The redesign of any ministry website presents the organization with an incredible opportunity. It is an opportunity to serve the body of Christ by providing abundant and easy-to-access content and an opportunity to provide a foundation for more effectively accomplishing the goals of the organization. The way to make the most of this opportunity is to make sure that the outcome of this redesign is an effective website that is built on the basis of sound principles.
The Importance of an Effective Website for Christian Ministries
Why Is an Effective Website Important?
An effective website lies at the foundation of organizational effectiveness. In a real sense—at the human level—the success of any ministry today depends in a large measure upon the success of its website. Successful organizational strategy can no longer be carried out apart from an effective website and an intentional web strategy.
The reason is that, in this day and age, the web has become the main way people interact with and experience many organizations. This is even more true for teaching-centered ministries, as the internet has become the primary way people obtain, use, and share the content that these organizations provide. The more effective a website is, the better the experience website visitors have with the organization, and the more motivated they will be to spread its message and content to others.
What Makes for an Effective Website?
When most people think of a “good” website, they think first—and perhaps exclusively—about its graphic look. If a site looks nice, it is considered a success. But web experts such as Jakob Nielson, Steve Krug, and others have shown that the graphic look of a site is not the most important factor.
This comports with experience. We have all been to sites that look nice but are nonetheless frustrating to use. Specific information that we can reasonably expect to be available on the site is difficult to find, or the navigation tools are confusing and therefore inefficient. Despite an attractive look, such sites provide a negative experience, making us disinclined ever to visit the site again.
An attractive look is certainly very important, and any ministry’s new site must look great in order to serve visitors and reflect well on the gospel. But no one visits a ministry site primarily for the aesthetic experience. Your visitors are focused, goal-oriented, and likely quite busy. They want to identify as quickly and easily as possible—and at whatever level of detail may concern them—what can be found at the site and how to find it. In other words, they are interested in what has been shown to be the single most fundamental component of an effective website: usability.
Websites exist to be used. Sites that are easy to use enable visitors to accomplish their goals more effectively and with less frustration. Ease of use creates a more pleasant experience for visitors, makes them more likely to return, reinforces the credibility of your brand, and makes it more likely your visitors will share your site with others.
Graphic design does not create ease of use. It builds upon ease of use. Absent good information architecture and an adherence to sound principles of usability, attractive graphic design is insufficient and ineffective.
How Does One Build an Effective Website?
An effective website, therefore, is created when good graphic design is joined to high usability. Most of us recognize good graphic design when we see it. But usability is not nearly so well understood.
In essence, usability comes from (1) good information architecture, and (2) adherence to sound principles of usability and layout. Information architecture has to do with the way the site is structured—what the main sections of the site are, what the sub-sections are, what categories are used to group the content, and so forth. The primary importance of good information architecture cannot be overstated. In allowing a visitor to find his way around the site easily, good information architecture keeps him from getting lost (one of the worst of all sensations on the web), keeps him oriented, and enables him to move easily and confidently from one place to another.
Good information architecture reveals your content so that it can be maximally accessed; more than that, it interprets your content. Particularly at the levels of Topic (e.g., Atonement) and Resource Type (e.g., sermon, article, poem, etc.), solid information architecture provides the visitor a grid for how to think about your content, thus enabling him to find, understand, and remember it better. Sites this easy to use are returned to frequently and talked about widely.
Good information architecture, however, is not achieved by organizing a site according to what “seems best to us.” Rather, there are established principles of classification and organization that assure effective architecture. Likewise, there are also general principles of usability and design that reveal and govern how to build the mechanics of a site correctly. These principles of usability and design are the second component to making a site usable. As a few examples: site navigation should always highlight the section the visitor is in so that he can tell at a glance where he is; every page on the site needs a title; only links should be underlined; and “click here” should never be used. Defining these principles (along with some 100 others like them) and following them in the creation of the site pages, is essential in creating an effective, usable website.