Note from Beth: In preparation for my book launch, I hired Rad Campaign to do a redesign of my blog. Aside from changing the color scheme to match the new book cover, I was ready to invest in “going mobile.” After watching the percentage of mobile and tablet readers grow from 5% in 2010 to 17% in 2012 and receiving more than a few emails from loyal readers telling me that my blog was practically unreadable on their mobile device, I was ready to take the plunge into a mobile strategy. What I needed was responsive web design code that helps websites recognize what browser and device someone was using and serve up a version of the site that was readable and easily to navigate on that device.
Recently, I got into a discussion with several other nonprofit tech consultants about guidelines for nonprofits to embrace a mobile strategy and specifically what to recommend. I thought the conversation was definitely worth a blog post to share with a wider audience and Heidi Massey agreed to write a guest post.
Apps, Responsive Design, or Both: Some Important Guidelines for Going Mobile for Nonprofitrs – Guest Post by Heidi Massey
Nonprofit organizations are under the gun to keep up with current technology. Social media. Analytics. Websites. Data. However, many organizations are working with very limited financial resources, particularly when it comes to technology. This requires organizations to set priorities in how they will spend their technology dollars. Often, organizations have a limited understanding of technology, which makes setting priorities more than challenging. A recent conversation with nonprofit tech colleagues in a Facebook group provided just the kind of information that nonprofits need to make those kinds of decisions.
Farra Trompeter started the conversation by asking how people felt about nonprofit organizations creating applications. As someone who lives in Chicago, I was very interested in this topic. We have a very active open data movement here and the city has made huge amounts of data now open to the public. However, the data is overwhelming and not always very useful in its current format. By creating applications utilizing this data, it becomes more useful to the community. So to me, it seemed clear that nonprofits should be embarking on app development, utilizing this open data.
At first, I was surprised as one person after another responded to Farra by saying that nonprofits needed to work on responsive web design before moving on to app development. I hadn’t thought about whether app development might drain important financial resources that are needed for more basic technology. Many nonprofits are still struggling to create quality websites that provide visitors with positive experiences and effectively tell organization stories. With the growing number of people accessing websites, email, blogs and more via mobile devices and tablets, sites must be equally easy to navigate, regardless of how visitors get there. If this isn’t the case, visitors will leave the site. Although an app may be a valuable tool, the website is probably a higher priority for most organizations.
The conversation then switched back and forth between when a nonprofit should consider working on responsive web design and what kinds of apps a nonprofit should consider creating. Sometimes, when a nonprofit organization is considering app development, it is just to convey information, which could be done effectively through a mobile site. This makes the information easily accessible for users on the go, without the added expense of an app.
But how does an organization decide if it is time to move to a responsive design site? General consensus in the thread seemed to suggest that when somewhere around 20% of traffic is coming from mobile devices, it is time to update for mobile users. A number of participants said that they saw a steady uptick in the trajectory of mobile users over the past few years. Several people also suggested that input from site visitors, such as complaints about difficulty accessing the site via a mobile device, should also be considered when making the decision to update the site. I would also add that organizations that are either building their first site or considering a rebuild of their site, should include responsive design. It doe not add significantly or even at all to the cost of the project and will avoid much more expensive changes later on.
If an organization is ready to build an app, it is important to remember that the app should focus on a specific task that helps the user. Unless an app makes a person’s life easier or better, the app won’t be used. To be certain that this is what will be accomplished, a nonprofit should clearly determine its goals for a project before embarking on the development of an app. If it is mission based and serves the needs of the audience, then an app might be a worthwhile solution.
For me, this Facebook conversation was an extraordinary learning experience. Although I knew about mobile compatible sites, I had never heard of responsive design. And as someone who is very involved with nonprofits and technology, it was a great reminder to consider the goals that an organization is trying to achieve before determining the solution. There is always a shiny object in the world of technology. It is very easy to be distracted by the latest and greatest. But this can easily lead to utilizing resources in ways that are not necessary, and more important, perhaps do not provide the best solution.
Special thanks to Nancy E. Schwartz, Chris Tuttle, Jereme Bivins, Kami Watson Huyse, Beth Kanter, Michael DeLong, Sue Anne Reed, and Claire Murray for participating in the Facebook conversation which provided the background for this post and Danny Brown and David Svet for providing supplemental information.
Heidi Massey is Chief Connector at Community Connective and lives at the juncture of nonprofits and technology. She is the founder of Chicago Counts, an initiative to help organizations in Greater Chicago learn more about technology and create meaningful connections with others in the sector.