Jason Unger discusses nonprofit website design on the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast

Episode aired March 30, 2022: Website design

Jason Unger of Digital Ink has been building websites for a long time. He knows what works for users and moves them to take action- and what doesn’t. In this episode Jason discusses 

  • Website design yes’s and no’s
  • What causes website users to become turned off
  • Designing calls-to-action that convert
  • Desktop vs. mobile site and   
  • How design can help your storytelling efforts on your site.        

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a digital, website and marketing smartie, Jason Unger. Jason, how you doing today.

Jason: Hi Ephraim. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Ephraim: My pleasure. Let’s introduce Jason to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Jason Unger is the founder of Digital Ink, a creative and digital team providing website design, graphic design and website development to forward-thinking businesses, mission-driven organizations and marketing and technology agencies. Jason has a degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University, is a founding member of the WordPress DC Meetup Group and hosts a weekly video series, Junger Explains It All. He also has an epic head of hair.

Website Design Do’s And Don’t’s

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss website design. Let’s dive right in. Jason, starting with the basics, please tell me four website design yes’s- you absolutely must do this to keep a user’s interest and two no’s, don’t do this or users will bounce from your site.

Jason: Great question and I have like a huge soapbox, so I will try and keep it just to four do’s and two don’ts, but obviously we’ll dig in if we need to. One of the big things that we always are talking to our clients about is the goal of the website. What is the purpose of the website? When a user comes to your website, what are they trying to do? It’s so easy for us as marketers to kind of say hey, here’s all the messages that we want to get across to our entire community. The website is about action. It’s about the goal. You need to make sure that your website is helping your users do what they want to do. So really think about that and everything that you do, what is the goal of the website.

Number two I say the website has to be visually interesting, right? Obviously design is a huge aspect and we’re always thinking like what are trendy designs, what kind of forward thinking in terms of design. But just fundamentally, you have to keep the user’s eyes interested in the page. You can’t just have huge blocks of text that no one’s ever gonna read. You have to make things scannable. You have to add the right kind of imagery to draw attention. The site has to be visually interesting where as a user, I wanna continue looking at the site and not just get distracted  by whatever else is going on.

Number three like you said, I have a degree in journalism. I think language is incredibly important on a website. You have to keep it simple. You have to use words that people understand and this isn’t necessarily a design aspect of everything but if your language is not connecting with your users, they’re not going to know what’s going on. They’re going to get confused. They’re going to go do something else. You have so much you time with them. If you don’t take advantage of that or you make things more complicated than necessary, then they’re going to be gone.

The fourth thing, building and piggybacking off that, the complicatedness, just be decisive. Be clear. Make sure that people understand exactly what you’re asking or what they’re supposed to do. You don’t want to confuse things. You don’t want to give any reason to click away and go do something else. Those are kind of the big four things I would say that you have to be doing.

The things that you shouldn’t do. Number one and I maybe sound a little crass but I say to people all the time, don’t assume that anyone cares about what you’re doing, right? Everyone’s got their own life. They have a lot of things that they have to deal with. If you’re a mission driven organization, if you’re a nonprofit, obviously you have a cause that you really want to get people to care about. You should not assume that they are going to care as much as you do, especially when it comes to your website. Maybe you’ve spent a lot of time designing it, building it out, creating all this content for it. Everyone’s got everything else going on in their lives. Don’t assume that anyone cares. You have to make sure that you are helping them achieve their goal once they come to the website.

The other thing I would say that you should not do is don’t always have your marketing head on. We talk about these marketing messages that we want to get across. The user doesn’t care about that, right? The user cares about what their goals, what they need to do. You always have to be thinking about the users. You have to talk like your users, you have to make sure that you are doing things so that a user knows what to do and they’re able to do everything. If you’ve got that marketing hat all the time, you never put your user hat on and you never really think about okay, how would actual people interact with my website. So be sure you kind of switch between that marketing role and the user role before you put something live.

Design Elements To Avoid

Ephraim: That is a fantastic list and we’ll actually piggyback right now on one of the things, one of the reviews that you talked about. What design elements or concepts do you see on nonprofit websites that cause you as a user and maybe even a potential donor to cringe and why?

Jason: Great question. I absolutely hate cheesy stock photography and just generally terrible photography. I mean we’re in a day and age where everybody’s got an iPhone. They can take high quality photos. If you’re in the nonprofit world, if you’re in the mission driven world, you’ve got to have great media assets that you can use to tell your story. There’s no reason to have really bad stock photography, people shaking hands or whatever low quality images that you took on a Polaroid in 1978 or whatever. Make sure that you actually have good photography and good imagery that you can use.

Overstuffed messaging is also kind of one of those things that just bothers the heck out of me, when it’s not clear exactly to me as a user what am I supposed to be doing. I’ve got kind of all these different competing messaging on the site. Don’t do that. Make sure that you’re very clear exactly with your messages and what people are supposed to do.

Then the third thing I would say probably is when it’s clear that the website is out of date, nobody’s really taking responsibility for the content on the site or maybe a section on the site it’s obvious that it’s not getting as much love as it should. So always make sure that you’ve got somebody who’s really taking responsibility to make sure that the content is updated, that the site is updated and everything is clear and concise and useful.

Tips For Creating CTAs That Work

Ephraim: That third one is critical, crucial for users. Today’s actionable item: Calls to action, CTAs, are crucial to the success of any website. Sign up, download, register, volunteer, donate, subscribe. Please share with us three to four tips for designing and creating calls to action that convert.

Jason: Absolutely and I know Ephraim this is one of your big things. Your CTAs have to be simple, right? It should not be complicated. It should be click this button, fill out one or two form fields, don’t over complicate it. We don’t want to make the barrier to entry more difficult than necessary. Friction I believe is the word. We want to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for people to do things.

I would say also again, don’t muddy the waters. Have one call to action. Don’t have two buttons. A lot of times we see on a donate page, it’s like okay, we’ve got the donate form but maybe we’ve got other ways to donate. Don’t make those people wait on a page where somebody doesn’t know exactly what do I do. If you want to provide more ways to donate, great. You’ve got your big donate call to action and then maybe underneath of it you say hey, here’s some other ways to donate if you’re interested in sending in a check or stock or whatever else it is. Make sure that it’s clear to the user exactly what they should be doing. Don’t give them more options than necessary because the more options you give them, the more opportunity for them to get lost.

And then again going back to language, make it clear exactly what the person is doing and what they’re going to get in return. If it’s making a donation, if it’s downloading a white paper, if it’s signing up for a newsletter or a webinar or whatever it is, make it clear and obvious what they’re doing and what they’re going to get in return.

Designing Mobile Websites

Ephraim: Excellent. So let’s take your website skills and let’s talk mobile for a second. Is a mobile site just a mirror of the regular site or are there design elements an organization has to look at when reviewing their mobile site so that it’s working properly?

Jason: Great question. The most important thing about a mobile safety space is it has to be usable. I mean we think about our devices that we are carrying around in our pockets that access those mobile sites and it’s easier than ever to do a mobile optimized version of your site. You don’t have to have two different versions of the site. You can just have one that’s mobile responsive and that’s what you should have. But mobile sites are really about action. It’s about I’m looking for a piece of information. I’m clicking a link, I’m sending a message. These are things that you have to be able to do and I mean I don’t know, I always talk about ‘fat finger syndrome’- you have to be able to have your phone, have your website press the button to do whatever you need to do. If you can’t do that, then your mobile site is failing. You really need to optimize your mobile site for whatever that action is and not for like in the scrolling of content.

Now obviously if you’re on Twitter, if you’re on Facebook or other social media, maybe you’re just wasting time and you’re kind of scrolling through things and that’s fine. But if you’re a nonprofit website where the goal is hey, we want to get somebody to donate now or we want to get somebody to sign up for our newsletter or event or whatever it is, make it incredibly easy for them to take action on their mobile device.

Ephraim: Just as a quick follow-up question. Do you advise your nonprofit clients that the mobile site should look as much as possible as the desktop site?  

Jason: It’s a really good question. We don’t want people to think that they’re two different sites. So as much as possible, definitely in terms of the branding, in terms of the overall flow of everything, I wouldn’t necessarily say it has to be pixel perfect with the desktop site but the way that mobile responsive design is now is that you’ve got your desktop site and kind of the item shipped around to kind of be the optimized mobile version of everything. So you don’t want to confuse the user and think that maybe they’ve gone to the wrong website when they pull it up on their phone. But know it doesn’t have to be exactly the same. As long as there’s that consistency in the user experience where they say okay, I’m just looking at the mobile version of the nonprofit’s website, that’s the most important thing.

Design And Storytelling

Ephraim: Perfect. On the home page of your website, it asks what’s your story. Storytelling is central to a nonprofit’s fundraising and marketing efforts and that of course includes their website. We can write great stories but design is just as important in getting people to read and react. What design components would you suggest adding or incorporating into an organization’s storytelling on their website? 

Jason: Yeah, great question. Storytelling really is all about kind of the narrative structure and that’s what we talk about when we build out visually interesting pages on our nonprofit partners website. There has to be a clear kind of beginning, middle and end and design has to take the user on that journey. 

But again, users don’t have the attention span for kind of this endless exposition and kind of like the long build up, the climax. They’re constantly distracted by 17 other things. So when you’re thinking about the storytelling on your website, start with a splash, move the story along, show them what you’re talking about with images or statistics or video if you’ve got and at no point should you assume that you have their attention locked in. You’ve got to keep them moving along. The right design can help that storytelling move along by keeping them engaged and making sure that they’re not distracted by something else.

Let’s Learn More About Jason

Ephraim: Perfect. Lightning round time. Let’s learn more about you. What got you started on your business career path?  

Jason: It’s a really great question. My parents always joked that they were two government employees who had government jobs for many years and all of a sudden their son became the business owner who started doing things.

I grew up at a great time in the mid-90s when website design and the ability to kind of publish a website by yourself became available to everybody. I always say, you can read on our website, I started my website on GeoCities in my parents basement and it really was just an opportunity to learn something new and have some fun and talk about things that I enjoyed. The great thing about that time of my life and kind of in the development of the Internet was that there wasn’t a class, there weren’t too many books about how to do all this stuff. You actually had to figure it out, right? You could build something or you could see how someone else did something and kind of emulate that. That’s what’s so great about the Internet.

I mean everybody jokes if you don’t know the answer to something, you just google it but like that’s really what you do right? Especially in our world, in web design and development. Stack Overflow is a great website that has a lot of stuff, w3school was one of  the classic things that says hey, here’s how HTML and CSS work. If there’s ever any question about how to do something, you can find the answer to it. It really just takes you saying okay, here’s what my problem is, here’s how I think I can approach this, let me go see if the answer is out there and see what I can do. So starting off with building websites  in the mid 90s on GeoCities.

I got a broadcast journalism degree at Boston University and worked in the magazine world for a little bit but then really kind of took over everything digital and here we are today. Digital Ink has been around for nine years at this point. So yeah, we’re having a good time getting to do what we love.

Ephraim: Excellent. You and your company Digital Ink work with many nonprofits. If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Jason: That’s a really good question and a lot of it ties together with what we’ve talked about before with muddying the waters.

There’s so many stakeholders involved in every nonprofit project and we obviously work with businesses too and work with government and government kind of has the same issues that nonprofits do. But like everybody thinks that their thing is the most important thing and one of the things that I find marketing managers and CMOs having to deal with the most is trying to say, this is the most important thing that we’re focusing on, on our website, on our campaigns, on our social media and it’s tough to say you know what? I know that your department is working on something very important right now. We have to focus on this. So there’s always a lot of opinions and when there’s a lot of opinions, it really makes something where nobody’s really happy with the results in the end.

So if I had my druthers and obviously we’re for-profit business so we get to make decisions without too much kind of input from other people if necessary, but I always try and tell our marketing partners at nonprofits and mission-driven organizations, you have to make tough decisions, right? And sometimes someone’s getting mad at you because you’re saying hey, their thing’s not as important as they think it is. But especially on a website. We’re talking about a goal driven website. Users are coming to it for one specific reason. You have to make sure it’s clear. You can’t have too many messages on there. You have to say, this is what we’re focused on and  not that your thing’s not important but we want to make sure that this is the story that we’re telling. These are the goals that we’re hoping to enable and we’ll make sure we do what we can to tell the entire story as well.

Ephraim: That’s a good answer.

Jason: Thank you.

Ephraim: I’m a big fan of that one. I’m a sports fanatic. What was Hyper Baseball?

Jason: I love this. Okay. So like I said, I started working on websites from GeoCities in the mid-90s and I grew up in Maryland, so I’m a big Baltimore Orioles fan. My first website was just an Orioles fan page, as many of these sites used to be, but Hyper Baseball was kind of like my first foray into kind of like a bigger publication. I had a designer, I had a developer who built out the whole website. I got authors and basically we’re just talking about baseball. I mean we’re all fans and we’re talking about our favorite teams. We actually did some player interviews at the time. We had some funny pieces of content. We had some user generated content. We had a big message board.

At one point, Hyper Baseball was really just kind of the first foray I guess into a big online publishing thing that I did and it was great. I really enjoyed it. Again, the fact that you could just build something and you didn’t have to wait for approval on things, you could just figure it out as you go and you could constantly change your site and expand. I love that. I mean one of my favorite quotes, “your website is like a work of art.  It’s never finished, only abandoned” which I kind of stole from Leonardo da Vinci. It’s the idea that you have something but you can’t just throw it up online and just assume it’s done. I mean it’s never done. You’re constantly growing. You’re constantly working on it to add new things and Hyper Baseball really kind of started that off for me, where I was able to really learn, grow, build and have a lot of fun doing it. 

Ephraim: Awesome. Let’s follow up on a little bit about baseball and sports. One hobby or activity you enjoy most people don’t know you’ve taken up?

Jason: Interesting. That’s a good question. I guess that’s a good segue. I coach my son’s little league team which is great. He’s in fifth grade right now, so I’ve got a bunch of fifth grade boys who are learning the ropes of baseball but also of being good teammates and playing sports and understanding that some people care, some people care less, some people are more naturally inclined, some people are less. There’s a lot of the kind of teamwork aspect that I really love.

It’s funny because now my daughter’s playing softball and I just recently went to one of her practices and it took like all of my strengths to not start coaching her on the field. I’m just like sitting there watching but yeah, I enjoy that like. Being able to… that sport that I love and have my kids love it as well and to be able to just get out there and have a good time is something I really enjoy.

Ephraim: Cool. Take Hyper Baseball out of this. You’ve been building websites for the last 26 years. What’s the coolest non-work related site that you’ve built?

Jason: I had a project that I was working on for many years and it’s still live today. You can go find it. I actually wrote an ebook called Automatic Finances and really what that was is about the intersection of money and technology. A lot of it has to do with when banks started to go online and you could start to manage your money online as opposed to going into the branch. I found that world very fascinating and the technology of doing things like aggregating all of your accounts.

So if you’ve got your checking account, your savings accounts, your 401k accounts, whatever else you have, having one place where you can see hey, here’s my entire financial picture. Fintech which is really kind of what they call everything right now. I find that  fascinating. I haven’t really gotten into kind of the crypto and the kind of other newer parts of finances right now but really kind of the online savings, the money management, the kind of financial tools that have been created over the past 15 years, I find it endlessly fascinating. I read a blog… you can see it it’s still up there. There’s a lot of good content. The ebook’s a little bit outdated but obviously there’s a lot of good information in there and it’s something that I’ve always just been fascinated by and it’s cool to see how that industry is being changed so much by technology.

Ephraim: Nice. I’m gonna go check it out when we’re done. Finally, let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Jason: Okay, cool. I was thinking about this because I felt like I had to have a good question for you Ephraim and I mean obviously you’re doing a lot of things, you work with a lot of nonprofits, you write a lot of ebooks and create a lot of other content and obviously 1832 is very impactful. Tell me what do you… what brings you joy and I don’t even mean from like the Marie Condo perspective. I mean like in all the things that you do working with clients, putting together content, presenting, what makes you happy? Like when something happens, where you’re like okay, here we go. This is why I do that. What brings you joy?  

Ephraim: I think- and this is going to sound very cliché- it’s seeing that the client succeeds. That I told them here’s the strategy, here’s what to do, we had a back and forth, it’s been agreed on and then they go out and they can implement it successfully and then I can get back in and just watch them fly. That makes me happy. I very much appreciate and enjoy being in the background, not in the foreground and being the behind the scenes person who moves pieces and can get things in order where they belong and then I’m still around, I’m here to help whenever you need it but I love to see when clients can fly in their own and they’re being successful and taking what we worked on and then they’re building and that for me, that brings me a lot of joy. Yes it’s great because then it’s a positive testimonial and a recommendation for my business, but from a personal perspective, I enjoy seeing them fly, let’s put it that way.

Jason: That’s awesome. I love that.

 Ephraim: That’s what I like. Jason, thank you very very much…it’s ten o’clock in the morning so it’s not that early… thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to A) connect with Jason on LinkedIn B) learn more about Digital Ink on their website and the work they do specifically with nonprofits. I can tell you that I know of the good work they’re doing, so check them out online. Jason, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thanks so much.

Jason: Thanks for having me Ephraim.

Ephraim: Have a good day.

Jason: You too.