For our first comprehensive UX project, DESIGNATION asked our team “to build a digital platform to match individual donors to nonprofits, with the overall goal of increasing online donations.” Small nonprofits in particular dedicate significant resources to reaching their target donors online, and therefore a flexible system that connects potential donors and nonprofits could streamline fundraising efforts for these organizations. However the vagueness of the prompt left our team with a number of fundamental questions, including what constitutes a donor and a donation, and what types of nonprofits benefit from this type of digital platform.
We spoke to several nonprofits in Chicago for initial background research, and while all of them expressed interest in a platform to increase donations, they also articulated a deeper operational need: finding volunteers. With this insight, we decided to narrow the scope of the brief to focus on volunteering. Employing a user-centered design approach, we developed a platform to help volunteers find volunteering opportunities and learn more about the benefits of community engagement. Our concept, Voluntopia, helps users discover new ways to get involved in their communities by gamifying the volunteer experience and creating stronger social connections among volunteers. If SimCity, Trivia Crack, and volunteering had a love child, that would be Voluntopia.
We began this project by conducting formative interviews with both volunteers and service organizations to understand their respective goals, motivations, frustrations, and needs. For the volunteers, we focused on the 20-35 year old demographic, which historically has the lowest volunteerism rate in the country. For the service organizations, we focused on nonprofits who rely on volunteers directly (e.g. Habitat for Humanity), and nonprofits who connect volunteers with other service organizations (e.g. Chicago Cares). We used the following questions to guide our interviews: What are the major challenges that volunteer organizations face? Why do people choose to volunteer? What is the current role of technology in connecting volunteers with service organizations?
“I need to know what value I’ll gain from the experience, so I don’t feel underutilized. I also need to see the impact I’m having on the community.”
These insights helped us identify our primary persona, Jessica. The persona allowed our team to succinctly define our target audience, and better empathize with our future users. One of the most interesting aspects of our persona is that her motivations for volunteering are not entirely altruistic. While she likes seeing how her efforts have a positive impact on the community, she chooses to volunteer because she enjoys socializing with friends and family.
Jessica is skeptical of new service opportunities because in the past she has participated in poorly organized events where she felt that she was just wasting her time and her skills went un-utilized. She needs to feel like she is having an impact. She is also looking for a fun and social experience that fits her busy student schedule.
To summarize our research, we discovered that volunteer organizations need to open channels for new volunteers, and that volunteers largely rely on social networks and word-of-mouth recommendations to find new opportunities. The question is how can we incentivize those who have experience working on service projects to recruit others for new volunteering opportunities? We can do this in three ways: First, we need to catalyze. Use captivating content to encourage exploration of new activities. Out platform should spark an interest in volunteering. Second, we need to cut through the noise. Help potential volunteers identify the right opportunities through a unique platform of promotion. Lastly, we need to retain. Help inspire sustained engagement in volunteering.
While ideating possible solutions, we focused intensely on this idea of incentivization. What is the hook that would draw people into our platform, and how would it entice users to explore new volunteer opportunities? What would the incentive be to recruit others? Without some differentiating factor, our platform would become just one of the 400,000 apps on the app store that have never been downloaded.
Our team coalesced around the idea of using gamification and social interactivity to entice users to sign on to the platform and share their volunteering experiences with friends. We developed three divergent concepts within this broad approach, each with varying degrees of emphasis on gamification and social interactivity.
To address these conceptual problems we returned to research, looking for examples of apps that successfully solved analogous problems. We explored everything from gaming apps like Pokemon Go, to platforms that stitch together virtual and in-person experiences, like Uber and Lyft. We also took a more critical approach to understanding contemporary trends in volunteering. This latter exploration led us to something interesting and unexpected: microvolunteering.
Microvolunteering: A task done by a volunteer, or a team of volunteers, without payment, either online via an internet-connected device, or offline in small increments of time...
While the concept was well received, we uncovered several major user experience issues during usability testing. Most prominently, we failed to include an effective onboarding procedure to orient new users and explain the concept of microvolunteering. We also realized that, given the variety of microvolunteering opportunities available through our platform, users needed constant access to instructions, with clear and concise copy. When testing, we asked our users to login, find and complete a microvolunteering activity, and invite friends to connect. When completing the microvolunteering activity, several test participants had to read through the instructions several times before understanding how to proceed.
My biggest takeaway from working on Voluntopia was the importance of developing a robust concept through multiple rounds of research, ideation, and testing. At the end of the day, unless you have a compelling concept, the experience will always fall flat. With Voluntopia, our team prioritized the quality of our concept over building out a comprehensive mobile platform, and in the span of four weeks we produced a solid body of work for further refinement. For this, teamwork was essential. Working in a team allowed us to rapidly develop divergent concepts, test those concepts, and then find creative ways to synthesize our ideas. Overall, Voluntopia clarified the value of iterative and collaborative design for me, and provided a strong foundation for future UX projects.