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Ask First, Then Design

Throughout the 14 months it spent on the redesign, the team responsible for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new Web site stayed singly focused on making sure the end product would meet the needs of people the foundation wants to reach.

These audiences include members of the general public who want to learn more about Gates’ work, policy-makers, and people working in global health, global development and other areas Gates supports who may apply for grants.

And how did they know what current and potential users wanted?  They asked… And repeatedly, according to Corrie Frasier, Gates’ manager for content and distribution strategy, who lead the design project.

Through ongoing surveys and other ways of gathering feedback – as well as through an internal planning process at Gates – the team developed a “wish list” that included:

  • Organize content more intuitively
  • Provide more information about what Gates is learning from its grantmaking, and
  • Make it easy to find out where the foundation makes grants and where it operates around the world.

Not only did the team’s user-focused design process lead to a successful relaunch, but Frasier said it also accounted for the site receiving a Webby Award nomination in the charitable/Non-Profit category and being named an honoree for Best Navigation/Structure.

To meet user needs and tell a clearer story about the foundation’s work, Gates’ new website organizes content into three primary areas — About the Foundation, Programs and Partnerships, and What We’re Learning.

The Web site also provides tools to search and browse the foundation’s programs and publications by topic and by region of the world where the work takes place. A Where We Work map, for instance, shows people where Gates works, and contains links to videos about the projects or grantees. Finally, there’s a dedicated grants section so those seeking support can research information on funding opportunities and search for information about past awards.

User feedback was especially valuable, Frasier said, when developing particular features or releasing early versions for public preview. Areas where user feedback contributed to a successful project — and ways it was collected — included:

New site organization: To make its Web site more intuitively organized for their users, Gates made a particular point asking people about their preferences.  This included:
–In the initial stages of the design process, inviting users to organize typical content on the Gates Web site into categories of their own choosing.
— In later rounds, asking users to sort content into fixed structures to see which approach was most effective.
— Finally, Gates presented likely users a prototype of the front page and asked them to indicate where they would expect to find particular items or features.

New “What We’re Learning” section: For its relaunched site, Gates wanted to emphasize the knowledge and lessons resulting from the foundation’s grantmaking. The design team, says Frasier, was pleasantly surprised to discover that Gates’ target audiences also valued this information highly and wanted it to be easy to find.

Through interviews with target users, Gates experimented with several ways to present What We’re Learning information. Based on feedback, they decided to make this one of the main navigational items on the Web site, rather than embedding the content within topics or featuring it as a box on the home page – which was one of many options they considered.

“Because we heard such consistently strong feedback about the importance of that section, we felt it could really hold its own as a key navigational item,” Frasier said. “We’re confident the section will resonate with people.”

Interactive maps of Gates’ grantmaking: A map interface is popular with users and is helpful for media inquiries about Gates’ work, Frasier said. User research played an important role as Gates developed and refined worldwide maps of Gates’ work. Using an early prototype, Gates solicited user preferences, such as:
–How much or little information is the right amount to show on the map? Would the amount of information Gates provided meet users’ needs?
–How easy or difficult is it to use the map functions? Was it overwhelming to use?

Frasier considers the interactive maps a “toe in the water” and is looking forward to adding new content and features in the future.

Improved Careers section: In the old site, Frasier and her team noticed people were having difficulty finding open positions at the foundation. Based on feedback – this time from an internal audience, the Gates’ recruiting team — designers opted for a new approach to presenting information about open positions. By redesigning the page people see when they first indicate interest in careers, open positions are easier to find. At the same time, the page presents background about living in Seattle and the benefits at Gates. To be sure this approach is working, Gates is evaluating using web analytics and ongoing feedback from recruiters.

A public beta version of various Web site features: A few months before the site’s official relaunch, the Gates team released a beta site that featured key elements from the forthcoming site and invited people for a test run. Afterward, users completed a brief survey.

Although the site is now fully operational, collecting user feedback continues. Frasier said that as work on the project got underway, the redesign commissioned a baseline study of how people used the then current Web site. “Now we have data to compare the new site against,” she said. After launch, Gates commissioned a similar study to find what worked and what didn’t.

Among the audiences that proved very helpful during the design project were the grantees, who she adds appreciated the opportunity to provide their opinions. She notes, though, that staff were initially concerned about asking grantees for feedback because “we never want to be a burden.”  Yet, the team received “100 percent positive feedback” from grantees about the fact they were asked for their opinions.

As a result of Gates’ experience Frasier believes getting early and constant feedback throughout a Web redesign is key to ultimate success.

“You don’t need to have huge chunks of time or lots of extra dollars to incorporate user feedback into your project. Tap your grantees, your partners, members of your community,” Frasier said.

She adds that it’s not expensive to create paper prototypes and ask potential users their likes and dislikes.

Fraiser also suggests – budget permitting – to find someone who is experienced in conducting user surveys and testing, especially an individual who is “flexible and creative [and who] can help you identify the most critical points along the way for user feedback and can synthesize and apply all the data you gather.”

If resources are more limited, though, she said recommends finding someone on staff to help incorporate user research with free or low-cost tools such as surveys and online content-sorting tools.

–Emily Culbertson


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