Making the Web Work for Non-Profits
Recommendations for the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
Department of Communication
715 Stadium Drive
San Antonio, Texas 78212
This paper discusses making Web sites effective for non-profit
organizations. It reviews Web sites in general: what they are, why
they have proliferated, how they function as part of marketing
communications, and what makes them effective. It compares an
effective commercial site, Gap, with two non-profit sites: Bryan's
House and Ronald McDonald House of Dallas. Based on that analysis,
the paper recommends improvements for the Ronald McDonald House of
"Everyday people_" sounds as "www.toyota.com" appears at the bottom of a
Toyota commercial. "If the phone fits, wear it," says a Samsung digital
wireless print ad, referring its audience to www.samsungtelecom.com for more
information. "Fly Internet and Save," titles an article in Family Money
that includes 19 travel and airline Web sites offering reduced price
airfares. Organizations are furiously jumping on the technological bandwagon.
eMarketer estimates that 40% of all medium to large-size businesses maintain a
Web site. Another 20% are expected to launch sites by year-end 1998. But
businesses are not the only organizations putting content on the WebDnon-profit
organizations are climbing aboard as well, and for many of the same reasons as
commercial entities (Vimuktanon, 1997).
Non-profit sites are the concern of this paper. The groundwork for
discussion is laid first by a review of Web sites in general: what they are, why
they have proliferated, how organizations use them, and what makes them
effective. Then, an effective commercial siteDretailer The Gap (www.gap.com) -
is analyzed and compared with two non-profit sitesDBryan's House
(www.bryanshouse.org) and the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
(www.rmhdallas.com). Findings are used to recommend changes to the Ronald
McDonald House of Dallas Web site.
Review of Literature
It is easy to say that a Web site is a place on the World Wide Web, and
that the World Wide Web is the multimedia component of the Internet. However,
because these terms fall within a vocabulary that does not yet enjoy universal
usage, it is appropriate to explain a few key terms.
"The Internet" is a linked group of cooperative computer networks,
originally fashioned as a way to transmit information securely over phone lines
during times of war. When part of the system is not functioning or "down,"
messages are routed through parts of the network that do function. The Internet
supports a variety of communication applications, including electronic mail,
newsgroups, and the World Wide Web (DeFleur, et al., 1998).
"The World Wide Web" is the part of the Internet capable of carrying
interactive multimedia content. It is composed of an array of sites (also known
as "locations" or "pages"). Web users may access and retrieve these sites via a
network connection and Web browsing software. There, in a hypermediated
environment, users move from page to page to locate information and conduct
transactions (Hoffman and Novak, 1996).
The type of Web site within this paper's scope is the "Internet Presence
Site (IPS)," a term often used synonymously with "corporate Web site" (Hoffman,
et al., 1995). An IPS provides "a virtual 'presence' for a firm and its
offerings" (Ghose and Dou, 1998). Because these definitions do not seem to
distinguish between commercial and non-commercial entities, and this paper deals
with both for-profit and non-profit sites, the terms "Web site" and "IPS" are
Proliferation of IPSs
Why the rapid movement to the Web? Organizations may be more concerned
with the consequences of not having a Web presence than with "the outcomes of a
hastily ill-conceived presence" (Berthon, et al., 1996). "Everyone else is doing
it!" (Bush, et al., 1998) and organizations feel the pressure of competition.
As Griffith (1998) writes in Marketing Management: "Arguably, without a
presence on the Web, a firm might be excluded from the consumer's information
gathering process, and therefore its product not even considered for potential
purchase" (p. 45).
While, no doubt, this is part of why organizations have rushed to create
Web sites, more compelling reasons drive the growth: First, a large audience is
on the Web, and its numbers are growing. Maddox and Mehta (1997) estimate as
many as 35 million users in the U.S. alone. eMarketer (1998) offers more
conservative figures, with a current 24 million users in the U.S., 36 million
worldwide, and a projected 64 million U.S., 142 million worldwide in 2002.
While demographics are shifting somewhat as more people (especially more women)
begin to use the Web, the average user is male, married, educated, affluent, and
works in a professional, managerial, educational or computer-related field
(eMarketer, 1998) -certainly an attractive target audience for advertisers
Second, the hypermediated environment offers incredible opportunities for
organizations to improve service to, communicate with, and learn about visitors
to their sites. Current technology allows companies to enhance the user
experience on the site while simultaneously tracking and profiling those same,
self-selecting users through a "cookie," a small file which identifies a user to
the site's server and allows features to be customized for the user by storing
registration information and user preferences (Griffith, 1998).
While the cookie and tracking are important parts of the service
capabilities of the Web, so too is the medium's capacity for direct and
immediate feedback (Peterson, 1998). At any hour of the day or night, the user
might request information or comment on the IPS, the product, or some facet of
the organization. The organization then may respond directly to the user, and
what was a medium to the masses becomes a one-to-one medium, in which
organizations may build relationships with users and, in many business cases,
increase the potential for direct selling through the Web site.
But not every product or organization is suited to direct selling, which
brings up the third reason organizations are creating and maintaining IPSs:
using the IPS as part of an overall public relations communications strategy to
increase organizational and/or product exposure (Hoffman and Novak, 1996).
Using an IPS for public relations purposes
An IPS is well suited for building corporate identity, because it allows a
company the opportunity to communicate about itself, its products, and its
services in a multimedia environment that encourages interactivity. This paper
proposes that non-profits can learn a great deal from large, for-profit entities
about making an IPS an effective public relations communications tool.
What constitutes an effective IPS?
What makes an IPS "effective"? Is effectiveness something that can be
measured in hard data? Or is it something more difficult to judge?
IPSs and, by extension, Web public relations are not without their problems.
Chief amoung these is accountability. In advertising, CPM, the cost of reaching
a thousand people, which is used to evaluate the effectiveness of print and
broadcast media, may not be a viable method of evaluating the effectiveness of
messages on the Web. Researchers are studying the issue and working to find a
solution. Two such studies are the Coalition for Advertising Supported
Information and Entertainment (CASIE) Guiding Principles of Interactive Media
Audience Measurement and the Internet Advertising Bureau Online Advertising
Effectiveness Study. To date, no universal terminology or measurement
standard has been adopted.
While the lack of an accurate measurement standard makes evaluating
performance a difficult undertaking (Griffith, 1988), Hoffman and Novak (1996)
suggest that straight numbers may not provide the only measure of effectiveness.
They write: "Measures of duration time spent at an Internet presence site,
depth of search through the site, navigation patterns through the site, and
repeat visits to the site are crucial outcome measures for evaluating the
effectiveness of such sites."
It becomes reasonable to look at what makes a site effective by what makes
a user want to visit, explore, interact with and return to it_ in short, what
makes a "good" Web site.
In a medium capable of displaying graphic and multimedia content, how easy
and pleasing a site is to view and navigate is as important as its informational
content. It may, in fact, be more importantDusers are merely clicks away from
millions of other pages that might present information in a user-friendly
manner. Few people want to dig through a confusing mess in the hopes of finding
a jewel of informationDunless organizations give them reason to explore and
return to a site, users move on and don't look back.
Good sites are designed both with their market in mind and as two-way
communication vehicles (Stein, 1998). Content is easy to access, via a "wide
and shallow" site structure (Komenar, 1997, pp. 419-420). Information is broad,
thorough, accurate, and up-to-date (Ghose and Dou, 1998). Pages are quick
loading and visually pleasing (Shannon, 1996; Kaydo, 1998). Design, including
components of color, graphics, type, video and audio, is unified, elegant, and
well suited to the medium. The design and content of the site complement public
relations communications in other media, and serve to reinforce brand identity
A good site adds value to the product or organization by the user
experience. It gives the user an incentive to visit, explore and return to the
site. Often, it accomplishes this by engaging the user with interactive or
custom features. An interactive IPS encourages users to linger on the site
(Novak and Hoffman, 1996) and become more involved in the public relations
communication process (Berthon et al., 1996; Ghose and Dou, 1998).
Customization features, which help to provide a personalized user
experience, can add value to the user experience (Stein, 1998). Applications,
such as the "cookie" discussed earlier, can expedite a user's entry into the
site and encourage repeat visits because they recognize unique users and store
their profiles (Komenar, 1997; Griffith, 1998).
Brent Baker (1996) sums up the general qualities of good Web sites: they
engage the user, employ media that fits the message, communicate worthwhile
ideas, design for simple elegance, and put the user in charge of navigation.
Criteria for Analysis
The Lycos Top 5% Web site review service judges Web sites by three
categories: design, content and overall appeal. (See Appendix A.) These
categories offer useful points of departure for organization of site analysis
within this paper. Concerns raised in the literature augment these categories,
resulting in criteria for analysis.
Analysis is divided into four categories: design (structure and
navigation), design (graphic), content and interactivity.
Design, Structure and Navigation. Does design help to guide the user through
the site? Is the site structure wide and shallow? Is information easy to
locate? Is navigation user-driven?
Design, Graphic. Is the site layout functional? Is the site attractively
presented? Does it engage the user? Do the pages load quickly? Are the pages
visually pleasing? Do they convey a feeling or image consistent with other
public relations communication efforts? Are color, images, type, layout, and
interactive features well used?
Content and Interactivity. Is the site informative and comprehensive? Is
information useful, current and accurate? Does the site repeat or reinforce the
messages of public relations communications in other media? Does it offer users
value that they cannot get elsewhere? Is interactive content present and
appropriate? Does it enhance the user experience?
Overall Appeal. Does the site have personality? Is it inviting and/or
captivating? Does the user want to linger and explore? Does the user want to
interact with the people or organization behind the site? Is the whole greater
than its parts? Does the site reinforce a clear, consistent brand?
Sites were studied between October 30 and November 8, 1998.
The Gap IPS (www.gap.com), ranked as a top site by Lycos for design,
content and overall appeal, is used as a model of a "good" Web site. It meets
Lycos' criteria for excellence, as well as the standards by which this study
judges sites. The Gap site is user-centered, its design is visually pleasing,
its content is extensive, and it uses interactivity well. The Lycos Top 5%
connection is relevant, because Ghose and Dou (1998) studied interactivity as
used on site within the Lycos Top 5%, and their research builds on that done by
Hoffman and Novak. Furthermore, although The Gap's IPS is an "online store,"
it does not employ a hard sell approach. This makes it an excellent example of
building "corporate" identity, the function of a Web site that is most
significant for non-profit IPSs.
The Gap's site is compared with those of the Ronald McDonald House of
Dallas (www.rmhdallas.com) and Bryan's House (www.bryanshouse.org), another
non-profit organization. The former is in need of improvement as a public
relations communications tool. The latter shares many relevant characteristics
with the Gap site and is an example of a non-profit organization using an IPS as
an effective public relations communications tool.
The Bryan's House (BH) site is a good comparison for the Ronald McDonald
House site, particularly because the two charities can be viewed as competitors.
Both are located in Dallas, Texas, and are local in nature. Both serve children
and families affected by serious illness. Both do so in somewhat similar ways.
The two non-profits draw on largely the same donor and volunteer community,
something that makes their distinct identities important.
Design, Structure and Navigation: Gap
What makes the Gap site so good? For starters, it presents comprehensive,
current content about the company and its products without overwhelming or
intimidating users with information. It accomplishes this by its shallow, wide
structure; 25 links to pages within the site appear on the indexDor "home"Dpage,
alone. (See Appendix B.) With only a few clicks of the mouse, users can reach
any page on the site. The structure allows them to find specific information
quickly, if they are looking for something in particular. It also works to
expose usersDwhether serious, specific shoppers or casual "surfers"Dto other
available product information and subjects. It engages their attention and
encourages them to linger and explore the site.
This site structure plays a significant part in making navigation on the
site user-driven; Gap gives users multiple ways to reach the same page, seeming
to acknowledge that users are different and will approach the site in various
ways. The site turns a potential difficulty into an asset by taking advantage
of the various relationships between products and categorizing them, creating a
number of pathways to the same place. This allows Gap to expose users to a
broad range of content offerings without making them feel lost in a maze of
Functional navigation bars (and corresponding text) appear at the top and
bottom of every page. They lead to the main pages of the site: the Gap home
page, a Gap site map, customer service (where users find information about
contacting Gap), Gap departments (men's, women's, jeans, khakis, logo, and
gapbody), the user's profile, a store locator, the GapKids home page, and the
BabyGap home page. These links allow users to shift courses dramatically with
a single click.
Design, Structure and Navigation: Bryan's House
While the Bryan's House Internet presence site serves a function very
different from Gap's, it uses many of the same site design features that make
the Gap site successful. It is a good example of how Web site features that
work for commercial entities can be adapted for non-profit purposes.
Like the Gap site, the Bryan's House IPS (See Appendix C.) has a wide and
shallow structure that is easily navigable by different kinds of usersDpotential
volunteers and donors, most specifically. It offers good depth and variety
of information, and it logically categorizes that information.
Like the Gap site, the Bryan's House index page offers users a gateway to
the entire site. Navigation buttons there are especially useful because users
can glimpse the content of the linked page without having to visit it. This
feature guides users through the site and lets them know what information is
available and where it can be found, and makes the longer page lengths used less
Elsewhere on the site, a navigation bar framing the bottom of each page
offers users the ability to move around the various pages of the site. This
makes long pages of content more tolerable, giving users a way to jump around to
key pages within the site without interrupting the flow of their navigation by
forcing them to return to the index page.
Design, Structure and Navigation: Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
The Ronald McDonald House of Dallas site's problems begin on its index
page. Of the 24 headings that the site map shows available, only six of
these are accessible from the initial page of the Ronald McDonald House site.
This structure is more deep and narrow than it is shallow and wide, which makes
information more difficult and time-consuming to access. (See Appendix D.)
Three links on the home page take users to pages off of the site. Simple
math reveals that one third of the links on the index page take users to pages
off of the siteDthe first clue that the IPS, despite its best intentions,
probably is not encouraging users to explore and interact with the organization.
Instead, users have a one in three chance of linking to the Ronald McDonald
House Charities site, the Internet service provider that sponsors the site, or
the site of an individual who assisted in designing the site. None of these
options helps the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas encourage users to learn about
it specifically; furthermore, the link to RMHC on the index page only
strengthens public perception that RMH-Dallas is strongly connected with, and
perhaps even owned by, RMHC and the McDonald's Corporation.
Also problematic are ambiguous navigation bar titles that appear on the
index page and throughout the site. Vague headings make navigating the site
Navigation is also hard because page lengths are long and contain wide
varieties of information. Pages use HTML coding that allow users to shortcut to
the part of the page which interests them, but this has two probable effects: 1)
Users do not process all of the content available on the site because they skip
past it. 2) Users who view all available information must continually scroll
down the page. While some users may not mind this, those who find such a large
block of text intimidating, tedious or visually unappealing simply will not
Design, Graphic: Gap
Gap's design is both functional and visually pleasing. Photography,
graphics, colors and typography are distinctive, elegant, spare, and consistent
throughout the Gap site. White space is used judiciously. Components are
integrated to convey the same, easy, simple feel as Gap's messages in other
media. The white background of the site's pages, the photography and the
typography (especially the lowercase Helvetica typeface), call to mind recent
television commercials, outdoor and print ads (all of which can be viewed on the
siteD Gap gets greater mileage from a single advertising message by placing it
in two contexts/media). Furthermore, the Gap logo appears on every page and
serves as a visual reminder of the brand, as well as a way for users to return
to the indexD or "home"D page of the site (www.gap.com) at any time.
Pages load quickly and are short in length (most pages within the site
print on a single piece of paper). Content is distributed over many pages
instead of embedded in a few long pages. This allows users to access
information they want in timely fashion, and it also gives them a sense of other
information available on the site without forcing them to scroll through large
blocks of text. Also, since users click through a number of short pages, they
receive more impressions of the Gap logo, and they see it associated with
different products and features, because it appears at the top of every page.
Design, Graphic: Bryan's House
The Bryan's House site has a unified, attractive graphic design that
reinforces its brand and aids in its mission. The graphic design tools employed
by the Bryan's House site function to engage users' interest and emphasize the
organization's service and concern for children, rather than the grim realities
normally associated with HIV/AIDS, the virus that brings clients to Bryan's
House. Clip art used throughout the site resembles children's drawings, and the
site's primary colors, graphics and type, consistent with the BH logo, are
distinctive and convey a feeling of childhood.
Simple design choices make the design successful, and chief among these is
the subtle, important use of the color black. It is employed as a primary text
color, offering optimal contrast and readability both on the screen and on the
printed page (whether printed in color or grayscale). It is also used to shadow
color elements in clip art, headline text (e.g. "Pediatric AIDS," which is
yellow, and "Bryan's Friends," which is a light cyan), and the white text on
top of the grass graphic, used primarily on the site as a navigation bar.
Because black has the most contrast to the white background, it makes elements,
particularly those of light value, stand out on screen and on paper, without
weighing them down.
The site does not downplay the serious nature of its mission with its
upbeat graphic design; instead, it emphasizes the kids it serves first, the
virus second. A number of reasons are conceivable. First, vibrant colors and
children's drawings attract users' attention. These show that Bryan's House is
a bright spot for children and families in difficult circumstances; they serve
to dispel preconceived ideas users might have that it is a depressing place,
without hope, where they might not want to spend time. This is in part a
practical consideration: part of the site's function is to encourage users to
become acquainted and involved with the organization in order to make a positive
difference, not to scare them away with the hard facts of a disease currently
without cure. The graphics convey the message that Bryan's House is a positive
actor, working to improve the lives of children and families affected by
On a more subtle level, the pleasant, appealing design works as part of an
emotional appeal. The art used on the site emphasizes children, not the
disease. This works to show that sick children at Bryan's House are children
first, sick children second, a tactic which encourages the site's audience to
view them in the same light. Furthermore, in combination with the site's textual
content, the art offers users a different perspective on those affected by
HIV/AIDS, steering past and disproving any misconceptions they might have about
the impact of it on children and families.
Design, Graphic: Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
Because of the limits of technology at the time the site was launched,
pages uses basic HTML dividers and browser default fonts. They have a generic
look that was fairly standard in 1996, but appears dated now that more advanced
programming languages and page design programs are available and widely used.
Site development has not kept pace with advances in technology, and it shows.
But graphic design can be functional, attractive and engaging without
employing fancy graphics or programmingDit can be elegant in its simplicity and
functionality, like a newspaper or book. Technological limitation is not the
site's real problemDa seeming lack of strategic design choices is the problem.
The best thing the site does with respect to graphic design appears only on
the index page. The House's own logo and a poem used by Houses worldwideDThis
is the house that provides the home, that cooks the meals, that sleeps the
people, that dries the tears. This is the house that love builtD form users'
first impression of the site. This identifies the organization as part of a
broader framework but emphasizes it as a distinct entity through the use of its
However, this idea is not repeated elsewhere on the site. The Ronald
McDonald House of Dallas logo appears on the index page only; the more
banner-like national Ronald McDonald House logo appears atop other pages within
the site. This graphic serves to reinforce the general Ronald McDonald House
identity, rather than the local Ronald McDonald House of Dallas. While the
exposure benefits RMHC and McDonald's, it does no real favor the Dallas House,
which relies on generous individuals and organizations within its immediate
community for the bulk of its support.
Use of logo is not the site's only problem. Text lines span the width of
the computer screen and are difficult to read. The body text colorDa medium
blueDalso hinders readability. The blue used has a much lighter value than an
ordinary black, which results in reduced contrast, which has implications both
for on-screen viewing and printing. The eyes are strained more reading large
amounts of text on the screen, and, on a laser printout, text prints as a series
of grey dots because of the color value; plain black prints smoothly and with
high contrast, making the document more readable. Furthermore, while blues
appear in the RMH-Dallas logo, the national RMH logo, the RMHC logo, and the
navigation bar at the bottom of each page, this blue color neither matches nor
complements any of them.
This treatment of text exemplifies a lack of conscious design choice that
can be seen elsewhere on the site, as wellDin seemingly arbitrary selections of
link and viewed link colors, various styles of clip art, placement of
information (especially on the index page), and general organization of the
site. This results in an unsophisticated graphic design that fails to organize
information in a manner that entices users to exploreDa shame, really, because
the site offers considerable information to usersDand misses an opportunity to
build the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas identity with original, gripping,
Content and Interactivity: Gap
Customers may place orders online, 24 hours a day, every day, from any
place they can access the World Wide Web. The Gap site uses interactive
features to engage users and aid the browsing experience. A "shopping bag" uses
cookies to "hold" items users consider purchasing. "Zoom" allows customers to
examine fabrics and features of items in magnified detail, much as they might
look closely at an item while shopping in an actual store. Users can also use
"get dressed" to pair items of Gap clothing available on the site and see the
combination on a model.
The site stores customer profiles that users may activate when entering the
siteDthey simply enter the user name and password they establish at time of
registration. The profile eliminates the need for users to enter identification
information, billing or shipping addresses each time that they visit the site,
and it speeds the "checkout" process.
The profile also identifies users and stores a record of merchandise they
place in virtual "shopping bags," which "holds" merchandise that interests
unique users for up to two weeks. This feature enables users to browse, pick
out items, and think about them before purchasing. If they decide to buy some
or all of the items, they can return to the site and go immediately to the items
in their "bag," by logging into the site and clicking on the shopping bag icon.
The registration feature helps Gap in addition to helping the user. It
allows the company to gather market research about what their users like and
consider buying, as opposed to what they actually do buy. It also gives Gap a
sense of how its site is used: how many unique users visit the site, where they
go and how oftenDor ifDthey return. This gives the company the ability to
consider data in addition to its online sales figures when it gauges the
effectiveness of its site.
Content and Interactivity: Bryan's House
The Bryan's House site does a good job of putting faces and real people
with the sickness. Black and white photographs and personal vignettes of
children and families show the BH clientele vividlyDnot as numbers, rather as
The site invites users to explore and learn about the organization. When
they do, they learn about the Bryan's House mission, its plans for growth and
expansion, and the money the organization saves taxpayers annually. Users learn
how they can help Bryan's House, but pressure is not exerted on them to
contribute their time or their moneyDthis site does not employ a hard sell. It
does, however, provide ample opportunities for users to choose further
interaction with or make a commitment to the organization.
Should users desire to become involved, the site offers them a number of
ways. If users wish to donate money, they may, whether by mail, phone or
online, with a secure credit card donation. The capacity of the IPS for online
donation is unique; neither the phone nor the mail offers users the ability to
make a donation instantly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If they wish to donate
goods or services, the site suggests welcome items and offers contact
information for the organization. If they wish to attend events benefiting
Bryan's House, information on them is available on the IPS. If users wish to
volunteer, volunteer opportunities are outlined and a phone number for
information is prominently displayed. In addition, the site offers users the
opportunity to email Bryan's House, a way for users to interact with the
Users can also "sign" the Bryan's House IPS guest book to comment on the
site or request information. This feature allows the organization to gain a
sense of who visits the site and how it might be made more effective; it also
provides users a way to add themselves to the BH mailing list, offer feedback
and/or promote further interaction with the organization.
Content and Interactivity: Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
While the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas site is not as extensive as it
might be, features that make the mission of the organization real to site
visitorsDnamely photographs and stories of real people served by the Ronald
McDonald House of DallasDare its most serious lacks in content. Depictions of
people who have found a "home-away-from-home" at the RMH-Dallas are standard in
the organization's other public relations communications, from its "Friends
Group" newsletter to its display board to its promotional video. The
emotional appeal of these stories and images fails to extend to the IPS.
Information is inconsistent throughout the site in little ways that
evidence hasty and infrequent updates of site information. For instance, while
the site offers current utilization statistics from 1997, the site map indicates
that the most recent statistics available are from 1995. Inaccuracies like this
make a difference to users, just as typographical errors do. They are little,
understandable mistakes and oversights in content, but they should be avoided.
Another deficiency in the site is that Ronald McDonald House has no real
method of monitoring who visits its site, in what numbers, and which pages users
visit. The House depends on users to send email, either to comment on the site
or to initiate direct interaction with the organization. While email links are
present on the current site, emails received by the House likely do not give an
accurate measurement of site traffic. They require more effort and initiative
on the part of users than do counters, cookies and even guestbooks, which
provide a more structured way for users to contact the organization.
Finally, the RMH-Dallas site lacks the ability to accept donations online,
via credit card. While this is not standard practice, it certainly is something
for which to strive. It is the easiest method of donation, because it does not
require a stamp, a phone call or a personal visit to the facility, and users may
make donations whenever the idea strikes them, even if it happens to be at 3
a.m. While the absence of online donation opportunities is not so much a
deficiency of the site as it is something the House could be doing and is not,
it is an issue to consider, particularly because organizations similar to the
House, like Bryan's House, employ it.
Overall Appeal: Gap
Gap offers users good reasons to expose themselves to its messages, time
and again, by making the experience fun and informative. In addition to easily
accessible, comprehensive content about the company and its products, the site
adds value to the user experience with personalized features, rotating content
(easy for Gap because many of its products change seasonally), and an online
"sale rack," which features lower prices available only through the site.
The Gap IPS is easily accessible, informative, and even funDit uses a "soft
sell" approach to make users interested in and excited about the products and
features it offers, and it encourages them to explore the site instead of
pressuring them to buy. Given this, it might be easy to overlook its direct
selling functionD it is, after all, an "online store"Dwere it not for ample
opportunities for, and features of the site that encourage, online purchases.
In shrewd use of the hypertext environment to link contexts, links to specific
products appear on pages where that product is featured, connecting marketing
messages directly to products and users' ability to purchase them. In these
ways, the Gap site serves multiple functions and combines branding with direct
Overall Appeal: Bryan's House
The site demonstrates what Bryan's House does and whom it serves; it gives
its audience reasons to care about the organization, a desire to learn more, and
ways to become involved. The site does not aspire to be or do everything that a
site like Gap's does, but it is effective on a smaller scale: it is easy to use,
pages are attractive, and information is wide-ranging and reasonably current.
While it does not use all of the features available to it, such as cookies, or a
site search function, it fulfills its purpose and is effective in communicating
the Bryan's House brand.
Overall Appeal: Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
The current Ronald McDonald House of Dallas site does not brand
successfully. A comparison of the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas site with the
sites previously discussed finds the RMH-Dallas site lacking in areas of site
structure, graphic design, content and interactivity. The Ronald McDonald House
site incorporates very few of the features used by Bryan's House or Gap. It
seems behind the times in comparison, and not doing all it could be for the
organization. No doubt this is in part because the site has changed very little
in design or content since its launch in the fall of 1996, and the Bryan's House
and Gap site designs have been implemented more recently. While it is not
wholly unattractive or devoid of personality or useful content, there is
considerable room for improvement.
The goal of this paper is a recommendation of changes to the Ronald
McDonald House site that will make it more effective as a public relations
image-building tool. To brand successfully, the site should be well designed,
both structurally and aesthetically, and be accessible to users in a way that
encourages them to explore. The site should work with and integrate other
messages the organization extends to the public and build a clear, consistent
brand or image that its structure, graphic design, and content reinforce.
Structure and Navigation
The Ronald McDonald House of Dallas site should strive for a wide and
shallow structure that is more easily navigable by users. Proposed site
structure changes are outlined in Appendix E.
This wide, shallow structure can be achieved in part by adding more links
to the index page, in part by spreading content out over several short pages
instead of a single long page, in part by improved, more extensive and
specifically named navigation bars to pages throughout the site. A navigation
bar of the sites gateway pages should appear on every page of the site, and
users also should be able to navigate within the level or category of the site
they have chosen by a secondary navigation feature.
More than one navigation bar can appear on a single page, as is the case on
Gap's index page, where the primary gateway pages to the site and the children
of one of those gateway pages (categories under "departments") appear together,
allowing users to access particular, frequently-requested information quickly.
For example, users interested in the House's major annual fundraising event,
the Galleria Wonderland Express toy train exhibit, likely will visit that page.
From it, they should be able to access specific event information, such as dates
and hours of operation, exhibit photos, sponsorship information and volunteer
opportunities. Users should also be able to move around the site, both to
gateway pages ("People," "The House," "Staying with Us," "News," and "Ways to
Help") and within the category they have chosen. The Galleria Wonderland
Express page is a subsection of "Events," which is a child category of "Ways to
Help." This instance presents two possibilities for a secondary navigation bar:
links to pages under "Events" (the LUV Classic and other events) or links under
the broader "Ways to Help."
The latter choice is preferable, because the range of content is greater
under "Ways to Help," which includes the "Events" page, as well as pages about
the Friends Group, volunteer programs and donation opportunities. This
technique exposes users to more plentiful information and helps them to move
about and spend time exploring the site.
To keep users on the site without depriving them of valuable information
off-site, a new window should open when users access a link from the Ronald
McDonald House of Dallas site which takes them off-site (a link to Ronald
McDonald House Charities, for example). This keeps the RMH-Dallas on users'
desktops, making the site easy to return to because users need not press the
"back" button on their browsers to pick up on the page where they left off.
This also decreases chances that users will browse links made available to them
on the page off-site without returning to the RMH-Dallas site, which is where
they should be encouraged to linger.
Changes in the site's structure must work in tandem with graphic design
changes in order to facilitate the branding effort. A site may have beautiful
art and offer incredible information, but if its visual elements do not aid in
communicating that information, they have not served their purpose (see Appendix
Because the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas is a local non-profit
organization, it should brand itself that way on its IPS. Its graphic design
should be distinctive, attractive and consistent throughout the site. As part
of this effort, it should minimize its use of the national logo and emphasize
its own logo, as it does in its print communications. This logo might appear on
every page, as Gap's does, and function both as a way to increase users'
exposure to the logo and as a link by which users can return to the site's index
page with a single click.
Visual elements should work in harmony with the logo to augment the
branding effort. Colors, type, art, and layout should demonstrate a consistent
theme and style that bring the mission of the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas
home to site users. These elements should demonstrate a clear image of an
organization serving children and families affected by serious illness, and they
should emphasize the positive role the House plays in these people's lives.
Colors should be consistent throughout the site and complement one another.
The primary colors used in the organization's logo are good starting points for
colors, and black should be used, as it is so well on the Bryan's House site as
shadow, to bring out elements against the site's white background.
Type, especially type for headings and navigation bars, should be
distinctive to the site. Gap uses the casual, uncomplicated, sans serif
Helvetica typeface. Bryan's House uses a face that resembles printing done by
hand, and its logo's type seems handwritten by a child. A particular font or
typeface, which differs from the standard browser default face, should be used
in concert with other design elements to convey and enhance a consistent message
about the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas. If it does not connote children, as
does the typeface used by Bryan's House, it should at least convey a positive,
energetic, hopeful feeling.
Art should do that, as well. Graphics should be stylistically unified with
and compatible with the general feeling the site intends to evoke. Photos,
also, should be included to appeal to site visitors' emotions and encourage them
to identify and empathize with families. Images might be used in black and
white, rather than full color, to unify all images on the site and simplify and
intensify their messages. Using black and white photos would also decrease the
time that pages take to load.
Photos should -much as the House's video doesDdepict real people staying at
the House and function secondarily to highlight the features of the facility.
They might show dads reading in the library, moms sitting at a kitchen table
with a cup of coffee, kids reading books, playing with Play-Doh, blowing bubbles
with a volunteer, sitting on a parent's lap_ in short, doing what families do
every day at the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas. These photos should depict
children obviously sick as well as those who appear well, and they should show
how the House provides families with a supportive, homelike atmosphere during
times of medical crisis. They should show the House as an uplifting place to
spend time, a sharp contrast to a sterile hospital setting.
Page layout should support content. Page lengthDespecially the index page
of the site and its childrenDshould be reasonably short. This will allow site
users to move around the site and gain more exposure to it, rather than forcing
them to scroll down a long page for specific information. White space should be
used judiciously to highlight text and images and a shorter text line length
will enhance readability and make users more likely to linger on the site for
Content and Interactivity
A new site structure invites improved organization and expansion of
content. Content currently contained by a single long page can be spread over
several ("Staying With Us," for example), allowing users to access the
particular information they seek with greater ease.
Among other things, additions to the site might include more information
about the House and its special events and fundraisers, photos, profiles of
people who stay there, and more targeted and useful information for volunteers,
such as guidelines for meal preparation. Relevant links outside the site, which
might include links to hospitals, area maps, medical interest sites, and sites
of selected corporate donors, could be included, as well. Parts of the House's
video could be made available in streamlined form through the IPS, more fully
utilizing the Web's multimedia capabilities and offering site visitors to learn
about the House.
Specific organizations' contributions to the House (those of Southwest
Airlines, Junior League of Dallas, and Bristol Hotels & Resorts, for example)
could be recognized on a rotating monthly basis with photos and a story. This
shows the organization the House's appreciation, and it gives something back to
them in terms of publicity. Also, if the organization has an IPS, it can link
to the story on the RMH-Dallas site from a page on its site about its community
involvement (as the law firm of Munsch Hardt Kopf Harr & Dinan, P.C. does).
Users exploring this donor site might well click through to the House's site,
which would bring the Ronald McDonald House site a new audience.
A guest book and an online donation form would be other valuable additions
to the site.
The outlined changes to the site should work together to build and
reinforce the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas brand, engaging visitors and
encouraging them to explore the site and interact with the organization. Adding
features and reorganizing site content will enhance the user experience and make
the site more effective for the organization.
Implementation is key. Because of limited resources and a staff not
specialized in site development or maintenance, the Ronald McDonald House of
Dallas may want to consider looking into a donation of site design and support
services by a local Web site developer. Outsourcing site design and
maintenance to professionals would allow Ronald McDonald House of Dallas staff
to use their time more effectively and likely result in a better site. Both can
only help the organization and the families it serves.
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