Designing the Donation Experience

Briet Tornes
Mar 10, 2017 · 10 min read

To build and test a solution that will match individual donors to nonprofits that align with their values, with the overall goal of increasing online donations.

My connection to the project began with my first career, teaching. I worked with teens from some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. As I got to know them, I saw individuals trapped by the circumstances of their situation. This experience helped to shape the way I approached this design challenge.

To learn more about giving, my team researched which organizations received the most donations. I found that in the United States, religious donations outweighed all other causes.

A closer look revealed that religious donations often encompassed donations to other charities. I found that churches donated a part of their donations to other causes such as homelessness. Donors often saw their donation to a religious organization as a donation to many types of charities. Donors who made religious donations most often also gave to homeless organizations.

We chose to focus on organizations addressing homelessness. Believing we could use existing donor and organization support as a platform for donor growth.

I found that donors give in two major ways.

  1. First, through the traditional method. Waiting until the end of the year and writing a lump sum check to a large organization. In this method, donors gave to the same organization each year. We found that older donors had been doing this since before online giving became available.

Conducting domain research we were pointed towards the needs of charitable organizations. Our goal was to identify and understand organizations’ pain points. Our contact from Safe Families told us that even with reliable donors, they relied on last-minute donations. Charitable organizations were leaning on processes established over decades of operation. It seemed they did not feel a need to change.

Conducting domain research pointed us towards the needs of charitable organizations. Our goal was to identify and understand organizations’ pain points. I questioned how they could feel so comfortable while a divide widened between how generations donate. The problem soon appeared not to be in complacency but in understanding. In an interview with the Salvation Army, we heard that,

“Millennials are considered the “golden market.”

Organizations expressed frustration trying to reach a millennial audience. Our Safe Family contact also identified millennials as the weak part of their outreach. We found organizations lacked an understanding of how to reach millennials, not a lack of need.

We concluded that even established organizations need ways to reach millennial donors to increase donations.

From our research we learned that millennials don’t give to large faceless organizations; they give to people. We also found donors had a difficult time separating the stereotype of homelessness from the reality. These perceptions became a barrier for donors, affecting giving habits of donors. The homeless are not only the people we see on the streets or in shelters.

We learned about an invisible homeless population made up of single mothers and children. This population is considered invisible as they are moving from place to place. 85% of those families are headed by women.

By focusing on a specific type of homelessness, the recipient of aid became someone user’s could understand and relate to.

Next, we found that a large majority of the homeless population have a cell phone. The cell phone was a final safety net and was held on to as long as possible. This unexpected data would help us shape what our final product looked like.

“Your phone is your lifeline. Services can’t get in touch with you unless you’ve got a phone.” -Cnet, 2015

To better understand the needs of these users, we developed two personas.


An at-risk single mother, Markayla works a minimum wage job and struggles to balance paying rent and child care. She does not need sympathy, but wants to be understood.

Just as I got to know my students, Markayla helped me understand the challenges and needs faced by recipients of aid.


As a millennial donor she represented the unique needs of the largest and mostly untapped donor population in the US. Millennials want to give to a person and know they made a difference. They may only give small amounts at a time but they give impulsively throughout the year.

Markayla wants to be understood as a person and Becca needs to feel connected to a cause. This intersection is an excellent place for a solution that would connect the two groups together and increase donations. From here we defined our problem through two overarching questions:

How do we increase millennial donations? How do we build relationships between donor and recipient?

From here, we developed four design principles.

My team developed four concepts to test with users using paper prototypes.

I designed a peer-to-peer donation platform. I felt that directly connecting donors to recipients would be the best way to fulfill both Markayla and Becca’s needs. Inspired by Pinterest and WeCount, my design focused on peer to peer giving. Organizations or their recipients, like Markayla, posted a need based request in a story format. Donors browsed organizations and their requests to find the right cause for them.

We drafted a testing plan and put our prototypes in front of users to learn which concepts would resonate. Through synthesis I found an inconsistency between our qualitative and quantitative data. Though all prototypes scored well on user understanding, most users showed signs of confusion during use. This taught us to look closely at all aspects of our concept tests, including behavior and expression, to gather a full understanding of the testing results.

Insights from concept testing:

  • Users preferred The Donation Experience as it connected them to the cause but it required too much time and energy.

Our concept testing did not point to a clear winner, so I worked with the strengths of each concept to create a refined solution. I used the round up concept to make donating quick and painless. Extra research ensured the design made users feel secure connecting a bank account. Next, I used the piggy bank metaphor to engage the user. Finally, I combined the story telling featured in the virtual reality concept with my peer to peer concept. My choices helped fulfill the needs of both Markayla and Becca.

I noticed that there was still a missing element. Though we developed a way for Becca to connect with Markayla, we were missing a way for Becca to receive feedback about the impact of her donations. I identified that a good feedback method would need to be time-specific and personal. This lead me to look to SnapChat for inspiration.

I developed a concept in which donors receive short, personalized thank you videos for their donations. Completed by the recipient of aid or the organization, the videos are a quick and easy form of feedback. With this solution, both donors and recipients benefited from feeling connected, understood and valued.

Using Axure, we developed a cohesive prototype with features that allow users to:

  • Securely round up purchases to the nearest dollar and donate the rest.

Click here to explore the prototype

We called our solution Oink and presented it to potential users. Users found the app enjoyable to use. Testing showed it fit the needs of millennials as an easy way to donate small amounts more often.

“I know a lot of people who want to do something to help but they feel that they don’t have the right opportunity. They think, ‘What is 10 cents going to do?’ So this sympathizes with that and helps them” -Erik

Questions still remain about Oink’s methods of engagement. Once the thank you videos were integrated into the design, users found the video thank yous to be more engaging and enjoyable than the piggy bank. This caused me to question our need for the piggy bank beyond functioning as a method for storing donated change.

“The video is more important than the piggy, but having both is a positive. It hits both groups of people, those who want to do it for recognition or knowing they did something good.” -Justyna

I met with a group of donors who gave to Safe Families. Their response to Oink was all positive. As millennial donors, they found it to be a more desirable method of donation than their current method, donating through their church. One donor was also a volunteer and felt the ability to request specific needs would help her provide the support recipients needed. This reinforced my belief that we had created a product that fulfilled our goals.

As the end of the project neared we developed basic screens demonstrating our ideas for the organization-facing side of Oink. These recommendations were:

  • Future designs need to be intuitive and fail-proof. Staff and volunteers are often overwhelmed. Design choices need to ensure that content creation is easy and doesn’t require extra work.

While synthesizing findings, I developed the following future considerations for Oink 2.0:

  • User’s valued the thank you videos over customizing their piggy. Feedback also questioned if the customizations made light of donating. I would like to further research and develop the role of the piggy bank as a tool of engagement.

I learned a lot about my own design process and how powerful empathy can be in ensuring a product meets the needs of its users. My time working in education helped me be a stronger voice for all our users. I was also able to apply the process I used developing curriculum as a teacher to developing our prototypes. I did this by first considering what concepts and questions I wanted to test. Then I developed the prototype to meet those needs. I also learned how to adjust our process to move our design in a new direction when needed. Finally, I was particularly able to apply my ability to identify overlooked user groups to my next client projects.