Case Study: Chicago Lighthouse
Below is a case study I wrote for Briteweb about their collaboration with non-profit organization Chicago Lighthouse.
Anyone who has visited The Chicago Lighthouse’s facility in the Illinois Medical District knows it’s a special and somewhat unexpected place. Home to the world-renowned social service organization serving people who are blind and visually impaired, the campus-like location has the state’s largest collection of Braille books, an in-house band that holds jam sessions every day at lunch, and one of the country’s last operational clock factories. The factory’s staff, which is predominantly blind or visually impaired, has made clocks that hang in the White House and the Pentagon. In a world where 70% of visually impaired people are unemployed, The Chicago Lighthouse is leading the charge in creating opportunities for people who are blind and visually impaired.
The Chicago Lighthouse is a visionary organization that provides vision rehabilitation services, education, employment opportunities and assistive technology for the blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veteran communities. When the organization engaged Briteweb to do a brand refresh and web redesign, we could see that we had our work cut out for us.
The organization, which was over 100 years old, hadn’t redesigned their website or their logo in over a decade. Over the years, their website content had grown denser and denser as the organization’s staff updated and added to it; the navigation hierarchy was eight layers deep – at least five layers beyond what is considered best practice. Without a content strategy in place, the site had become a behemoth that desperately needed taming.
It also needed rewriting. The tone of The Chicago Lighthouse’s content was sterile and medical – a stark contrast to who the organization is. Their Chicago facility is one of the warmest, most welcoming places our team has ever experienced; the organization needed a brand personality and voice that reflected the inviting, loving community they’d fostered.
But that wasn’t the real problem. That’s the fun stuff.
The real problem was that The Chicago Lighthouse’s website wasn’t accessible to the number one community they serve – people who are blind and visually impaired. A challenge Briteweb had never tackled before, but one we were game to take on.
With The Chicago Lighthouse, our team faced a steeper onboarding process than usual. We needed to learn not only about the organization and what it does – which is a lot – but also about audiences who lack or partially lack abilities that we take for granted when designing brands and websites.
To better serve these audiences, we made a lot of effort to understand the perspective of people who are blind and visually impaired, and how they experience and navigate the digital world. Our Lead Strategist was blindfolded by a member of The Chicago Lighthouse’s team, and shown how navigation tools for the blind work. Because he is fully blind, this team member typically doesn’t even turn on his computer monitor, while other visually impaired staff members do, using screen reading or screen magnification aids. Each of these tools affects a user’s experience of a website, and needed to be considered by our design and development teams.
Though we typically do audience analysis and profiling, the process with Lighthouse was on another level. The Chicago Lighthouse’s audiences are multiple, and diverse: patients, clients and consumers representing a spectrum of abilities (visually impaired to fully blind), those patients’ caregivers, plus potential and existing donors, event attendees, medical professionals, researchers, veterans, employees and potential employees – to name just a few. After interviewing representatives from each stakeholder group to understand what they needed and wanted from The Chicago Lighthouse site, we ultimately created audience profiles for three important target demographics. These profiles have been well-used and widely distribution by The Chicago Lighthouse, whose partners have often struggled to understand the organization’s unique stakeholder groups.
Understanding these audience groups helped Briteweb to create a content strategy that funnelled users to sections of the site that were appropriate to them and their needs. Instead of requiring audiences to sort through layers of content to find what they needed – a particularly cumbersome process when you’re visually impaired – the new strategy allowed users to self-identify where they fit within the organization, and quickly and intuitively navigate to the content appropriate to their needs.
The complex audience groups also had major design implications. Most significantly, our designers and developers needed to produce a site that was appealing to both sighted and visually impaired people; it had to be attractive to someone who could see, and functional to someone who couldn’t. The design and development teams also did extensive research, speaking to members of the Lighthouse team and attending a conference in Seattle to learn about designing and building sites for the visually impaired.
What they learned influenced the choices they made throughout the process. When redesigning Lighthouse’s logo, they selected a font that was circular, bulbous and open, which has high natural legibility for anyone, and high legibility for the visually impaired. They kept the lighthouse – used by many organizations working with the visually impaired to represent a beacon of hope – but updated it for increased visibility by using high-contrast shades (white, navy blue, and bright orange) and making it more iconic and stamplike.
Briteweb also worked with Lighthouse to develop a new brand personality, helping them land on a brand archetype that reflected them as a beacon of hope and a community of care. Their archetype’s warmer and more nurturing spirit could immediately be felt in the content produced for the new site.
Launched in the last weeks of 2015, the new site was a ‘big hit,’ in the words of one of our colleagues at Lighthouse. With the organization’s new visual identity and brand personality, the site finally reflected who the organization is, and what it feels like to work with them.
Most importantly, the site was accessible to the organization’s most important stakeholder groups.
Lighthouse’s web analytics helped show what a difference that made. In the six months following its launch, the site had a 3,101% increase in pageviews compared to the same period the year before, and an 813% increase in users. More telling, though, were smaller but significant numbers: a 66% increase in the number of pages per session, a 161% increase in average session duration, and an 18% drop in bounce rate.
In English, that means users who were visiting the site were staying longer, and accessing more content – most likely because it was a more functional and appealing experience for everyone, of all abilities.
Accessibility - Despite being a beacon of hope for the blind and visually impaired, The Chicago Lighthouse’s website was not accessible to their most important stakeholder groups, making it impossible for them to navigate the site or read any of the copy.
Research - Research is always a big part of Briteweb’s process, but this project marked the first time we ever found ourselves blindfolded and navigating a site using screen-reading software so we could put ourselves in the figurative shoes of our client’s audience.
Brand Voice - Like many organizations, the tone of Lighthouse’s web copy didn’t match what it felt like to interact with them. Their new brand archetype helped them move their tone of voice from cold and clinical to warm and welcoming.