Delivering the keynote address at the 2011 Annual Users Group meeting of TMA Resources, maker of association management software, in Vancouver in April, usability expert Amy Schade, director, Nielsen Norman Group, told attendees she’d visited all of their Web sites in preparation for her talk, a review of the 10 biggest mistakes nonprofit organizations make in designing sites. (She kept her promise not to name names.)

“Nobody’s intention is to have a poorly designed Web site,” she said. “The crux of the problem is that you and your colleagues use the same information and the same lingo, and everything on your site makes perfect sense to you. But your users have a totally different mindset. You must engage with your users and do user testing.”

Based on her perusal of attendees’ sites—in addition to her company’s careful study of more than 1,300 other Web sites across 17 countries—she offered her top 10 mistakes, along with ways to remedy them.

Mistake 1: Believing that users read what you write
People don’t read, they scan to find the answer they want right now. “Eyetracking”—which shows exactly where a user’s eyes are focused—reveals that people look at bulleted text, headings, bold text, and hyperlinks. Therefore, Schade said, “a wall of text is not a good way to relay information.”
Remedy: Write copy so that it’s easy for people to find information when they’re scanning, not reading. “Chunk it,” she said.

Mistake 2: Reflecting your priorities rather than the user’s
You want to increase membership, encourage participation, drive conference registration, and get users to stay at your site. Users want clearly stated benefits, useful information, the answer to the question they have at the moment, and to get in and get out.
Remedy: Balance the two sets of priorities. Schade showed a Web site with compelling “industry news” headlines. But clicking on a headline brought up a log-in window. “It’s OK to require users to log-in, but don’t do it right away,” she said. “The user doesn’t know yet if your organization or your site is worth it. Give them something, then ask for the log-in.”

Mistake 3: Ignoring user’s top questions
Organizations often assume everyone knows who they are and what they do. Don’t believe it. Schade’s research revealed that 53 percent of nonprofit home pages do not offer basic information about what the nonprofit does. This can cause them to lose potential donors, members, or conference registrants who come to the site and can’t easily figure out the group’s purpose.
Remedy: Put a clear and concise mission statement on your home page. Show your expertise. Clearly state the benefits of membership or conference attendance and make it easy for users to identify themselves as a certain type of member or attendee.

Mistake 4: Ignoring Web standards
Don’t innovate for the sake of innovating. People expect to see a search window in the upper right corner of your site, for example. Don’t hide it somewhere else.
Remedy: You can innovate intelligently. If it’s a new design and it’s usable, it will become a convention. Web standards are changing all the time.

Mistake 5: Using the wrong images
“I saw a lot of stock art out there,” Schade said, as the audience chuckled in recognition of a common practice. Images that don’t get attention are those that are: generic, boring, not related to content, or look like ads.
Remedy: Images that do get attention are related to content, clear, appropriately sized, and of approachable, “real” people or actual association members.

Mistake 6: Taking control away from the user
Tops in this category: the home-page carousel, a revolving set of images and headlines whose movement is automatic.
Remedy: Use a carousel that rotates through several images and stories, but show all the headlines alongside those images as they scroll, so the user can select any one of them at any time.

Mistake 7: Making content look like ads
Why is this a problem? “Banner blindness,” Schade explained, which is the tendency for users to ignore anything that looks like an ad. She showed an almost unbelievable user-testing video, where the subject was at a major bank’s Web site trying to find a tool that would help him calculate how to save for a home improvement project.

Dead center, taking up a third of the home page, was just the tool he needed. But it was highly designed and included a smiling young female model. Although he scrolled up and down that home page for minutes, he never “saw” the tool. The user-testing facilitator ultimately had him stop scrolling and clicking and just look at the home page, and at that point he finally saw the huge sentence “I want to save for” and the drop-down menu that included “home improvement.”
Remedy: Don’t over-design your content, and don’t mix your own content blocks with advertising blocks or it might be overlooked.

Mistake 8: Overwhelming users with options
According to Schade, this is common on membership pages: There are too many links and too many choices.
Remedy: Believe it or not, the U.S. government is a model of simplicity at its home page. “If they can do it for the entire U.S. government, there is hope for you,” Schade quipped.

Mistake 9: Leading users on a wild goose chase
How often are your users clicking on the same word in different places but getting no closer to their goal?
Remedy: It’s not the quantity of clicks, it’s the quality. In Schade’s view, a design goal such as, “users will never have to make more than three clicks from the home page,” is pointless. Your goal should be to offer some kind of value or fine-tuning with each click.

And while she was on the subject of clicks, Schade said users should always be clicking on something descriptive, never on “click here” or “more.” And don’t have your content open in a new browser window, which “breaks the back button” and prevents users from returning to where they were. “Go through some key paths on your site,” she said, “to find out where and why users are dropping off.”

Mistake 10: Thinking your full site looks fine on mobile devices.
It doesn’t.
Remedy: The mobile version of your site should have less information and fewer options. “Choose appropriate content. Mobile users are killing time, looking for a specific answer, or engaged in time- or location-based activities,” Schade said. Keep that in mind when creating your mobile design.

For free usability tips, visit http://www.useit.com.