Sustaining Values-Driven Software by Attracting New Users

  • We helped website security service Deflect appeal to a larger user base by identifying ways to attract and maintain both human rights organizations and businesses as customers.
  • As part of the Open Technology Fund Usability Lab, we used a UX design-driven approach to understand and communicate the benefits of Deflect by deploying an expert review, facilitating a workshop on positioning and value, and testing users. 
  • The UX design research we completed clarified ways Deflect can attract more paying customers to sustain their work, which models the way Internet Freedom work can be resilient in our economy.

For many organizations, their website is not just an external communication channel, their website is their critical product. This is particularly true for advocacy, human rights, and journalism organizations where their website is their platform on which they organize for their cause and share their work on critical human rights issues. eQualit.ie’s Deflect is an example of a website security service that protects websites from the dangerous cyber attacks that would silence voices, restrict communication, and limit organizing.

The below statement explains how Deflect kept the Black Lives Matter website up during a 2016 cyber attack following the unprovoked killings of Philando Castile in St Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police:

“Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks like this one use a network of computers to simultaneously attempt massive amounts of connections to a website – too many for the site to handle. As a result, the site becomes unavailable. In this case, the Black Lives Matter website was hit with a spectacular number of connections in one day (over 15 million, with an attack network of over 12,000 bots). Most commercial providers immediately shut down websites under this type of attack choosing to give in to attackers to protect the rest of their customers. That has never been May First/People Link’s policy. The attack has been countered and successfully contained using Deflect, and the BLM website has been functional and accessible for much of the weekend.” – Association for Progressive Communications Press Release, July 12, 2016.

Financial sustainability is the key for digital infrastructure like Deflect to continue providing protection to critical human rights websites. How can Deflect continue to meet the challenge of providing their tried-and-tested website protection and support for free to organizations that are unable to pay for it? Thanks to the Open Tech Fund’s Usability Lab, we had a chance to work with Deflect on their user experience onboarding – a key moment that connects to a product’s business model.

No Business As Usual: The Challenges of Sustainable Internet Freedom Organizations

Just as our previous work for Tails described in Open source & branding – a contradiction? clarifies how concepts from branding can benefit open source projects without succumbing to the manipulative advertising, this project gave the team a chance to explore how to keep more human rights organizations protected by getting paid customers in Deflect. While “business models” typically evoke the extractive profit-driven approach of Silicon Valley’s “Big Businesses,” not all business models are about profit at all costs. Every organization needs to have a framework for sustaining their operations — e.g. paying staff to work, paying for resources such as server space needed to provide the service or product, etc. Relying on uncompensated volunteers for work and profits from t-shirt sales to buy things is one way to run an organization, but the urgent threats to human-rights defenders requires more effort and experimentation in models of sustainability.

In the Internet Freedom ecosystem, just as in other contexts, the key is to consider diverse mechanisms of financial sustainability and resilience. By not relying on one source of income too heavily, organizations can become more resilient. We consider “organizations” in a broad sense – including for-profit, social good, non-profit, cooperatively owned, and volunteer groups all under this umbrella. So yes, volunteer contributions and t-shirt sales have a place in the Internet Freedom community, but they are not enough to power financial sustainability.

Many Internet Freedom projects are supported by grants, for example from the Open Tech Fund who supported this project. However many organizations rely on funding sources other than grants and donations e.g. selling services or software. An organization can offer security audits, consulting services, and software subscriptions to bring in income. Then with that income they can pay for equipment, hosting services, office space, salaries, and other things they need to fulfill their mission – even if part of their mission is providing no-cost or low-cost Internet Freedom software.

Deflect is an ideal case for exploring financial sustainability in the Internet Freedom community because eQualitie, the organization that created it, has proven that it has staying power while closely adhering to their values. Deflect is guided by a Declaration for Distributed Online Services, proudly proclaiming:

“Put your clients before profits or funding. Be clear about commercial intention and services provided under free accounts. Give clients viable alternatives before terminating or changing their service.” – Deflect’s Principles

Over its ten-year history Deflect has had opportunities to experiment with different pricing models. Variable pricing models, such as pay-what-you-like, buy-one-get-one, or sliding-scale prices are an area ripe for experimentation in the Internet Freedom community, and our project started by building on Deflect’s practice of offering a fully-functional free version to qualified organizations who asked. 

Our challenge was to balance Deflect’s product-before-profit mindset with opportunities to attract more paying customers in order to sustain Deflect for the benefit of high-risk targets unable to pay for it.

Understanding the Value of Deflect with User Research

We used a UX design-driven approach to understand and communicate the benefits of Deflect and deployed multiple methods, including: 

  • Expert reviews by four different designers/developers of existing and proposed interfaces for

    • Onboarding
    • Account management/dashboard
  • Facilitated workshop with the Deflect team on positioning and value

  • User testing with five potential new users of Deflect

    • Think aloud protocols of the existing Deflect.ca website
    • Reacting to proposed value statements
    • Understanding IT purchasing decisions in their organization

These multiple methods led us to three findings:

  1. Deflect’s services are easily understood and seen as valuable.
  2. There’s a design opportunity for Deflect to be more transparent about the team, funding, and stability.
  3. Different customer types vary in how important pricing is to their decision-making process.

Deflect’s services are easily understood and seen as valuable. 

Demonstrated by its staying power, Deflect gets many things right. The Deflect.ca website is visually appealing and effective at making people want Deflect. During our think-aloud sessions, people understood at a glance what a product named Deflect with a website showing a heroine with arrows bouncing off her shield was supposed to do. Even less-technical people unsure about the exact threats of cyber attacks found Deflect desirable and compelling.

Paradoxically the perceived value and high quality of Deflect made some non-profit insiders skeptical. They questioned that if the product is this great, how can they give it away for free? 

There’s a design opportunity for Deflect to be more transparent about the team, funding, and stability.

One way to reassure people skeptical that Deflect can be both desirable and affordable is by sharing more behind-the-scenes information on the website. Potential new users want to know more about the team and the stories motivating the software. Feeling connected to the team and mission will give people confidence that Deflect is stable, and able to live up to its promises.

The website already contains many of the most important pieces of information, such as the promise not to discontinue free accounts without viable alternatives, but consolidating and highlighting statements about funding and stability will make more people more-willing to try something new. New users need to overcome skepticism that goes beyond Deflect or eQualitie and to the non-profit ecosystem as a whole. In the words of one of our interviewees, the reality of technology for human rights defenders is that budgets are stretched, and “There’s just never going to be enough money for all of us to do our work.”

Deflect has a long history and impressive track record, but additional information addressing some of the awkward truths of financial sustainability will give people confidence that Deflect is not going anywhere, important information for their purchasing decision.

Different customer types vary in how important pricing is to their decision-making process.

When we asked interviewees looking at the Deflect website how much they expected to pay for Deflect, the range was huge: from $5 - $5,000 a month. One of the more provocative comments compared the price of Deflect to email marketing tool MailChimp, which they referred to as a “necessary evil” to keep nonprofit organizations running.

When digging deeper into the perceived value and acceptable price for Deflect, we heard a range of views about how important pricing is. Some people are strongly motivated by price and an aggressive approach to spending as little money as possible. Convincing those people to purchase Deflect will be difficult, and as long as there is a no-cost alternative. But we also identified two other groups who are not driven primarily by price.

Purchase Decision-making Personas: One-size Does Not Fit All

We contextualized the range of attitudes we heard about purchasing into three personas, or types of users. Each personas has different motivations for making a purchase, but committed self-hosters and non-profit IT administrators are both promising new customers for Deflect.

  • Price-Conscious Tinkerers.
    The toughest group to attract. Interested in the technology underlying Deflect, they care about the details and are motivated by functionality. Always working to get the most for their money, they take pride in having everything up to date and in order. Strongly technical and planning to roll up their sleeves and work, performance and price are both important, but it is hard to get this group to pay for anything.

  • Committed Self-Hosters.
    A natural fit for Deflect. Driven by values, this group will vote with their wallets to fund projects they believe in. Although they may not face particular DDoS risks, they take pride in feeling part of a movement. Solo or in an informal group of like-minded people, a self-hoster can decide to use Deflect on an impulse. Patient with technical difficulties and keen to build their own tech skills, they could become brand evangelists, and would be proud of Deflect stickers or swag. Knowing their contributions directly support a team doing important work, $10 - $15/month is uncontroversial, but they can be convinced to upgrade to more expensive options.

  • Non-Profit IT Administrators.
    Their values motivate them to stay in the sector despite opportunities to earn more elsewhere, but these IT professionals are business- minded. They have many competing demands and need more time in the day to get everything done. Maintaining a vulnerable website is one of many challenges, and their time is valuable. Low cost is appealing because they answer to others and need to justify their decisions, but this purchase is a business decision, not their own money. Benchmarking a price for the service and then offsetting it with a nonprofit credit will appeal to them, but if in the future the non-profit credit offset ends, they may be too busy to re-apply since their attention may be on a more urgent problem.

These purchasing personas are broadly applicable to the Internet Freedom community and are relevant to projects other than Deflect. Committed self-hosters making an active attempt to support organizations they believe are alternatives to Big Tech are an important part of the Internet Freedom community, and their combined purchasing power offers an exciting glimpse into models of economic solidarity. Exploring collaborative and collective solutions, starting with monthly software purchases but potentially extending into membership or cooperative models are a promising area for future research. Their passion speaks for itself:  

“​​I spend more time, pay more money, and get less service to support the organizations I want to support.“ – a committed self-hoster we interviewed

In contrast to the individual passion of committed self-hosters, IT professionals at nonprofits are skilled at balancing competing demands on their time, attention, and money. They bring a professional detachment to decisions, but also need to justify their expenditures to others. Under-resourced and stretched-too-thin IT administrators at nonprofits may be too busy to experiment with complicated new tools, but making it easy for them to purchase Internet Freedom tools has a powerful multiplier effect. Their decisions can protect the people and infrastructure of their organizations, and respecting the role that organizations play in the Internet Freedom ecosystem can expand the benefits of a free and open internet to more people.

Financially Stable Organizations Protect More People

Financial sustainability is the key for organizations like Deflect to continue providing protection to critical human rights websites, and including paid customers as part of their business model will enable them to continue to provide support to those who need it and aren’t able to pay. Deflect’s website already showcases their principles and explains their product, but the UX design research we completed  clarified ways they can attract more paying customers to sustain their work.

Credits

Project Contributors: Ame Elliott, Georgia Bullen, Cade Diem, K. Rae McKelvey

Preview image: Image by Alice Pasqual via Unsplash

With support from the Open Technology Fund Usability Lab.

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