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Web design and usability guidelines for non-profits: An interview with Jason King

Lori Halley 20 September 2007 8 comments

Jason King is a freelance web designer and ICT Trainer who works exclusively with non-profit organizations. He is also the author of the Nonprofit Web Design Blog, providing tips on planning, commissioning, designing and editing charity websites. 
In the following interview, we talked about nonprofit web design and usability best practices. Jason also shared some useful insights on ways nonprofits can design their websites so that they are easy to use, communicate effectively and are accessible to all.

1. Perhaps you can start by telling readers about yourself and how you got involved in web design?

I graduated as a librarian which, because it involves the organizing and presenting of information, isn’t a bad background for a web developer to have. In 2000 I got a job as a circuit rider, helping charities in West London to make the most of ICT. They kept asking for help with their websites so I taught myself web design.

2. When did you create the Nonprofit Web Design Blog? Why did you create it?  What was your vision?

Most of the charities I work with have been struggling to run their website. Their needs are usually fairly basic: they need someone to design a compliant site, to be able to publish content themselves, know how to do basic site promotion, and have the tools to analyze its success. That’s the stuff I write about. It’s mostly solid, practical advice.

I try to avoid buzzwords and don’t twitter about the latest Web 2.0 sites. My blog references current standards and well-proven tools but isn’t on the cutting edge of technology; there are many other blogs already doing that job very well and I’d rather refer my readers to them. The articles are usually fairly long so I only publish one or two a week.

When I publish a short post it’s usually to comment on something inspirational or something to avoid. Like when Vincent Flanders nominated a glaucoma charity as one of the world’s worst nonprofit websites; or when teams in Australia and New Zealand competed to design a charity website.

3. What do you think makes a good charity website? What elements are essential and what are optional?

A good charity website is one that understands who its audience is and what they want to know, that presents information accordingly and offers appropriate ways to communicate. In terms of design these are essential: standards-compliant HTML and CSS; semantic HTML; and accessibility to all users.

The content should be interesting. Does anyone really care about the history of your charity or want to see photos of your director shaking hands with a celebrity? They probably just want to find a few relevant facts then leave, so pages should get to the point quickly. Don’t forget to put your contact details on every page.

Publishing regular news items is one of the best ways to keep people coming back to a website and offering a feed is a very good idea if you want to get information out fast. I use feedburner to enable people to subscribe to their choice of RSS or email because most people still aren’t using RSS.

Much of the grammar and punctuation on charity websites is abysmal and that can give a bad first impression. Know your own limits and if you can’t write well, let someone else edit (or at least proof-read) the site’s content.

4. Can you tell us why usability should be important to charities and nonprofits?

Charities should strive for good practice in every area of their work, including their websites: and it’s good practice to be accessible to all. Yes, a blind person should be able to use your website but it’s not just a disabilities issue. It’s simply good manners to make your website easy to use, easy to find information, easy to print from, easy to contact you and easy on the eye.

Plus, if a website is designed properly and its content well-ordered, it will be easier to make changes to it and that will save time and money in the future. That’s what I tell charities and it’s a far more persuasive argument than getting technical about semantics.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes people make in web design?

Not using a content management system. It’s heartening that these days a lot of charities insist on a CMS because they’ve heard of the concept and know they need one.

Educational establishments are rarely cutting edge and a lot of teachers at schools and evening classes teach outdated practices. Their students go back to the charity they do voluntary work for and say “I can do web design, we learned it at school” and they throw up a bunch of static html pages with frames, nested tables and a spinning logo. I blame the teachers!

6. What considerations do you recommend to non-technical people in selecting a web designer?

Get advice, perhaps from a paid or pro-bono ICT consultant and ask them to help you write a detailed project brief before you look for a designer. Ideally, find someone who’s recommended by other charities: in the UK use this; in the US use this. Only use volunteers on small projects, expect the same professional standards but don’t expect them to commit long-term.

7. Can you recommend any websites that do a really good job with usability?

8. Your blog is a great resource for tips on planning, designing and editing charities’ websites; do you have any advice for folks out there who are just stepping into the game and want to do it themselves?

  • If you just want to create one small website quickly and cheaply, install WordPress and choose a free theme from the thousands available. Customize its logo and color scheme to your needs.
  • If you want to be a web designer, figure out how to create your own templates for least one free open-source CMS (e.g. Joomla, Drupal, WordPress). Learn to write standards-compliant html and css code and keep learning because the standards and the goalposts move all the time. Check your code using markup validation service – aim for 100%.
  • Use Google’s great free tools for web designers – Analytics, Sitemap, custom search engine etc.
  • DIY has its limits. If it’s a really big or important project, find the funding to employ someone to do a professional job.
  • Ask for help. There’s a legion of geeks out there that love solving problems and giving advice.

9. Any resources or sites on usability and web design that you think are particularly useful?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 20 September 2007 at 12:52 PM


  • michael said:

    Friday, 21 September 2007 at 9:04 AM

    Good article, but several links are incorrectly formed.

  • Asad said:

    Friday, 21 September 2007 at 11:27 AM

    No post yet about the latest update?

  • Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

    Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] said:

    Friday, 21 September 2007 at 12:07 PM

    We will post it next week. The thing is we have many readers on the blog who are not Wild Apricot users and since we had several other posts about Wild Apricot we had to push off the one about recent updates.

    And version updates are always summarized here:


  • Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

    Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] said:

    Friday, 21 September 2007 at 1:20 PM

    Michael - thanks for noticing! Links have been fixed.

  • Asad said:

    Sunday, 23 September 2007 at 5:47 PM

    Ok, but just to let you know, while the other general nonprofit info posts are great, but I come here for the updates! I like to see all the new toys I get to play with.

  • Denys said:

    Tuesday, 25 September 2007 at 6:56 AM

    Good info

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 03 October 2007 at 10:13 AM

    These were the posts of most interest to our readers in Sep 2007 according to Google Analytics.... The

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