What I Said At Google Today
I dropped the room into a nonprofit and it wasn’t pretty.
I said 'What's the point? Where do you go? How do you feel?
We were looking at a picture of an organization I’ve worked with. It was a picture of their case management room.
The walls were all the same drab color. The desks all looked the same. The floor almost matched the walls. Chairs were turned away from you so you could only see their backs.
I picked the room for how typical it was.
We were looking from the perspective of a client walking into the room. The picture was snapped from where their eyes would be so we were seeing what they see.
And the room gave no answers to our questions.
Nothing spoke to you about the room’s purpose. Or about what you need to do when you get there. Or how you should feel (unless you were supposed to be confused and kind of melancholy).
We were talking about how user experience (UX) design principles from technology can be applied to the design of nonprofit physical spaces. And I said there was no better place to be having this conversation.
Remember, we were at Google.
Google offices elicit responses in us. They tell us where we are, cue us to feel a certain way, amaze us, and walk us through our journey.
They are experiences and we are their users.
It’s always easy to remember the role of design in physical spaces when we’re in these grandiose places.
But it’s also easy to chicken out and use trump cards.
Sure, Google elicits. They have billions of dollars.
It’s sort of a cheap shot but the people who work at Google have a lot going for them - compensation, prestige, accomplishment, purpose, etc. - and yet they are still the recipients of a physical space that celebrates and empowers them. That’s because Google knows, that in order to get these people to accomplish truly challenging tasks, they have to be in a built environment that supports and enables them to achieve.
Their baseline is all of these great things and they still get a space that gives them a helping hand.
The nonprofit challenge is not in trying to compete with Google. It’s in remembering that all spaces elicit reactions, and accepting that it’s our responsibility to make sure our spaces do what they need to do.
The folks who’ve walked through the doors of the organizations I’ve worked with typically face some combination of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, addictions, stigma, lack of education, criminal backgrounds, mental health challenges, trauma, and health conditions.
There are no blank slates.
All of that gets brought into our spaces. And that means we either recognize that and design our environments to receive it and redirect it in a positive direction, or we ignore it and start even further behind than we should.
Sadly, we say to clients:
I know you're going through a lot, but we're also going to need you to deal with our chaos, feel uninspired, and be overburdened with information
It’s like they’re walking into the nonprofit equivalent of a website like this:
Now, look at this screenshot of the homepage for Medium and ask yourself the same questions we asked of the nonprofit space.
What's the point?
Where do you go?
How do you feel?
The answers are all there.
We easily understand the point of the site. And that beautifully simple green button makes it perfectly clear where we go next. Even if it was written in another language, you’d know to click there.
And, wonderfully - that’s how the site makes me feel. What could be more wonderful than a fire pit on the beach just after sunset?
It’s important to remember that Medium could design this webpage any way they want. And the simplicity is not for a lack of things they need to accomplish.
They have thousands of great articles they could showcase. They have a sign-up process. They have to figure out the content you like. They need to show you where to write articles. Like a nonprofit trying to get a person on a program, they have a lot to get done.
But they do something incredibly smart: they slow the process down. They admit to themselves that their users - which include a lot of entrepreneurs, creatives, etc. - are often quite stressed out, and come across loads of content and are forced to make complex decisions every day.
What they need is not more of the same.
The site needs to receive their stresses, set a new mood, eliminate confusion and the need for decisionmaking, and ease a person into a new experience.
In what ways does your nonprofit space do that?
And, more importantly, in what ways could it?
The principles of UX design, which I’ll dig into more in subsequent posts, are not magical. They’re simple, nuanced efforts to help people accomplish things.
And while they won’t solve everything, they do provide a frame to go from simply seeing a room, to seeing an experience.