Volunteer Hour Tracker
Unself is a startup focused on measuring volunteer service hours. Nonprofits rely on volunteer hours for daily operations and grant applications, but currently have no way to reliably measure, store, and visualize that data. Most guesstimate their hours, while some use unreliable paper and pencil records – both hurt their case for applications.
Unself built a volunteer hour tracking webapp for volunteers to self-report their hours to nonprofits, so that the latter could have reliable data to apply for grants.
As a product designer and owner for Unself, I led the definition, design, qualitative research & testing, as well as coordinated dev cycles for both the volunteer and nonprofit hour tracking tools. These efforts led to over 17,000 hours tracked over a year and a half by over 1,000 volunteers from the Front Range for nonprofits around the country.
On my first day at Unself, the company pivoted from an all-in-one volunteer management solution to a volunteer hour tracker in order to be a more unique competitor in the market.
At the time, we were also working with a consulting firm while building the in-house Unself team. We collaborated to design the most simple hour tracker form we could imagine, while our in-house engineering team architected a new webapp and verified nonprofit database from the ground up. They chose to build a webapp so that all volunteers could access the app, regardless of device.
As soon as we showed our first prototype to local nonprofits and volunteers, we learned that we needed to expand the data we were capturing to build a true MVP.
That resulted in the foundation of our platform: a chunk of data called an “Experience”, which connected self-reported volunteer hours on a specific date to a verified nonprofit.
After we launched our MVP hour tracker, we grew our community of nonprofit and volunteer users. From those conversations, we knew we needed to invest in a compelling volunteer tracking UX to make the data input process easier and more engaging. Nonprofits also desperately needed a simple UI to view and export the real-time hours being tracked.
With feature requests and valuable insights flying in left and right, a big part of my role was to facilitate conversations with the entire team to prioritize, write requirements, and co-design these two concurrent efforts.
The most common way this took shape was for me to present visual designs to the team, rank the features on a whiteboard by priority and complexity, then present back stories to the dev team to confirm what we could build in our next iteration.
One of our earliest super users of our MVP tracker frequently volunteers with a police trauma care unit. They told us that they used Unself as a journal to review their past volunteer experiences prior to going on-call, so that they could psyche themselves up. Through the act of tracking and reviewing their past service experiences, they felt encouraged and empowered to keep volunteering in an intense environment.
This beautiful use case guided us into an overall design shift where we focused on the personal narrative and emotions volunteers feel when they track.
I began capturing these themes in an Invision board and our sketches became tightly focused around a complete-the-sentence UX and a simple but celebratory UI.
From our super users and frequent usability tests we validated a new UI concept that I designed to facilitate a volunteer telling their story. I led the design effort to reimagine what was once a sterile white form into an immersive, meaningfully sequenced narrative.
The first step of tracking is to identify where you volunteered. One of our unique product offerings is a scalable nonprofit database, seeded with IRS bulk data and volunteer-provided data. Our team built a beautiful search tool that allows volunteers to track to nonprofits from anywhere in the world, adding them if they are not in our system.
Testing these new visual designs with a handful of users, we were able to gauge right away that the takeover, stepped-out form and congratulatory tone was a vast improvement.
Once we introduced the takeover flow component, it gave us so much more room to speak to volunteers, to encourage them to share their stories and celebrate the impact they created.
This modular front-end allowed us to soften the concept of a form. It lowered the barrier of entry and provided more context around tracking for volunteers. And yet the interactions were quick enough that dedicated volunteers who track repeatedly weren’t annoyed at the repetition.
All of this contributed to higher quality and greater diversity of volunteer data than most nonprofits have ever received. In our analytics, we began to see the average amount of tracked hours per user, per month rise from just a handful to the upper teens. This redesign actually encouraged people to volunteer and track more!
As our requirements for the volunteer tracking redesign and admin reports began to take shape, I led iterative story writing, weekly iteration planning meetings, and backlog management for our 5-person engineering team.
During this time, the senior engineers and I codified our story, defect, and spike formats, captured here. While many of our stories had robust scenarios and notes, we also had many that were in shorthand, keeping to the mantra that “every story is a placeholder for a conversation.”
While at many points it was difficult to keep pace with backlog grooming and design iterations, it was incredibly valuable for me to be constantly in conversation with our engineers to ensure what I sketched was a scaleable component.
As we evolved the inputs for tracking, we simultaneously designed the outputs of that data for nonprofit admins. During this time, I led both the ethnographic research process with nonprofit admins and the feature+design definition process with a largely remote dev team.
Most small to mid-size nonprofits rely on very simple tools (i.e. Google Sheets or paper & pencil even) to track volunteer hours, if they do at all. Almost always, a volunteer coordinator (who may have up to three roles at a nonprofit) is tasked with this additional chore of guesstimating total hours. These unreliable data sets hurt nonprofits’ chances at receiving grants.
While at first we assumed we need to build a flashy, visual reporting tool off the bat, my teammate Madeline Pickering & I were surprised to learn that just a table view of volunteer self-reported data was the main thing that admins needed. We added on string and date filtering, so that admins could download exactly the right slice of data they needed to apply grants.
At last we had our core product: a volunteer hour tracker that encourages people to keep volunteering and gives nonprofits the data they need to rally more resources to their cause. Alongside close to 20 local nonprofit partners, we piloted our reporting tools and made their grant application process easier.
Once we had the foundation of our product, it was time to build a brand around it to give it life – both on screen and to encourage adoption in the community.
At our core, Unself is volunteer first. This comes through everything we do – from our data model, to the hour tracking input UX, to the youthful brand colors and tone.
Our target user segments are high schoolers and young professionals – the two most externally-motivated types of volunteers. I co-led an effort with teammate Genevieve Nakos to establish our research-based personas, and at the same time, we re-skinned the app based off of those markets.
After this UI reskin and the introduction of our volunteer+nonprofit speed dating happy hours, we more than doubled our user base.
As we introduced our brand throughout the app, we expanded our feature set to include volunteer profiles. These profiles are a shareable service record that volunteers use for school or job applications.
This feature expansion increased user adoption and also correlated to an uptick in hours tracker per user, per month, rising to about 39.5 hours.
This production screen cap showcases all our major feature sets as of winter 2018.
From our ethnographic research, I learned that volunteers across the board intuitively act as ambassadors for the nonprofits they work with, seeking to inspire more people to get involved. Our team’s hypothesis was that if we could capitalize on this organic promotion, we could get more people to volunteer and grow our user base.
Our most recent push for tracking then was to amp up the social aspect: to spread the word about a great experience to inspire others to get involved.
I organized and led a week-long volunteer research study to find out the best way to weave together these ideas. This body of work resulted in us improving several areas of the flow.
The biggest change to our flow came from a surprising user need: volunteers wanted to track more inputs. Specifically, volunteers revealed that they saw Unself as a volunteer journal and wanted to be able to track how they felt and the specific cause that they helped. We added these data points to the experience, carefully balancing the cognitive load and the reward of being able to now trend more data over time.
By adding cause and emotion tracking, volunteers felt confident in sharing their tracked hours with other users on the platform because it felt like a personal recommendation. This gave us the validation we needed to scale to more user groups who were motivated by social factors like recommendations from peers.
There were a few obvious simple enhancements we made – one was to enhance our nonprofit search experience to encompass organizations across the entire country, built off Google Maps API. A second alteration was to reduce friction by placing multiple inputs on the same page, adding subheaders to questions where more clarity was needed.
Today our tracker helps volunteers and nonprofits realize the story of their efforts, not just in hours anymore, but on to broader types of impact that no other platform has every quantified.