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Choose usable interfaces — and make learning fun

Originally published: February 2017

Volunteers will show up at your door with a variety of attitudes toward technology. Some are naturally tech-savvy and spend hours every day with digital devices. Others prefer pen and paper or think of spreadsheets as cutting-edge tools. Use the following strategies to align all these folks with your organization's technology. Better yet, you can extend the same strategies to staff members as needed.

Choose usable technology

In the early days of personal computers, we talked about user-friendly devices. Today, we talk about usability based on decades of research on human interaction with digital technology.

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen says that usable technology does more than provide utility — that is, essential features. Usable interfaces are also:

  • Satisfying. They present people with a pleasant design when they touch a device or see a home screen.
  • Learnable. They make it easy for people to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the technology.
  • Efficient. They allow people to perform more complex tasks quickly after they learn the basic design.
  • Memorable. They make it easy for people to relearn after a period of not using the technology.
  • Error-forgiving. They're designed to allow quick recovery from errors — and to prevent serious errors from occurring in the first place.

These are qualities to look for in every piece of technology that you adopt for staff members and volunteers.

Let volunteers try before you buy

Ask volunteers with different levels of technical expertise to try out new hardware and software before you buy it. During this trial period, do some informal usability testing:

  • Assign volunteers some typical tasks with the technology and then observe their behavior.
  • If they encounter a problem carrying out a task, ask volunteers to describe the exact point at which they got confused and why.
  • Don't offer a solution right away. See if volunteers can solve the problem on their own.

When shopping for technology, beware of any product that comes with lengthy drop-down menus, long user manuals and hours of training videos. Look for an intuitive interface that makes core features obvious and common tasks easy to do.

Also remember the 80/20 guideline as it applies to software: 80 percent of an application's value comes from just 20 percent of its features. Don't worry about whether those figures are exactly right. Just help technology-resistant volunteers focus on the core functions. Let them acquire additional skills on their own over time.

Answer: What's in it for me?

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he described it as "a thousand songs in your pocket." That phrase was easy to understand, and it propelled the new device to worldwide adoption.

When orienting volunteers, find equally memorable ways to explain how technology makes their work easier. For example:

  • If you can browse the Web or shop online, you already have all the skills needed for this email software.
  • With this volunteer management software, you can schedule your next shift with a few taps on your smartphone.
  • Using this CRM software means that you'll never have to search through scraps of paper or old file folders to find a donor's name and address.
  • This client management application makes it easy to note what you do with clients during each session. That really helps us track their progress over time.

Set an example for volunteers

When it comes to technology, volunteers learn as much from what you do as what you say. If you're a slow adopter, admit it. Then commit to using key applications and equipment along with the volunteers.

Offer flexible, peer-based training

Recruit technically sophisticated volunteers with good people skills to tutor other volunteers. This is especially useful when you migrate to a new operating system or application. Sometimes it's easier for volunteers to learn from a peer rather than a staff member.

Also let volunteers learn technology in their own way. Some will prefer to learn on their own, armed with nothing but a user manual and online tutorial. Others want a personal coach, live demonstration or group experience.

During technology training, schedule time for "sandboxing." Think of people browsing a retail technology store and interacting with devices in an offhand way. Similarly, allow volunteers to play with applications for a few hours — free of any agenda to get real work done.

Finally, pair technology with fun. Embed technology training in coffee breaks, happy hours and other social events. Take these opportunities to recognize volunteers who succeed with technology adoption. Make a clear link between their work and the useful results being created for your organization.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Forbes: How to get employees to (really) use new technology by Rob Bernshteyn (2011)

Harvard Business Review: Convincing skeptical employees to adopt new technology by Rebecca Knight (2015)

Nielsen-Norman Group: Usability 101: Introduction to usability by Jakob Nielsen (2012) 5 steps to getting volunteers active in your online Facebook and Twitter communities (2011)



Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits