A flow to create clear, concise, and friendly content

In the nonprofit world, we can forget that we are writing and designing for real people. I get it. It is hard to write motivationally about a project when all around you there is “pressing need”.  This tension surfaced during a pivot toward clearer language on New York Cares’ website.

The high level problem:

Crucial motivational language on the New York Cares website was not easy to understand.


The page with projects open to volunteers receives the majority of traffic to New York Care’s site. This is no surprise; structured volunteering is what the organization is all about.
The organization facilitates volunteering at scale. It matches more than 50,000 volunteers each year with opportunities across New York City, all via the website.
Usability testing showed that, when browsing for projects, users spent little time browsing abbreviated descriptions. They clicked through to enlarged descriptions. Who could blame them? A combination of poor design and poor content left the short project descriptions with low information scent. This skipping though significantly slowed down browsing, and in turn decreased overall exposure to projects.
Browsing was considerably less from mobile devices than from desktop. This is a missed opportunity, given New York Cares' age 18-30 urban demographic.

Design and content changes

Phase 1 Immediate and low-engineering-cost design changes

1. For scannability: type in upper and lower case; regular, not bold font;  remove the underlined hyperlink. For screen real estate: move the ‘signup’ button to top bar on mobile.

These were surface fixes. The next step was to address improving content at scale. This meant evaluating what language might resonate with volunteer motivations.

Phase 2 Establish volunteer motivations

Qualitative research revealed that volunteers often have strongly defined personal reasons for volunteering. These reasons range along a ladder which closely matches Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
During usability testing volunteers clearly ‘skill-matched’ themselves with project.

Appeal to those motivations

Most project descriptions were edited to reflect our knowledge of user motivations. Language became less stilted, more experiential, with an emphasis on surfacing what volunteers would be doing during each project. In some cases, a light touch surfaced. All of this made the descriptions clearer and more human.
Modifying the editorial flow
New York Care follows a decentralized authoring model. This means that lots of folks are writing for the website. Guidelines are in now in place, but an editorial flow with a final check has yet to be put in place.

Phase 3  Summer 2020

Projects that need team leaders are a special case at the organization. Often there is a range of choices involved: what day, time, how often a project happens? Conveying the range of choices is not possible in the current display. This more nuanced display will be released this summer. It relies on informational data (such as why a team leader is needed) that was always gathered but not previously displayed. These screens are part of a new website interface for a specific group of users, which will be released in the summer of 2020.



The future

During Phase 3 I sketched and tested variants of project descriptions. The most successful of these rely on a top bar featuring ‘project traits’. These traits include active words and project outcomes. The combination of this rapidly intuited content and tightly written, mobile-friendly project descriptions resulted in high comprehension. As well I experimented with incorporating photos; this was successful depending on the photo.
Gathering photos would be a big operational lift for the organization as well as for the small nonprofits it supports.


I did not operate solo on this project. I am lucky to work with two developers, a Salesforce guru, a boss who embraces the power of research, and always thinks three steps ahead. As well, a whole bunch of folks who want to make the world a better place, even if it has to be one step at a time.