Volunteering to Fix Volunteerism — a UX Case Study

Nicole McKinney
5 min readDec 4, 2019


Have you ever volunteered in your community and realized there was a bit of overlap in the services provided by the many nonprofits that exist in a community?

This is exactly what happened to the founders of Chord. With over 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the U.S., overlap and service redundancy is bound to happen. The Chord founders were inspired to create a platform for volunteerism that focused on creating more efficiencies for nonprofits by giving them a platform to collaborate.

This is where I tell you that my team and I enter, solve all their problems immediately and design a beautiful hi-fi prototype. Haha, just kidding… UX design never goes that way nor is that a realistic expectation to (ever) have. But we did have a lot of fun taking the idea for Chord from abstract to MVP and gave the founders a product roadmap for the next phase of their startup. This was our journey.

Process, Roles and Timeline

We chose the Lean Design method very early on in the project due to our limited timeline of less than 2 weeks. The goal was to make fairly robust mobile responsive prototype, so we knew we’d need to overlap on several stages of the design process.

Visual of a circular path representing the Lean Design method with the following labels: 1. Idea 2. Build 3. Launch 4. Learn
The Lean Design process: Ideate, Build, Launch, Learn (repeat)

My role in the project was to manage the client relationship, lead primary user research (due to my experience with nonprofits), and act as scrum master. My teammate Samantha led secondary research and overall project management, and Kacy was our rapid prototyper and visual design lead.

Since the scope of the project was quite broad and the concept has 3 different user types (nonprofits, volunteers and sponsors), it was also important that we ask the founders which user group they’d like us to focus on. They chose the nonprofit side and we agreed that the platform idea relied on nonprofit behavior the most.

Lean Design in Action

Since the industry and market has a plethora of data, we had to prioritize our research efforts. For primary research, we chose to focus on interviews. We also launched a survey that mirrored the survey so that we could deepen our reach since finding the right nonprofit staffer and getting them scheduled to speak was a timing constraint.

While we scheduled and executed the interviews, we conducted our secondary research and began sketching designs as we researched industry conventions. There are more than 92 volunteer management systems in the market but most of them have paid access models. This limited the depth of our competitive research, so we also looked at popular event platforms, such as MeetUp and Eventbrite to see what features and conventions worked well at scale.

Design Studio: From Sketches to Wireframes

We did multiple Design Studio sessions so that we could rapidly ideate and begin building quickly. We solidified our user flows and focused on the nonprofit user experience but still kept the other user types in our minds as we designed.

User flows for nonprofit, volunteer, and sponsor
An example of our use cases

We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose sight of who we were designing for, so we created multiple use cases and scenarios for each user type.

Research Synthesis and Takeaways

After a lot of networking and cold calling, we managed to hear from 10 nonprofits, which we were happy with considering we had several constraints. As we finished out our research, we had to synthesize quickly. Taking the lean approach, we chose affinity mapping for the primary research. Fortunately, we had distinct themes emerge.

Affinity Map: themes from our primary research with nonprofits

Themes from our research:

  1. Volunteerism is important but complex.
  2. Nonprofit needs are incredibly varied.
  3. Collaboration is very difficult to execute.

“The dirty little secret of the nonprofit world: nonprofits don’t collaborate well together.”

After processing, we had to hit the whiteboard again to think about collaboration. This was the main goal of the platform and a key differentiator. But if nonprofits avoid collaborating, how would this work?

Our whiteboard sessions led us to thinking about larger themes to help make it easier for nonprofits to see where they align. We looked at other platforms organizing this in a huge variety of ways and wondered if we could provide more consistency than the marketplace currently does. That’s when we landed on The Global Goals.

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development

Also known as the Sustainable Development Goals, this set of 17 goals is an open framework adopted by nonprofits, corporations, and backed by the United Nations. It provides a consistent way to streamline the work being done to address the world’s most pressing social issues and is already being used by many of the most active stakeholders in the social impact sphere.

Leveraging the Global Goals framework would allow us to theme or categorize the content on the Chord platform but also create a flexible foundation for any type of user to initiate or find a collaboration or partnership around a particular goal.

Prototype + Usability Testing

Our prototype was built in mid-fidelity so that we could focus on functionality. We chose a single color to mirror Chord’s branding so that the prototype would look and feel a bit more like a higher-fidelity platform.

Responsive Mobile Design

The team also needed to design with mobile in mind since Chord is a startup and a native app will likely be further down the road. We identified specific use cases around volunteer event execution that make a case for a responsive mobile design.

Chord mobile web app

Recommendations and Next Steps

We rounded out our work with some key next steps for the founders. Since Chord is in the early stages, we think these steps will best position them for success.

  1. Explore Industry Research
  2. Prioritize Features
  3. Continue Primary Research

We also created a product roadmap with recommendations for future stages of the platform. The roadmap continues the current phase of Ideation and moves through to a Pre-Launch phase.

Chord Product Roadmap