A UX Case Study: A Deep Dive into User Research for Non-Profits — How to Build Rapport with Users to Earn their Time and Donations

Richard N Sarmiento
7 min readFeb 10, 2021


All non-profits typically ask for the same two things from its target audience. Those two things are time and money.

Our most precious asset is time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. It gets spent whether you like it or not. The young are all told by those older and wiser to spend their time wisely. Its interesting to see how working individuals will spend their left-over time with those who matter most.

On the flip side, most individuals sacrifice time to make money. Trading hours for dollars is a necessity for survival in society. According to Dali Lama when he was asked what the one thing that surprised him the most about humanity, he replied…

Man! Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.

Why do I bring this up? These are the two things being asked for by non-profits. They ask us to sacrifice our time and money. It may be for a good cause but my next question is:

How do non-profits build TRUST to EARN our time and money?

That, detective, is the right question.

In this case study, I dive in to one non-profit’s website, EmbraceRelief.com, to see if its user experience establishes trust with its users enough to earn donations of time and money.

Assumption: Bad user experience results in decrease in donations.

To confirm my assumption, I conducted the following on the website’s usability:

  • Heuristics Evaluation
  • WCAG 2.0 Checklist
  • Usability Testing with Users

Heuristics Evaluation:

This evaluation is based on the ten heuristic principles created by Jakob Nielsen. I personally reviewed the website in its entirety. On a superficial level, the website initially looks familiar with navigation elements being placed where the average user would expect. However, after using the website and clicking on several links, the navigation does not remain consistent. Within every page, the user is greeted with appealing moving pictures like a slide show, sometimes two rows of these slide shows. These moving pictures serve a dual purpose. They contain relevant information with “learn more” links or access to forms to sign up. If I was to describe my experience looking for key information, it was like playing a game of roulette waiting for the timed slide show to land on the correct picture so I could click on the link to more information. Some of these slide shows had dots below the image and others had arrows. Some arrows were visually different on other pages.

Nothing seemed to be consistent. Word choice in the navigation bar was confusing. Some tabs had drop down options while others did not. The drop down options were the same color as the background so it was difficult to see the container of links. Each tab led down its own rabbit hole. There was no options to side-step to Embrace Relief’s other offerings. If I was under the “Education” tab for donating money, there was no links or ways for the user to learn about “building libraries” to volunteer which is only found under “Group fundraising”.

“Our Work” is somewhat vague. “Education” could be similar to “Children”. “Health” is also very vague.

The further and deeper I went, the older dated web design began to reveal itself. It was like revealing old wallpaper underneath poorly applied coat of paint.

When I struggled to find key information, I spotted the search option in the top right. I clicked on the icon of a magnifying glass. Nothing happened. I tried hovering over it. Nothing. Then I realized it only appears when the browser window is opened in full-screen. While figuring out how to find and use the search feature was difficult, actually using it to search keywords produced lackluster results. The search results felt dated or suggested a blog post which was not helpful.

In order to use the search function, the window needs to be in full-screen, the mouse then hovers over icon, search bar (which is same color as background) appears, click on search to begin typing keyword.

Needless to say, there are some severe usability issues that need to be addressed on the website based on my own usage.

WCAG 2.0 Checklist:

This is an accessibility checklist to identify the inclusivity of users who may have disabilities. I used the checklist to see if the website met the lowest passing standard of level A. Only 7 out of 25 guidelines were met on the checklist. The website needs to be completely reworked to meet the bare minimum requirements.

Usability Testing:

  • 5 Participants with intermediate internet browsing experience
  • 2 Tasks: Find how many libraries were built, and Find/Fill out the form to start a project to build a library
  • Scenario: Your best friend asks you to help build a library with her for her birthday. You’re skeptical so you seek more information.

From my observations of all five users, I created a persona that encompasses their skill level with technology and online search ability.

Meet Dusty. He works as a career recruiter and he relies heavily on the internet for work.

With the established persona, I created a storyboard that paints the journey of the user encountering some major obstacles and frustrations.

Observations: The number of times the user expressed frustration was directly correlated to the number of errors made with each user. The average number of errors made was 10.2 which is high. Good usability is when a user can complete a task in 2–3 clicks. Only 1 out of 5 users managed to complete all tasks. The task to find how many libraries was built was specifically chosen because it could only be found on one of the moving slides under “Group Fundraising”. My users did not click on “Group Fundraising” until it was the last place they haven’t searched. Even then, the user had to wait or manually advance the moving slide to rotate it to see “library” appear. By this point, every user just about gave up. The one user who succeeded happened to see the “library” slide by chance.

In the post-survey, I asked my users “how likely are you to donate to this non-profit after this experience?”

  • Never = 1 user
  • Unlikely = 2 users
  • Neutral = 2 users
  • Likely = 0 users
  • Definitely = 0 users

These answers are revealing as to how their bad user experience affected their likelihood to donate. Seeing on the pages of the different projects showing ZERO completed raised a few eyebrows for my users. Difficulty to find relevant information while also finding contradicting information loses the user’s trust. Therefore, my assumption is validated.

Recommendations to Improve:

Uniformity. The entire website needs to be the same with easy to find relevant/significant information. Better labeling for the navigation bar needs to be implemented. Cross-information within the tabs that can be related to other offerings. For example, while searching within “education” there could be information about how many books were donated to libraries, which can then segue to how the user can help build libraries.

The revolving slide show on each page needs to be replaced with stationary content since each slide contained significant information. FAQs need to be easily accessible. Finding the correct form to fill out or the right department to submit donations to needs to be consolidated. There are too many different forms located on different tabs. Each form should not require a different user flow.

Search. The ability to perform a search can be critical for users to take action towards the desired outcome. Users search when they need answers. It just needs to work and provide results that are relevant.

Conclusion: Give the user a great user experience by saving his/her time and preventing headaches with simple access to relevant content. Easier navigation combined with ease of access to relevant information builds rapport with the user which leads to increased likelihood of donations.



Richard N Sarmiento

I am a photographer, a techie, and a UX designer who values imagination, innovation, and thoughtfulness in everyday life.