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'Listening and Not Just Hearing Is One Way to Get True Collaboration'; Belanga Details MOAA's Website Redesign Journey

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by Ronn Levine

“Collaboration is a huge component to how you operate,” Mark DeVito, president, Beyond Definition, said during an excellent AM&P 2020 session titled The Association Brand Experience. He then turned—virtually at least—to his co-presenter, Yumi Belanga, senior director, digital programs, for the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). “How do you define true collaboration in your organization?”


“True collaboration is really hard—whether internally, externally, at home, wherever; it’s a partnership,” she replied. “And just like any partnership, it takes work, understanding and patience. There was friction [within MOAA] at some points, but we all came out above that. We learned a lot more about what everyone;s individual goal was. Sometimes we don’t want to listen. But we took time to listen because we had to really gain perspective—what did they know about the member, what did they know about the user?"


DeVito and Belanga had collaborated before when Beyond Definition worked with MOAA on their website redesign. He proved to be the perfect interviewer, happy to give over the spotlight for this important discussion—while adding occasional insights.

“Listening and not just hearing is one way to get true collaboration,” Belanga continued. “Understanding the other party’s ultimate goal and maybe stepping outside of yourself to put yourself in their shoes. ‘I can see it that way. Maybe I disagree from my perspective, but we’ll find a way to work on this together.' We did base [what we did] on a lot of our data and strategic plan. If there was a desire or goal or objective that someone may have wanted for the site, we made sure [to ask], ‘does it align to what we are institutionally trying to do as an organization?' If not, maybe we table it, maybe we discuss it later, maybe we don’t focus on it right now. Let’s focus on the big things that will get us to where we need to be.”


What made MOAA’s website redesign a resounding success—and all that collaboration possible—was their usability study. Belanga began by speaking about that study as a necessary preliminary to the goals they wanted to achieve. 


“Before we could really start on that journey, we had to understand our customers/members. So we looked at that a couple ways. First we had to take a look at our audience. We knew that our core users were from 18 to—we like to say 108. So that means the young enlisted officer to those who are fully retired and enjoying time with their grandchildren and family.”


The usability study asked questions like why they wanted to join and what did they enjoy reading from the print magazine. “But we wanted to understand them digitally,” Belanga said, adding that even given their older audience, mobile access to their site has surprisingly climbed even with desktop.


“We found out a lot of great information. We always assumed that we knew our audience and for the most part we did, but we found more pockets of confusion about where users should be going on the site,” Belanga said. “Maybe it’s more a case of terminology where internally we could think of it one way but externally our users are thinking of a different term. And with the military there’s a lot of acronyms and terms, nicknames and such, so we wanted to make sure [the site] was really cohesive for the user. We found some opportunities where we could enhance our information architecture to make it easier for them to find information. Also with our 400 chapters, they were quite vocal; they needed to receive their information more streamlined and better, so we listened to them and definitely delivered there.”


On the old website, MOAA “put everything we could possibly think of in front of them,” Belanga said. There was internal politics, obligations to contractors and maybe that we-will-post-because-we-can thinking. But finally, they had to step it back. The home page was overwhelming. Users couldn’t find the information they needed, and the study confirmed that.


They changed to a much cleaner look, with a big photo and dropdowns with paths to the information instead of putting it all right out there. It was streamlined and user-centric. Asked by DeVito what one thing stood out, Belanga said, “We looked at metrics, what were people engaging most with in the last year? What pieces of information, what content topics were people spending more time on? What were people searching for? What did they find? What didn’t they find? It was a big opportunity for us.”


The biggest opportunity was for something we hear a lot about these days: personalization. “We wanted to build that into the site. Maybe not full speed ahead but layer in opportunities for the future,” Belanga said.


“So people can navigate content very specific to them,” Devito added, asking, “Where will that personalization go in the future?”


Belanga said most likely more applicable experiences. They’ve also been experimenting with pop-up modals and specific messaging based off the user—their level of membership, age, location, how long they’ve been a member, if they’re on mobile, what publications have they ordered, have they donated. (No? Then here’s a sidebar donation tab.)


“It’s a learning process,” she said. “We’re working with great partners.” She again cited the incredible value of the usability study, which allowed them to ask a major question: How can you structure the website architecture so it resonates best with users? And how do they consume the massive content that MOAA produces.”


“Redesigning your website is also a great to time to rethink your brand,” DeVito said. “The look and feel of the brands can be huge. And content is key.”


If you do embark on this, they advised, give it time. “We had to do a lot of research,” Belanga said. “We conducted focus groups. Getting a wide variety of perspectives was a challenge. But I’m so glad MOAA did it. The whole team really started to understand our members and how important data is in making some of these decisions. ‘Do we have data to prove it will be beneficial?’


“Users are enjoying the site more, and metrics are showing that. We met some goals, but we created an even better user experience.”

Ronn Levine is editorial director of SIIA. He can be reached at