

Responsive and Compatible Design

Your nonprofit’s website should look great and function properly on different screen sizes as well as be compatible with a range of web browsers. There are so many ways for people to browse these days, and you don’t want to leave anyone out. Responsive websites are a must.

  • The navigation resizes as needed for different devices, from desktop computers to tablets and mobile phones.
  • Text and images automatically reformat and resize to be readable and spaced correctly. (Which is why you also aren’t using text on top of images, right?)
  • Search engines like Google give your mobile site high marks, ensuring that your pages show up in search results. (Here’s how to put your site to the test.)

Consistent Look That’s Scannable

Website visitors don’t like to be surprised, and they definitely don’t like to work hard to find information buried in a page. In addition to providing information in a predictable way throughout your site, a user-friendly website will also format content to be easily digestible.

  • You have (and use) a style guide describing how your website content should look.
  • Pages with a lot of text use headings, small paragraphs or lists to help break things up.
  • The most important information on a page is offered first, with secondary details later.
  • You allow for and embrace white space.

Get more formatting tips in our Beginner’s Guide to Website Content!

If you can click on it, it should look clickable. And people should have a good idea of where they are going when they use a link. A user-friendly website not only offers recognizable links—it uses links throughout its pages to help move visitors around to similar content.

  • Links use descriptive anchor text (the words used in the link itself) instead of “click here.”
  • It’s easy to tell where links are because they are underlined, show in a different color or use a button.
  • It’s obvious when a link is going to send someone to a completely different website.
  • On mobile devices, phone numbers show up as links that can be clicked to dial.

Clear Calls to Action

The best nonprofit websites are actionable. Your calls to action (CTAs) should be just as user-friendly as the rest of your site, combining a compelling selling point (e.g. save lives) with an obvious next step (donate now).

  • Your calls to action are easy to find, like being highlighted in the navigation, featured in a sidebar, or by using a noticeable button.
  • CTAs set clear expectations for what happens when someone chooses to proceed. No one ends up on a donation page when they thought they were going to register for an event.
  • The design adheres to best practices like a readable text size and contrasting colors.
  • You don’t overwhelm visitors with more than one CTA per page.

Simple Forms

Forms are a crucial part of collecting information from website visitors, from email newsletter subscriptions to membership payments. Applying user-friendly design to forms makes it quick and easy for people to complete and submit them, losing fewer people along the way.

  • Your forms don’t ask for more information than you actually need (or require fields that aren’t crucial).
  • Fields are presented in a logical, sequential way with similar questions grouped together.
  • There’s an obvious way to submit the form, followed by a message letting people know their information was submitted properly.

Accessible and Adaptive

In addition to accessible design, many of the factors that make a website usable for visitors with different abilities aren’t very obvious at first glance. When you think about how a computer moves through your content, you start to understand what it might be like for someone using assistive and adaptive tools to visit your website.

  • Your images have descriptions in the alternative text as well as captions, while videos have subtitles or an accompanying transcript.
  • The forms on your site are keyboard navigable.
  • You skip dense, technical language in favor of easy-to-read text with descriptive headings.
  • Formatting is consistent and predictable across your pages, including the use of high contrast colors to show links and icons that represent themes or topics.

Creating a user-friendly website is just as important as deciding what your site looks like. Usability is a key component of making a marketing and fundraising tool that drives action and works toward your organizational goals.

If you have a site that’s struggling to perform the way you want it to, it may be time to focus on usability by making tweaks or exploring a new platform that’s built with the user experience in mind. And if you’re building a new site from scratch, don’t forget to consider user-friendly characteristics when you’re making design decisions. Your visitors will thank you for it—in words and in actions.

Who is the best partner to build a user-friendly site for your nonprofit?

First, identify the criteria that matter to you. Then evaluate potential partners using those criteria. Download the Nonprofit Website Matchmaker tool to rank different options based on your priorities.

What are some of the signs you’ve seen of a user-friendly website? Or ones that aren’t so friendly? Do you have other questions about making a more usable site for your nonprofit? Let’s talk in the comments.