Community Solar Garden


I did not know anything about community solar gardens when I joined a design thinking hackathon in Minneapolis a few months ago.  This project got me excited in no time and I learned as much as I could because I have always been environmentally conscious, and a proponent of renewable energy sources.

Our client, the Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL) is a Minnesotan non-profit organization, committed to helping people learn about and join the Just Solar Coalition (see a video about Just Solar Coalition here). What makes this organization different from other community solar gardens (CSD) is that the intended audience is part of a faith community, where (a) people know each other, and (b) congregants are motivated by faith to take care of their environment.

MNIPL relies on face-to-face meetings to convince people to sign up for a lease in a community solar garden. This is a long-term (25 years) time commitment, with a great deal of financial investment. As evidenced by the letters written to  Minnesota AG Lori Swanson, and by her call for vigilance when looking at these solar programs.

 Consumers should be vigilant, however, in evaluating any offer to participate in community solar.

Participating in a community solar garden requires legal, technical and financial expertise, and/or a great level of trust in the organization. You are making a long-term commitment when you sign up.  Consumers need to know that

  • the benefits outweigh the costs
  • they are making a difference
  • they can trust the company –

The challenge extends beyond digital design. In this discussion, I am going to focus on the organization’s digital presence, with the explicit goal of increasing the credibility of the website and increase the sign-up rate.

My Process

    1. Foundational Research
      1. competitive analysis
      2. stakeholder interviews
      3. defining business goals  and user goals/needs
  1. Information architecture
    1. open card sorting
    2. sitemap
    3. wireframes
    4. user testing
  2. Content Strategy
  3. User Interface design & Interaction design
    1. creating mockups
    2. interactive prototypes
    3. user testing

Competitive Analysis.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

I would add “and keep your eyes open when they are doing something right”. It is defined as a practice of researching, analyzing, and comparing competitors in relation to yourself. Competitive analyses serve two purposes:

    1. Ideation – getting inspiration and ideas for your own design. There is no need to
      Points of Parity and Points of Difference

      re-invent the wheel every time you have to solve a problem. The goal is not to copy their solutions but to synthesize new ideas. Learn how other organizations create or lack credibility.

    2. Defining winning value proposition. Consumers, on average, visit three different websites before making a purchase decision. It is important to understand your competition so that you can make your offer stand out. How do you do that? Define the value proposition that distinguishes you from your competition in a good way. Source: Chris Goward
Airtable screenshot

Airtable is my favorite tool to organize my records from competitive analysis. See the whole set of records for this project here

Insights from the competitive analysis:

  1. all companies provide the service as a subscription service (no upfront buy-in option )
  2. social proof provided by community profiles that signed up, along with testimonials
  3. most CSG providers collect contact information (email and phone #) for informational sessions but do NOT provide readily available information. Research shows that people are hesitant to give out their contact info unless they feel they are getting something in return.
  4. Interactive calculators help guestimate prospects’ needs and do a cost/benefit analysis
  5. Missing, a.k.a. opportunities
    1. offering alternatives to the subscription model
    2. addressing how MNIPL can help people with low-income
    3. discussion of benefits beyond money
    4. info on the pre-requisites for joining the program (credit score, up-front and subscription costs)
    5. discussion of how the proposed program differs from Xcel’s program
    6. a blog to keep consumers up-to-date

(italicised are the aspects that increase the credibility of the website)

Point of Parity 
Points of Difference
contact form extended contact info (phone, email, physical address)
subscription service alternatives to a subscription model
explanation of how community solar gardens work info on the pre-requisites to joining
explanation of financial benefits explanation of environmental and social benefits
interactive calculator social proof: faith community, community leaders (beyond the digital presence
information about the organization (photos, blog, etc.)
comparison chart of how this offer is different from Xcel’s

Card sorting

Using Optimal Workshop’s card sorting service, I chose a hybrid set up, offering the option of creating new categories and labels. The results are more informational than definitive because of the sample size (8). Respondents choose 6 categories on average, and their responses showed a lot of diversity.


For a higher-resolution image, please see here
Wireframe of the home page

B.J. Fogg, who runs the Web Credibility Research lab at Stanford, says that there are four aspects to increasing web credibility:

  1. Presumed credibility  – we trust a source just because it is well-known, such as CNN, as opposed an unknown brand.  If a news item shows up on, we tend to believe it even if it is surprising.
  2. Reputed credibility – what people you know personally say about a product or service. This is the main attraction of the community solar gardens – people tend to join because their neighbors or church friends vouch for this service. Also, testimonials from people visitors to the website may know are highly influential.
  3. Surface credibility – the website looks well-organized and professional looking
  4. Earned credibility – as the name suggests, this is the result of a positive interaction with the customer service or the product.

This translates to the following features on the page:

  1. Professional look. The website needs to look and feel professional to engender trust in the website visitor so that they feel comfortable signing up. That means a slick interface, no typos, well-edited text.
  2. Address and phone number visible on top of the page, and also on the bottom. Visitors need to know where they can get answers, and need to know that there are people behind the business.
  3. Social proof. Include testimonials, and information on current clients (e.g., how many, names of organizations that can vouch for you. It could be a church organization, better business bureau, etc.) Testimonials serve the same purpose
  4. Social media presence. Again, shows that there are real people behind your organization, and also that customers can get in touch with you, and provide social proof (and a place for public criticism).
  5. Make your business appear real and tangible. Provide pics and bios of the employees, and pictures of the office. Make them real, no stock photos.  Also, a real business hires people, so a career section will increase the credibility of your company’s website.
  6. Show detailed description of the service and provide a price chart. People feel confident about their choices if they know what they are getting into. You want to provide transparent information about what your clients expect from you.
  7. Maintain a blog. It shows that you are still in business and also provides updates on your services.
Version  A

download printable pdf

The main goal of the website is to engender trust. The main elements of the design incorporate B.J. Fogg’s suggestion for credibility



Mockup for the home page –



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