Charity user experience – It’s not you, it’s me

Do you know too much?

Most user experience (UX) issues we encounter are due to charities knowing their own organisation too well. Cognitive Psychologist Steven Pinker has a theory that explains why this may be the case:

“The Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it’s like for someone not to know what you know.”

Steven Pinker - The Sense of Style (page 59)

Pinker illustrates this idea using the example of academics, who can find it especially hard to communicate their subject area clearly. This is because they have become such in-depth experts in their fields that they cannot imagine what it’s like to have no understanding of the topic. I use this analogy when I'm teaching my Communicating Insight course because it nicely sums up one of the challenges we often encounter in charity communications.

Here, at BoldLight, we help charities to develop communications aimed at their supporters. One of the most frequent issues that we face in doing this is that internal knowledge has crept into external communications. This can be in the form of internal language and jargon or different departments sectioning off areas of a website that, in the supporter's mind, should be linked.

What can you do about this?

Luckily there are some very handy techniques from the field of User Experience Design that can help in overcoming this problem. One of these techniques is Personas. This involves creating a pen portrait of each type of user and then working out how you will meet the needs of that person. To keep the process manageable, we would typically only develop a few key personas. As a result each is a very stereotyped view aimed at summarising the needs of a range of people. Despite this they are incredibly useful for keeping in mind the ways that your audiences are different from you, and different from each other.

We usually create our initial personas based on user research with a range of supporters and constantly refer back to them when we’re developing ideas through to execution.

Working on personas in a UX workshop

Do your supporters know too much?

Involving people who represent your target audience is particularly useful in areas of innovation, when you are setting out to make a big change or create something new for your organisation. In every project where we’ve carried out user-testing we’ve been able to improve how the end product works based on the active involvement of supporters.

One of the reasons user involvement is such a powerful tool is precisely because it can overcome the Curse of Knowledge. It helps to prevent the charity's internal thinking from creeping into the idea and represents the viewpoint of the novice.

The only caveat with getting users involved is that it can become less useful if they are also too close to the charity. It’s often tempting to get your very engaged (and usually very willing) supporters involved in testing, but they can also suffer from knowing too much. It’s usually better to get people who know you less well, so they can reflect a broader external audience.

The Curse of Knowledge is everywhere, it’s something I think we all struggle with. But when you are working on something aimed at external audiences it is relatively easy to overcome: test, use audience members, put yourself in someone else’s mindset.

PS. If you need a bit of evidence to convince your internal teams of the huge value that user research and testing add, check out our case studies.