October 2020


5 min

Ethical web design for charities

I was recently invited by the Charity Hour to host a Twitter session on ethical web design. Every Wednesday at 8 pm, people working in or with the charity sector join for a conversation on a chosen topic.

I decided to sum up my tips for ethical web design and debunk a few misconceptions about UX in general. Let’s start with the beginning.

What is ethical web design?

Ethical web design inspires trust and can be the difference between someone engaging with your mission and forgetting you all together. Among other things, it involves:

UX is for everyone

UX is not a fancy piece of technology or rocket-science methodology. This is about designing a website that suits the people your charity is trying to support.

If you look at the contact page for the French association in defence of battered women, you’ll find a list of phone numbers. Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak French to understand what’s wrong with that page.

A phone call isn’t the safest or easiest method for battered women to get help. Call and text history can also be retrieved by an abusive partner or perpetrator.

I am not saying there shouldn’t be phone numbers accessible. I am just saying a woman in need of assistance will probably not going to be able to make that call.

Now, possibly, there is a reason for this team to want people to contact them by phone. Maybe the calls are being traced and recorded and that’s how they manage to signal situations to the police. I don’t know. I’ve not done the user research. But as a charity, you want to make sure you have, because this sort of information will have an impact on your web design.

Why your website needs an update

It might sound disheartening but whatever budget you spent on your website in the past, you will have to spend some more to update it. Your website acts as a shop window. It can’t be the same forever. Not only because your needs may change but also online standards will evolve.

As of September 2020, public sector websites in the UK need to comply with WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards. With 14 million people with disabilities living in the UK (approx. 22% of the population), these laws are important as evidence shows that even in 2020, they cannot use many UK websites because they are not accessible.

In the US, the title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination “on the basis of disability in the activities of public accommodations”. While the law was enacted primarily to focus on obstacles at physical locations, it’s being applied to websites as well.

In October 2019, the Supreme Court handed victory to a blind man who had sued Domino’s over site accessibility. So, whether or not you’re a public sector body, you might want to take this seriously.

Why your website is probably not ethical

Dark patterns are methods used by designers to trick you into doing something you didn’t really want to do. It can be as simple as a missing opt-out link from your emails, reversed check-boxes or ads that look like content.

I sometimes see this on charity websites and the fact that it was not ill-intended does not, unfortunately, make any difference to users. Not knowing any better does not help your reputation as a trustworthy organisation.

Whether your users are potential volunteers, donors, a victim’s friend trying to learn about domestic violence, health professionals or social workers, everybody wants the same thing. They want to find information quickly, easily and get on with their day without having to entangle your website as if it were written in hieroglyphs.

Get help from an expert

You have to consider your end-user. Assuming what your audience needs based on people you met in real life does not replace user research. People who might visit your website are not necessarily those you meet in person. And vice-versa.

I would recommend anyone with a small budget to spend some time looking for the right consultant who can help build a strong digital strategy. Because no matter how small your budget is, you will waste more without a strategy.

A consultant can help you figure out objectives and measures to reach your goals. Once you have this in place, your team can follow up. This can also help them get feedback and improve their digital skills.

And if you really can’t hire a consultant, there are UX freelancers doing pro bono work. UX rescue comes to mind. They’re a volunteer community connecting UX practitioners to organizations in need across the globe.

Request a UX audit

I understand reaching out to a consultant can sound scary because you might be worried to commit to more than you can afford and waste valuable time. Just be specific about your ask.

By requesting a UX audit, you’ll understand where you are in terms of accessibility, as well as usability. It’s not necessarily about starting your website again from scratch.

The price for such a service will vary from one consultant to the next, so don’t be afraid to ask quotes from several people. I would also recommend checking the terms of the audit.

For example, when I work on a UX audit, I don’t just send a PDF to my clients. I schedule a meeting to explain why each point matters and how to fix it on the platform they’re using. Of course, I can fix those things myself with a redesign. But if you can’t afford the redesign, you should still be able to use my audit for your team to implement most of the required changes. It will still be better than doing nothing at all.