With Prosperity Now's Help, Microbusiness-Serving Organization Addresses Outreach Issues

Over the last year and a half, Prosperity Now invested in Northern Initiatives, a microbusiness-serving organization, to help them better understand the client experience and utilize those insights to innovate their services. Northern Initiatives' online portal contained helpful financial tools and resources for clients, but was underutilized.

Together, we explored what it would take to help microbusiness owners navigate around and learn about business finance from the online portal, redesigned the portal with these requirements in mind, and tested a draft version of the new portal with 18 business owners in Northern Initiatives' client base. These user tests revealed that clients generally liked accessing Northern Initiative's resources and coaches through an online portal, but wanted even more guidance on how to find and use the content.

Since reporting on the project, Northern Initiatives revised the online portal and solicited additional feedback from 9 additional clients in a second round of user tests. This blog post shares Northern Initiatives' experience in conducting the user tests and advice to other practitioners that are interested in conducting user tests within their own programs.

What changes did you make to the portal after seeing the results of the first user test?

We made three immediate changes to the portal.

  1. We removed the peer forum - The user tests revealed enough confusion or distaste for a forum that we decided to remove it for now. This may be a feature we add in later. However, in this phase, we want to focus on the content and facilitating customer connections with a coach.
  2. Added a 'Contact a Coach' page - One of our goals for the portal was for customers to have access to tools and a basic understanding of the content we provide to support and grow their businesses. We also wanted them to be able to contact a coach to help implement what they learn in the portal. This feature was lost, so we wanted it to be part of the main navigation. In addition, borrowers had varying preferences on how they wanted to communicate with a coach, so we provided all contact details so that they could choose.
  3. Eliminated multiple menus leading to the same information – Our original design included multiple menus that accessed the same locations on our web portal, which led to navigation confusion for our customers. We eliminated some of these menus to create direct paths to our portal content.

Why did you decide to do a second round of user tests with the updated version of the online portal?

Through the user tests we received a wealth of feedback on what users liked, didn't like and what was missing from the portal. There were some areas that we knew needed to be changed, but didn't have enough information to know the end product. Therefore, we needed to develop a next round of prototypes to test these features. In the second prototype, we primarily focused on the development of a dashboard that users could customize, revision of the initial page to make it easier for first time users to select and work toward a goal, and simplified navigation and organization of content.

What did it take to set up and conduct this round of user tests?

We started by revising the prototype Design Criteria based on the feedback of the first user tests. While we were doing this, we updated the prototype Testing Outline provided by Prosperity Now, which focused on the activities we were testing, minimum prototype functionality, scenarios and prompts to aid in testing, how we would measure success of the activity and follow-up questions. The Design Criteria and prototype Testing Outline helped to frame what we needed to do. Once that was complete, we worked with our portal developer to create a next round of prototypes to test the revisions we heard in the first round. Then user tests were conducted with nine people in-person.

What did you learn from the user tests? What was the most surprising finding?

It was very interesting to watch users interact with the portal. What did they click? What words did they react to? What content did they prefer? Everyone had strong opinions. Upon logging in, users first had the ability to either work toward a goal or browse all resources. Almost everyone selected a goal and did not see the browse button. They were able to find a goal they wanted to work on, so that was positive. However, when they wanted to work on a new goal, they were confused. They figured the home button would bring them back to the original screen. Instead, it brought them to a dashboard, while the "Select a Goal" feature they were looking for was located on the top of the page.

We also learned that users had a hard time with the portal because there were multiple ways to get to the same information. The resources we included in the goals section could also be found by browsing all resources. Instead of this being useful, we found it caused confusion. We learned that consistent and simple navigation is needed and consistency is key.

We also found that most users preferred focused/relevant videos (under five minutes) and interactive tools or templates. They liked the overview and then the ability to implement. Some users preferred to read, so it is important to have a mix.

What advice would you give to community organizations seeking feedback from clients on their products or services through user tests?

Go into the tests with a plan; it is easy for the users to go down a path that is interesting, but doesn't get you the feedback you need to truly test the prototypes. What activities are you testing? What indicators will you measure? What follow-up questions will you ask to gather further insights? This plan also helps when developing the prototypes. It gives a clear structure to what you want to test and what indicators you will measure. Indicators in our example could be the number of clients that choose a goal versus the number of clients that browse.

Be patient with the process. Many times we set the deadline for launch before we test. It may take multiple tests to get it right, but this will save your organization time and money in the long run. Also, you will have a higher chance of success. So talk to your customers and don't wait to launch once you have it perfect. Instead, build the product or service with your customer.

About the Author

Leveraging eleven years of community development experience, Amanda Blondeau became the inaugural Director of Northern Initiatives Business Advancement Center in 2010. As the Center Director, Ms. Blondeau is responsible for the development and implementation of services and resources for microenterprises in 46 counties of rural Michigan and five Wisconsin Counties.

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