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We explored the user experience of some of the biggest third sector websites, and it’s not great news

Last month my company launched a report for usability and accessibility specialists Sigma, that delved into the user experience of 10 of the UK’s top third sector websites. The findings were surprising so I thought I would share them here.

Surprisingly, many charities aren’t integrating usability and accessibility into their strategies. In fact, many are missing off the most basic steps to ensure websites are accessible on mobile devices and usable for those who are blind or partially sighted.

Being a PR person, I am always very sceptical of research – and rightfully so.  I’ve seen data used and abused so I often that I take research with a healthy pinch of salt.  However, this research was different. Take it from me, this was a robust dataset that involved lab testing which took well over a week to complete. It was about as thorough as it gets.

The 10 charities were selected to offer a varied sample – and included charities with different objectives, audiences, and causes. Every site was ranked on a range of factors, with a maximum score of 25 points. Ratings were shared across four categories – accessibility, mobile responsiveness, usability, and self-help.

In fact, out of a total possible score of 25 for usability, mobile-friendliness, accessibility, and self-help, on average the websites came out at 13.55 – which is pretty poor.

An example of some of the usability results.

An example of some of the data in the survey, showing usability results

I do understand for some organisations that might rely on donations or government support, maybe a website isn’t at the top of the list of priorities when allocating budget – but should it be? Recent research has shown that up to 90% of charity websites ‘are breaking equality laws’ – this is much high than most sectors and for an industry that often communicates with disenfranchised or hard to reach audiences, one could argue that accessibility should be top of their agenda.

The 10 sites tested in the research and their individual scores were:

  • Citizens Advice (19)
  • The Prince’s Trust (17)
  • Victim Support (16.5)
  • British Medical Association (16.5)
  • Age UK (15.5)
  • Step Change (13)
  • War Child (11)
  • Trafford Housing Trust (11)
  • Business in the Community (BITC) (10)
  • SportsAid (9)

Where is this sector failing the most?

We all know that the majority of Google searches now take place on mobile devices rather than computers, but just two of the websites in this research were optimised successfully for mobile. Half of the sites were nearly impossible to access on mobile devices and only four were finger-friendly. Overall, this was the weakest category in the report.

What about usability?

When we turn to usability, it was unfortunate that the majority of the websites didn’t score well here. Obviously, usability should be one of the first elements considered in the planning stages of any site. Half of these websites didn’t have a HTML sitemap which are used for screen readers or navigation bars that were simple to use, for example. And to me, this is an obvious example of the organisations not investing in their online approach, or at the very least not designing with usability and accessibility in mind.

Putting mobile and usability to one side, it was good to see that accessibility was an area that these organisations had considered throughout the design and build of their desktop sites. Seven out of 10 had a good readability score, for example. On the other hand, half of the sites didn’t have a great colour contrast, which would make it difficult for some users to digest information, and just two of the sites had captions on their videos. So they’re far from perfect.

How can this be fixed?

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that not-for-profit websites can optimise their websites properly and see returns from doing so. Citizens Advice (which came out top in the research) ticked a lot of boxes across all of the categories. And as a result is doing a great job at providing a website for users that’s easy to navigate, well-optimised for mobile, and is accessible so that the majority of visitors (whether they have a visual impairment or disability or not) can navigate it with ease.

You can see here that the website has good colour contrast and clear links:

Citizens' Advice Bureau

I struggle to think of many sectors that can’t benefit from having a robust website. We’re in a world driven by digital and to ignore this in a business strategy is a sure way to miss members of any target audience. When you’ve got the likes of Just Giving running their entire donation model online and through its mobile app, charities can no longer continue to ignore this channel’s importance. Nor is it acceptable to have a website that isn’t accessible. For third sector organisations a website can help collect donations, provide important information, supply training, and give advice – making it one of the most important tools for these businesses.

Going forward, organisations in the third sector need to consider their online approach, and turn to those that are doing it well, like Citizens Advice, for guidance.



James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.