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Working for the Public Good

By: , Posted on: April 5, 2017

How you can use your skills to make the world a better place

I am a User Researcher at Salesforce, which means that I spend my days talking to our customers, observing our users work, getting feedback in usability evaluations and surveys, conducting workshops, and then working closely with designers, product managers, and engineers to identify new features or change existing ones to better meet our users’ needs. I can’t tell you how much I love doing research but working at Salesforce takes it to a different level because Salesforce’s 1–1–1 Integrated Philanthropy Model allows me to spend 56 hours per year volunteering my research skills to help non-profits of my choice. That is Volunteer Paid Time off (VTO), not my spare time. Being encouraged to spend so much time doing pro bono work has been incredibly rewarding and I want to encourage others try their hand at pro bono work too!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” – Margaret Mead

What it means to work for the public good

When someone talks about volunteering, you most likely think of hands-on events like working in a soup kitchen or food bank but there is another type of volunteering called “pro bono publico.” It involves donating your time and professional skills to help those that are unable to afford the services of a skilled professional. Pro bono work is most often associated with the legal profession but non-profits are sorely in need of the tech skills that Silicon Valley is overflowing with. For example, few non-profits can afford to hire a dedicated user researcher, interaction designer, or web developer. Think about a time when you were considering donating to a charity and wanted to learn more about it. Were you turned off by an unprofessional looking website or lack of a presence on social media? Good charities lose potential donors for reasons just like this.

My first experience using my skills to help others was in grad school where I conducted research for a small educational company. The research involved evaluating literacy software in adult learning centers, jails, and even a prison, to help adults that had been left behind in the educational system. It was eye opening to see how I could leverage my research skills to make a positive difference in people’s lives!

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why pro bono?

I don’t want to diminish the importance of donating money to non-profits or the value of working at soup kitchens, food banks, and fundraisers. Non-profits depend on your financial and physical support; however, many people never think of doing pro bono work and it can be equally impactful, not just to the non-profits but also for yourself.

Expert skills are necessary, not nice-to-have. Many of us have unique skills that we have developed over time with training and practice. Those skills can help a non-profit move from functional to thriving. For example, with your help, non-profits can have a high quality web site, mobile app, or marketing plan like a large, for-profit company.

Support the causes you care about no matter where they are. If you care greatly about a cause an ocean away, hands-on volunteering can be difficult, if not impossible. If you want to have impact beyond financial donations, our globally connected world can allow skills-based support remotely. For example, I helped one non-profit remotely brainstorm their social media strategy. They thought they needed to have a presence on social networking sites because “everyone else does” but they didn’t understand who their current donors are, why they donate, or what might lead them to donate or support the charity more. They were jumping to a solution without having a clear problem to solve.

Grow your own skills professionally and personally. By exposing yourself to different clients, user types, industries, and challenges, you are broadening your skill set. Many non-profits may have no understanding of your domain of expertise so you can develop your skills of communication, education, evangelism, and leadership by explaining to them what you do and why they need your help. You will also have the opportunity to work with people that share your values but may work and think very differently from you. All of these growth opportunities will result in a far greater ROI than you can imagine.

Grow your network. We are all encouraged as part of our professional development to network. This often manifests itself in meeting and exchanging business cards or LinkedIn connections with people we think will be helpful in our careers sometime down the road. I believe, doing meaningful pro bono work will result in deeper connections with others that you probably wouldn’t encounter in your normal network.

“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: One for helping yourself and the other for helping others.” — Audrey Hepburn

Getting started

If you’ve never done pro bono work, you may have no idea how to get started but it is surprisingly easy.

  • Web search. Like so other many questions, you can turn to the Internet for ideas. Do a search on “<skill> pro bono” and find opportunities.
  • Micro-volunteering sites. If you would like to volunteer your skills online, com, Help From Home, and Micro Volunteering Day are just a few sites that offer opportunities to help others with your unique skills.
  • Contact your favorite non-profits directly. The folks you speak to may have no idea how to leverage your skills so be prepared with an explanation of what you do and some ideas or suggestions for how you can help them.
  • CHI4Good Day of Service. The activity I am most proud of is helping to organize the CHI 2016 Day of Service or #chi4good. If you’re not familiar with it, the Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference is one of the best conferences for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) professionals and this year it will be returning to the Silicon Valley May 7–12. For the first time in CHI’s history, we are bringing together hundreds of attendees to spend one day volunteering their skills to help dozens of non-profits. Volunteers will work in teams in the San Jose Convention Center. The beauty of this event is that HCI professionals can combine their skills to make a greater impact together than individually. If you are planning to attend CHI 2016, I hope you will take time to participate in this incredible event!

If you have suggestions for other ways that one can donate their skills, please share them! The world thanks you!


About the Book

understanding your users

Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods, 2nd Edition is a comprehensive, easy-to-read, “how-to” guide on user research methods. You’ll learn about many distinct user research methods and also pre- and post-method considerations such as recruiting, facilitating activities or moderating, negotiating with product developments teams/customers, and getting your results incorporated into the product. For each method, you’ll understand how to prepare for and conduct the activity, as well as analyze and present the data – all in a practical and hands-on way.

Visit elsevier.com and use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

About the Authors

kathy baxterKathy Baxter is a Principal User Researcher at Salesforce in San Francisco. Previously, she worked at Google for over 10 years as a Staff User Experience Researcher & UX Infrastructure Manager. Prior to 2005, she worked as a Sr. UER at eBay and Oracle. Kathy is active in the UX community, volunteering on the EPIC and CHI conference committees, as well as teaching courses and mentoring young girls in STEAM careers. She received her MS in Engineering Psychology and a BS degree in Applied Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The second edition of the book she coauthored, Understanding Your Users, was published in May 2015 & was the #1 New Release in HCI & Software & Product Design on Amazon the first several weeks it was on sale. https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathykbaxter

catherine courageCatherine Courage’s passion is transforming corporate culture by making customer-focus a driver of innovation and change. She leads the DocuSign Customer Experience team where her group’s mission is to create world-class products and services for customers, partners and employees. Catherine co-authored Understanding Your Users and is an active writer and speaker on creativity, innovation and design. She has been featured in Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and TEDx.  She has twice been selected by the Silicon Valley Business Journal – in 2011 as one of Silicon Valley’s tech leaders, and in 2013 as one of Silicon Valley’s 100 Most Influential Women. Also in 2013, Catherine made Forbes list of “Top 10 Rising Stars at The World’s Most Innovative Companies.” In 2014, the National Diversity Council named her one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology. https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherinecourage, @ccourage

kelly caineKelly Caine is a researcher and professor working at the intersection of people and technology. She directs the Humans and Technology Lab at Clemson University where she and her students advocate for users and create easy to use, useful technology that meets people’s needs. She co-authored Understanding Your Users, has published dozens of peer-reviewed papers and is regularly cited by media such as the AP, Washington Post, NPR, and New York Times, making her a sought-after speaker, thinker and writer on understanding people and their relationship to technology. @kellycaine

This article was originally published on the Salesforce-ux website and written in collaboration with Alyssa Vincent-Hill. Thank you Ian Schoen, raymonst, Emily Witt, and Jenny Williams for all of your feedback! Read the original article here.

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