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day in the life of a charity IA

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Asking about a typical day is always an interesting question to ask in job interviews. All sorts of stuff gets chucked in job descriptions but there’s often no indication of whether that tasks represents something you’ll need to do every day or once a year.

A fairly typical day for me recently went something like this:


Attend our ‘Knowledge cafe’ . This is an informal weekly meeting in a coffee shop with the project managers, business analysts, and knowledge managers. There’s no agenda, just a chance to recharge, share stresses and pass bits of information around. Nice, social and deeply useful.


The rest of the morning is spent doing research, analytics, thinking etc. I might be buried in Google Analytics, auditing competitors, reading up on the technology or messing around with index cards, big bits of paper and a lot of furious hair twirling.


Meeting with content owners. Listening to them and their experiences/knowledge. Sharing IA insights. I used to find these depressingly familiar battles but I’ve tried to reposition them in my head. I’m not going to learn about IA in these meetings but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn about. Showing interest in the subject matter has actually helped make these meetings happier places.


Travelling to suppliers. They’re not too far but other days can involve lengthy treks to other offices.


Developers at the suppliers demo us the last few weeks work. We plan the next two weeks, flesh out user stories. The PM is usually there, often the web manager and accessibility consultant too.

The battle here can be to keep the focus on the important stuff. Making sure we’re working on simple, high value stuff rather than stuffing it full of bells and whistles. Suppliers generally just want to keep client happy, with the least effort. Mostly we have to be the voice of the user here, although occasionally the developers will argue than something isn’t user friendly (especially if it is complicated to develop).


Go home

The big shock for me, coming from a huge UX team at the BBC is there’s no designers involved, UX or otherwise. Visual design was outsourced, the details will be handled by the client side developer. Functional design and usability is the combined responsibility of me, web editors, business analysts and the accessibility consultants.

I produce very little documentation or deliverables.  Maybe a sitemap and some sketches for the content authors to think about. Some mock-ups to talk around, once we know what the site will look like. Mostly I think then talk.

Sometimes I”ll do whole days of each activity. Sit at home doing in-depth research, have all-day content workshops or be all-day on site with the developers. But more often than not days are mixed up like this. Makes me think of the polar bear venn diagram.

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Written by Karen

October 6th, 2009 at 6:41 am

Posted in charity,rnib,work

the charity employee

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Working for a charity is rather different from any of my previous jobs. In spite of having mostly worked for the Queen my current job is the first one that is funded by people voluntarily handing over their cash because they wanted us to help someone else who is in need.

That has a subtle impact on your attitude to spending the organisation’s money. I’ve become more interested in alternatives to conferences, historically one of my more extravagant uses of my employers cash. And on projects it makes me far more focused on value for money…which also helps with maintaining a “more is less” attitude to interface design.

I’m also conscious that I’m a big expenditure for the organisation, so I’m getting  better at saying “I’m paid to make this decision, so you really need to take advantage of my expertise here”.

Written by Karen

August 25th, 2009 at 6:06 am

Posted in charity,work

spotting real opportunities in search logs

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This article is part of a series about search log analysis which includes what people are searching for, bounce rates, and the geographical element.

Some users attention is worth more to you than others. For the most of us, we are not in the raw attention business. We want traffic, we want referrals, we want pageviews but all as a means to an end. E-commerce sites want those users to buy something. Charities want them to donate or campaign or take up a service. Bloggers want them to read their ideas (for all sorts of further reasons).  Lots of sites want you to look at/click on their adverts. The BBC? That one’s a bit trickier. But in general you get the idea.

But that fact sometimes seems to get a bit lost.

Lots of people have got the idea that Google is important. Some are still struggling with it or missing it entirely but mostly people in the industry have got that Google matters. For some reason.

And lots of people are looking at their analytics and recognising that there is gold dust in there.  But as with so many things a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’ve been in lots of conversations and seen lots of reports that jump straight from “metric A is low” to “we must, at all costs, improve metric A”.  If you ask why then they tell you about the importance of Google. With search logs these conversations mostly seem to revolve around poor bounce rates and low referrals for particular terms.

Google brings you that all important attention. But some attention is more important. Some attention represents a good business opportunity and some is a dead-end. Where the cost is minimal then sure, why not maximise attention. But if there is cost involved (and there nearly always is) then you need to be making business decisions about what you are trying to achieve.

I’m trying to think about this in 4 stages:

  1. Attention is only a step. Do you know what you are trying to achieve? If not, put down the metrics and go back to the strategy whiteboard
  2. Look for strong opportunities. Don’t try and succeed with everyone. What can the metrics tell you about these users and how likely they are to help you meet you goals? Not masses  admittedly but more thoughts on this below…
  3. Your users are on a mission. Don’t try and persuade them to help you until you’ve helped them. This is classic seducible moment stuff. You might be unhappy with the bounce rate for a particular page but sticking promotions for other content above the content the user came looking for is only going to increase your bounce rate.
  4. Identify the hook. Given what you know about the users from the metrics (again you don’t have a lot to go on here) you need to think about what actually has a chance of holding their attention. If they are searching for homework help then they are unlikely to be captivated by content about creating a will. All things are possible but this one is unlikely.

So thinking about strong opportunities, I’ve been re-examining our search referral logs.

If the referring keyword explicitly refers to an RNIB service (Soccer Sight, See it Right, Talking Books) then we know we should be meeting these users needs. These are the obvious wins. If the metrics are bad then we probably need to sort this asap.

If the keywords explicitly relate to issues around sight loss then those users represent a good opportunity. We know they care or have some level of motivation to investigate the same issues that the RNIB is trying to promote.

But alot of referring terms are neither RNIB or sight loss specific. Fundraising ideas, excel shortcuts, flash, triathalons could all be from users with no interest in the RNIB’s cause.  They might but we don’t have any evidence. Each of these terms offers a different strength of opportunity.

Fundraising ideas: we can be reasonably sure that the users want ideas about how to fundraise. We can guess that these are people who are inclined to raise money for charities. Seemingly a good opportunity. But why are they searching Google for fundraising ideas. Probably because they have a cause they are trying to raise money for. That probably isn’t us.  So these users may be an opportunity but they’re unlikely to be a quick win.

Excel shortcuts: for some reason these users want information about excel shortcuts and it may have nothing to do with sight loss. Could be RSI or just improved efficiency. They might want other shortcuts and they might have empathy with the difficulties keyboard only users experience. Possible opportunity.

Flash: Very hard to decode this one. It is unlikely to be Flash developers (physicists don’t usually search for physics). The bounce rate is high and fast, so we know they didn’t want the content they ended up with. So we’d have to work out what they wanted and then provide that and then engage them further. Doesn’t seem such a great opportunity.

Triathalons: probably just users thinking about taking part in a triathlon, rather than the money raising potential of a triathlon. But they will probably need or be able to choose to raise money as part of their sporting endeavour. And they may well not have a strong charitable allegiance already. Good opportunity.

And what about Helen Keller? This represents a huge amount of attention for us but does it help us meet any goals? We think (but don’t know) that this traffic is teachers and schoolchildren, probably primary age. They will be thinking about sight loss and the impact on individuals so it should represent a good opportunity. But they are also thinking about cutting and pasting and getting homework done. Kids can be great fundraisers. We want to start life-long relationships. This could be a great opportunity but also a huge challenge. We don’t understand this space enough. And the logs won’t answer these questions, they can only take you so far.  We’ll have to talk to real people.

Next: the geographical element

Written by Karen

April 30th, 2009 at 6:35 am

navigation patterns on charity websites

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We’re moving onto a relaunch of the RNIB website. Work started (and paused) before I joined the RNIB so I’ve inherited a proposed new navigation structure.

To put the proposals in context I’ve been analysing typical navigation and tool bars on 18 charity websites. There seems to be a reasonably typical pattern of one main navigation bar, a secondary navigation bar and a utility toolbar which is often but not always in the footer.

The pattern for each bar is roughly as follows:

Main ‘charity’ bar
About UsGet AdviceLearn AboutDonateGet InvolvedNewsProfessionals resourcesShop

Extra ‘special audiences’ bar
For Children & TeachersMediaJobs

Utility bar
AccessibilityContact UsHelpPrivacyTerms & conditionsSite map Global/associate sites

The terminology on the charity bar is usually tailored to the charity’s main area of activity e.g rather than Get Advice it might be Health Advice. The charity bar also occasionally included a key scheme and a link to local services but these weren’t common enough to make the cut for my pattern.  The special audiences bar is an interesting feature that seemed common on the sites.

(Charities covered: Oxfam, Christian Aid, Amnesty, Save the Children, Action Aid, Guide Dogs, Action for Blind People, Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation, Blood Pressure UK , Help the Aged, Action for Children, Barnados, Mencap, National Autism Society, Leonard Cheshire, Shelter and St Mungos)

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Written by Karen

February 3rd, 2009 at 2:30 pm

not going to the IA Summit

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I first attended the IA Summit in 2004 and I’ve gone every year since. Each time the conference has given me a much needed boost of energy and optimism. So I’m sad not to be going to Memphis.

Timing isn’t good with one project launching and another kicking off in anger. But I would also have struggled to make the business case to my charity employers. We have budget to send staff to conferences but we need to be really really clear about the benefits.

The programme this year looks intriguing as ever but there’s nothing explicitly about my sector (charities), main products (intranet and CRM), technology (SharePoint) or  dominant issue (accessibility). There is a session about Agile and one on Web Standards but they’re the only sessions that my organisation would recognise as being relevant to what I do.

The presentation titles aren’t really very helpful on their own (Evolve or Die? You’re Not Doing It Right? IA Spy School? A House Divided?). I needed the descriptions when I was trying to make the business case!

I’ve got no team to manage anymore so the UX management stream is far less relevant than when  I was at the BBC. I can’t use visual communication methods like comics and lots of IA deliverables wouldn’t be easily re-usable with blind team-members without a lot of effort. Anything too future-facing/web 3.0 is just pie in the sky when you are still trying to get web 1.0 to work for all your users.

The strategic stuff would be applicable, although it is nowhere near as imperitative in a 3000 person organisation compared to a 30000 person one. MetaSearch, Facets of Faceting, and Business Centred Design all sound like sessions I would attend but they’re not enough.

Interestingly, having always worked in not entirely commerical companies, I feel a much greater sense of responsibility for the RNIB’s cash. The money we receive (for the most part) comes from people who wanted to make someone else’s life better, rather expecting to get some benefit in return.

Getting employees re-energised and re-inspired is a legitimate way for charities to use that money… but I feel an obligation to think of ways of achieving the same goal that don’t require me to fly to Memphis.

Written by Karen

January 26th, 2009 at 2:34 pm

non-profit IA

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Whilst I can’t be said to have planned this, it appears I only work for organisations that aren’t really about making money.

I started my career with the Guardian newspaper. We were told at the time that the Guardian was “profit making but not profit driven” although this really refers to the Guardian Media Group as I believe the Guardian itself is ‘loss-making’. The Group is owned by the Scott Trust, a non-profit organisation.

I moved onto the BBC. A public corporation, it is funded by a combination of TV licence fee, commerical activities (BBC Worldwide) and a grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office (for the World Service). It has a Royal Charter and is governed by the BBC Trust. When people join the BBC they are often excited to be working for the public rather than shareholders. They are right that this is lovely. However working out whether you are doing well or not is a lot harder to work out. Hence my struggles with defining a metric for the information architecture of bbc.co.uk.

My latest move is to the RNIB. This much more straight forwardly a charity, the patron is the Queen.

It appears that mostly I work for the Queen.

Written by Karen

August 19th, 2008 at 6:21 am

is Gates better than Mother Theresa?

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Steven Pinker considers the question in The Moral Instinct in the NY Times magazine.

Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye.

Written by Karen

January 28th, 2008 at 4:47 am

Posted in charity