According to ZDNet, the above video was “prepared by NASA engineers to demonstrate the problems in any large bureaucracy that values requirements over new ideas, and process over [initiative].” It’s about ten minutes long, but the point is well made within the first two minutes.
For the last several years, I’ve been a subscriber to Audio-Tech Business Book Summaries. Each month, you get two summaries of some of the most important and latest business books. The summaries come in both audio form (either CD or, I think, MP3 download) and in written transcripts (by email).
Each summary is about 45 minutes, and they actually summarize the content very, very well. So for a time investment of about 1.5 hours per month, you can keep up with 24 business books per year.
This post is not an advertisement — nobody asked me to write this. I have simply found this to be a helpful tool which some of you might be interested in exploring. I think the cost is about $150/year.
One point to keep in mind: Don’t expect to fully absorb the content in only 1.5 hours a month. If you want to truly think over and remember the content, it will take additional review of the transcripts and just plain reflecting on the content. I view this program as a way to stay briefed on new books, and then go deeper on the few that seem most useful.
Here’s a summary from their site:
Audio-Tech Business Book Summaries are carefully written summations of the best business books published each year. They are recorded on audio CDs or cassettes, plus word-for-word e-transcripts.
Each audio summary is 45 minutes in length, much shorter than the average of 10 to 15 hours required to thoroughly read and comprehend most truly important business books. They enable subscribers to turn the “downtime” of commuting, travel or exercise, into profitable “uptime.” A subscription to Business Book Summaries is a productive alternative to the radio or cellular phone.
The 24 books summarized each year are selected by our Editorial Board from nearly 3,000 new titles examined. The Audio-Tech Editorial Board is composed of Harvard Business School Graduates, Fortune 500 senior executives and internationally known management consultants. Each is an expert in one or more of the subject areas we cover.
Our professional writers and editors carefully summarize the books under the watchful eyes of Editorial Board Members.
Last of all, here’s a business idea for anyone so inclined: This would be a good thing to do for the latest books in Christian publishing. I bet a lot of pastors and people in ministry would appreciate being able to keep up with about 2 books a month through well-done audio and written summaries. The business model for such a company would not be hard to spell out.
But the books chosen for summarizing would need to be good. None of that fluffy, boring, useless stuff that so often finds its way into Christian bookstores. Also, I would recommend not limiting the summaries to new books. It would be helpful maybe for 1 of the summaries each month to be new, and 1 of the summaries to be a solid, classic work from church history (Edwards, Luther, Owen, Augustine, etc.), as well as more recent classics such as Packer’s Knowing God.
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.
There has been a good discussion on my article “Make It Free” over at Joshua Blankenship’s blog. It inspired me to address some of the main objections I often hear against my perspective that media ministries should post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.
Objection 1: People value what they pay for. Therefore, if you make all of your online sermon audio and other online content free, people won’t value it.
Response: This is the least powerful objection for a media ministry, in my opinion, simply because the gospel is free. Does that lead us to not value the gospel? Of course, some people will want to say, “Yes! Look around!” But surely God does not think so, because he is the one who made the gospel free. (As an aside, I would argue that when we don’t value the gospel properly, it’s because we’ve failed to recognize the depth of is freeness and have actually fallen into the mentality that we need to earn it “just a little bit.” When we truly begin to recognize that justification is completely apart from our works, that’s when we really begin to see the surpassing value of the gospel.)
Theological arguments aside, observation shows the premise to be false that “if it’s free, people won’t value it.” My favorite TV shows are 24 and Lost. They are all “free” to me—I watch them without paying a cent, and even skip the commercials. Yet I do not value them any less than if I had to pay for them. In fact, I have paid for episodes before on iTunes, and I didn’t value those any more than the ones that were free. Many other things in life are free and yet very valued.
The value that you place on something is often a reflection of the intrinsic worth of something or the cost someone else paid for it, rather than its cost to you. Further, in regard to resources like a sermon especially, the response we have to it may be costly to us in our actions. We may realize we need to start living this way or that, or do this or not to do that; or we may just be encouraged to stay a difficult course. Sermons bring this incredible after-the-fact cost; let’s not hinder that from happening by imposing a before-the-fact cost.
Objection 2: It dishonors the staff and volunteer hours and other work that went into producing the media, and the pastor’s time in preparing and preaching the sermon.
Response: You have the wrong people on your media team, and the wrong pastor in your pulpit.
Bottom line: When it comes to resources for edifying the church, the aim is not to preserve honor for the work in this way. The aim of the sermon is to edify and serve the church and the world. Christ calls us to sacrifice good things—in this case, the honor that comes from financial recompense for the work—for the sake of greater things. I wouldn’t deny that financial return for a resource bestows an honor on the work of all involved. But that’s not why they are doing the work; this is a good thing to sacrifice for the much greater goal of the work itself, which is to serve and spread. I would argue that, ironically, sermons and the creative efforts surrounding them are most honored when they are set free to spread and serve, without hindrance. This honors them most because it is most aligned with the purpose and nature of the sermons in the first place, which is to spread truth.
Objection 3: Do you think that making a profit is antithetical to serving others?
Absolutely not. Milton Friedman, the great Nobel Prize winning economist who brought capitalism back to life among academics in the latter part of the 20th century, is one of my heroes. I am fully on board with free market capitalism, for example, which has as one of its main implications that serving others in your work and making a profit are not at odds, but are ultimately the same pursuit. Further, I recognize that ministries that do charge are not doing so to make a profit per se, but to earn more money in order to produce more resources.
What I’m saying is that ministry work is in a different realm. While it is acceptable to charge for ministry resources, this also brings with it significant trade-offs that do not exist in the for-profit world. For example, it can create the appearance of peddling the word of God. It demonstrates God’s grace and generosity less fully, in exactly the realm where demonstrating generosity should be the fundamental guiding principle. And, as I argue in the original article, charging for online resources short-circuits the effectiveness of the work by creating a barrier to spreading.
The production of Christian resources is unique in that it is not mainly an artistic endeavor or profit-making service; it is a service per se, done for the good of others, at cost to oneself. The core of our message is that Christ gave of himself that through his sacrifice we might become rich; in ministry we imitate that best when we are willing to pursue the good of others at cost to ourselves—in this case, without receiving rightful remuneration.
But most vividly, this thinking cuts off creative thinking. The desire for security—often cloaked unintentionally in the mindset that “we have to charge so that we can keep making more resources”—covers up the flame of great thinking with the doldrums of boring, easy business models. As ministries, we are non-profit, and I think we mean that for real—it is not just a tax status to us. So let’s take advantage of that. Let’s do radical, risk-taking, great endeavors that simply could not be possible if we had to focus first on survival and the bottom line. If we go broke, fine. What a way to go out. Survival is not enough, anyway.
Objection 4: Do you disagree that ministries should be financially healthy?
Again, no. Usually. There are cases where we must sacrifice to our harm when there is a compelling reason of service that cannot be accomplished any other way. But as a usual course, it is best for ministries to be financially healthy. One of the things I’m saying is that charging online for resources is not very effective at doing this, and that if you make them free you spread your message further and will likely see more funding.
Also, keep in mind that I am speaking very specifically about the resource side of things, and in particular online resources. There are missions organizations, for example, that consist of running full-fledged businesses that sell commercial goods. Those ministries should not sacrifice financial strength in those areas. I am talking about the very specific matter of Christian resources, which are a unique case because of their unique nature and aim.
Objection 5: Most ministries don’t have the financial backing to offer things for free.
Offering things for free is a great place to start when seeking financial backing. It gives donors a compelling vision to give to. In other words, I think this objection has the order wrong. Second, this objection seems to assume that a ministry would make decent money from selling content online. I have my doubts that this will ever happen, although I grant that I could be wrong. The biggest obstacle, then, is finding the money to post the content. For that, see the first sentence of this paragraph.
Objection 6: Are you saying that charging is sinful?
No, I’m saying that it’s not a good idea for online media ministry resources. It undercuts effectiveness. This is not about right or wrong—do what you want. It’s about what will be most effective, what serves, and what is great.
Objection 7: But isn’t it good for the profits from one sermon to fund the cost of creating another resource?
I’m not against the concept of seeing content generate revenue so you can produce more content. I’m saying that there is a much better model for this than charging. Offering it free, no strings attached, will result in more funds if people that want to go deeper with the ministry are given the option to get involved. And it avoids the appearance of peddling the gospel and is an acted parable of the grace of God that is proclaimed in the sermons.
In the end, what I want to say is: “Who cares if we’re making money from sermons when such an intention seems by its very nature to reduce creativity and effectiveness?”
You can also read my follow-up article to this one where I answer objections.
If you are a Christian media ministry, I commend the following vision for maximizing your effectiveness online: Post all of your content online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.
This basis for doing this follows from the purpose of ministry and the purpose of a ministry website. The purpose of any ministry is, at root, to spread the message of the good news of God’s grace. And the purpose of a ministry website is thus to serve as an avenue for spreading that message.
From this it follows that your site will be most effective if you maximize ease of access to your content. It’s simple: If your content is hard to access, or not accessible at all, then it can’t spread. People won’t find it on your site, and they won’t tell others. But if you remove all barriers to access, people will use it and tell others (assuming that it is good). Thus your message will spread and be of far more benefit to everyone in the world.
In other words, anything that hinders the ease with which your users can access and share your content imposes a “cost” on them. You maximize ease of access to your content (and thus the effectiveness of your site) by making it “free” in the fullest sense of the word–by offering it without financial charge and removing all barriers to accessing the content.
There are four things that create obstacles for accessing and sharing content:
- Not having very much content online
- Charging for content that is online
- Requiring registration to access content that you don’t charge for
- Having a hard-to-use website
Therefore, there are four things you need to do in order to maximize access to your content online and truly “make it free”:
- Post all of your content online
- Don’t charge for your online content
- Don’t make people register to access any of your content
- Make your site very easy to use
In other words: post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface. In what follows, I will attempt to show that if your ministry does this, you will demonstrate God’s grace in a wonderful way, serve people more effectively, and build a larger audience. Further, if it feels dangerous to post everything online for free, I will discuss how this is actually not too different from what you already do if you have a traditional radio broadcast. I will then close by observing what a great testimony to God’s grace and service to the church and world that it would be if every ministry did this.
Post All of Your Content Online
By “everything” here, I really mean everything. For example, if you have been on the radio for 30 years, then I would say to post every single broadcast from the last thirty years. Every article that has been written, every seminar that has been given, every conference message that has been delivered–any media or written content that your ministry has produced during its entire existence should be posted online. And it should be posted in all formats in which you have it or can get it–audio, written, and video.
Why? First, as a ministry you probably have a large amount of helpful content in your archives, and if people can’t access it, they can’t benefit from it. The mere fact that some of it may be 25 or even 50 years old is irrelevant–when it comes to biblical truth, if it was helpful then, it’s helpful now. Even when some content is heavily tied to its time period, there is almost always something timeless in it that will benefit people. If you post everything, then you let your users be the judge of what is most useful to them–which is as it should be, because a fundamental principle of effective online strategy is that you need to allow the users to be in charge.
Second, when it comes to the Internet, more is better. Our disposition should always be towards offering more, not less. It is so easy to search and browse (if you make your site usable–see point four) that abundant content provides a rich arena for your users to explore, and a reason to come back frequently.
Third, you should post all of your content because doing so is remarkable. To do something remarkable means to do something that is “worth remarking on.” Being remarkable is foundational to how your message spreads, because it spreads most effectively through everyday people remarking on it to others. Your website users are thus the most effective (and least expensive) promotional avenue for your site. Further, the Internet provides them with a megaphone that amplifies their word of mouth so that instead of telling just a few people, they can tell hundreds.
But in order to tap into this, you need to give your users a reason to talk about your site. Telling them to talk about it won’t work. You need to do something that is distinctive and incredible enough that it naturally motivates them to remark on it. Posting a massive amount of content is one of the best ways to do this. Put yourself in the shoes of a user for a minute. Now, imagine coming to your website and finding a years worth of radio program archives. That’s nice, but nothing incredible. Now imagine that there are thirty years of programs and other content. That’s remarkable–that’s something to keep coming back to and to tell others about. By making your site “remarkable,” you tap into the most effective–and least costly–method of promotion for your ministry and its message: your site users.
Don’t Charge for Your Content
If you are going to have people talking about and emailing your content, you need to make sure that you remove all obstacles to this process. This means you shouldn’t charge for your online content–not for any of it. Charge for things you pack and ship to people, such as DVDs and physical books. But don’t charge for anything that is accessed online. The reason is that charging creates a barrier to access, and therefore directly opposes the purpose of your site–which is to spread your content. Spreading your content requires that you maximize access rather than restrict access. The bottom line is this: If you charge for your online sermons or radio programs or other content, people will use it far less and tell others about it far less. This is a non-negotiable fact.
The secular media has recognized this for years. For example, sites like ESPN and CNN and Fox News have had their content free for years (perhaps even from the start; I can’t remember). Even the New York Times, which has been charging for its content, is now removing that barrier because they recognize how detrimental it is to their web traffic. A recent article in the Times discusses some of their rationale: “…many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.”1
It could be pointed out that a site like the New York Times benefits from advertising revenue, but a ministry site does not have a revenue source like that. Hence, some ministries might be concerned that if they don’t charge for their content, it will threaten their ability to fund the ministry. We have not found this to be the case at Desiring God. Instead, what we find is incredible gratitude from our users that they can access 27 years of sermon audio and other content for free. Some are so enthusiastic about this vision that it leads them to give. And isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that people want to give to? By posting all of your content online, you provide your donors a compelling initiative to support and be a part of. Further, you bring much more traffic to your site, and thus more people who may chose to become donors. While we haven’t done a formal analysis, it appears to me that posting everything online resulted in more gift revenue than sales revenue we have lost.
But increased donations is not our motive for not charging. There are four much larger reasons for posting everything for free, and I commend them to your ministry as well.
First, it emphatically demonstrates God’s grace. Salvation is free and without charge. Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the gospel for free and without charge. To make all of your content available for free says something great about God–it is an acted parable illustrating his incredible generosity and grace.
Second, posting everything for free serves others most effectively. If you are a ministry, I would assume that after glorifying God, your next most fundamental purpose for existence is to serve others–to be a blessing to the church and the world, no strings attached. Making all of your content free so that people can access it without restriction fulfills this aim and demonstrates to the world that you are not in ministry for yourselves. This is a message the world needs to see today more than ever. It is not wrong to charge. But my exhortation is to do what is great, to do what most manifestly serves others, and to think about financial return second–or third.
Third, as already discussed, far more of your content will spread, and it will spread to far more people. Requiring people to pay inserts friction into the process of spreading your message. Friction slows things down and brings them to a halt. If you want your message to spread as far and as wide as possible, you should go to all lengths to remove all possible friction from the process. And note that the obstacle with charging is not simply the amount you charge, but also the mere fact that users have to go through a payment process to obtain the content. So you should not reason “Well, what’s $1.99 for a sermon?” Even if you only charge $0.10, the mere fact that people have to go through a series of steps to access the content will substantially reduce the number of people who access it.
Don’t Require Registration to Access Your Content
There are many who recognize the importance of making the content free but then, in my opinion, take back everything by requiring people to register in order to access it. Although no money is involved, registration is a cost to the user because it is a hassle. If you want to maximize access to your content, you need to “make it free” in all senses of the word–you need to eliminate all costs to the user, even the non-monetary ones, of which required registration is the most significant.
There are several reasons to offer all of your content not only without cost, but also without requiring registration. First, as with charging money, requiring registration inserts friction into the process, thereby reducing the amount of content people access and spread. To see this clearly, think of your own behavior. Have you ever had a friend send you something interesting online–a link to a newspaper article or perhaps one of those personality tests that can figure you out in 5 minutes–but when you click through to get it, you find that they require your email address? If you’re anything like me you do one of two things when this happens. Either you hit the back button and forget about it, or, if you really want it, you give them your Hotmail address from 6 years ago that you never check. And these sites weren’t even trying to charge any money. Maybe you don’t think people should be this way, but we need to accept this is in fact how people are and structure our websites based on how people actually behave, rather than how we think they should behave. If you want your content to spread greatly, then do not require registration.
Second, if you require registration, most of the people that do register are not interested in hearing from you–they simply want to see the piece of content they are interested in, and then move on. So when they receive emails or bulk mailings from you, those communications will be thought of as spam–either going to an old Hotmail account they never check, or annoying them in their regular inbox. Either way, they will not be effective. As Seth Godin has said, “if someone signs up for a list they don’t want, in order to get something they do want, your emails to them are impersonal and irrelevant, and treated just like spam–and are just as irritating.” Far better to offer the option to subscribe to various email newsletters (and RSS feeds and podcasts), but not require it. Then, you will have a much higher quality email list. The people that sign up will be those who really want to be hearing from you–and thus your communications will be far more effective.
Third, if you require registration to access your content, then (in my opinion) it fails to clearly send the message that you are here first to serve, no strings attached. Instead, it sends the message of reciprocity–I’ll do something for you (let you access the content) if you do something for me (give me your contact information). This is not intrinsically bad, of course; but we are ministries. We have another aim. We are here to serve, period. Existence is not our first priority. Serving others for the glory of God is. Therefore, the message we need to make very clear is: “We are here to serve, no strings attached. Not serve you so that we can see a financial return, but just serve you because our joy and calling is to do good for your sake. If you do want to be more involved with the ministry, we would love it and would greatly benefit from your help, but regardless, our first aim is to be a blessing for you.” Let us as ministries send a message of service written in bold letters–we are not here for what we can get from people, but for how we can help and what we can give.
Make Your Site Very Easy to Use
Last of all, in order to see maximum spreading of your content, make your website easy to use. This again goes to the fact that user costs are not simply monetary; anything that creates an obstacle to accessing your content is a cost. A hard to use site is a cost to the user in that it hinders their ability to access (and share) the content and which thus must be removed.
There are a few key principles that can make a huge difference. First, and most important, make sure everyone who works with the web in your ministry reads Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. This is by far the best book on the subject, and tells you almost everything you need to know about making your site easy to use. And the book is a quick read–just over a hundred pages, with many helpful illustrations and examples.
Second–and this is very basic yet will have the greatest impact–make sure that your site gives your users persistent secondary navigation throughout your site. Here is what I mean: Virtually every site has a global navigation bar which shows people the main sections of the site. This gives people the high-level layout of the site. But when you click into one of the sections, a lot of sites fail to give good sub-navigation that shows you where you are in that section and always stays with you so that you always know where you are. Without this, your users get lost. So an effective site needs to provide sub-navigation that is persistent–that is, that always stays with the user–and well organized. Krug’s book shows how to do this well. The result is good orientation for site users–the foundation to a usable site–so that they always know where they are and can easily get from one place to another.
Excurses: Comparing This Model to Radio
As an aside, it is worth noting here that the model I am proposing has certain key similarities to how traditional radio has been done. So if you have been doing traditional radio, the model that I am presenting doesn’t need to feel like such a risk. With traditional radio, ministries don’t charge people to listen to the program or require them to register. Access to the program is completely free. Those who listen and are interested in going further with the organization are then invited to contact the ministry, just like how with the Internet those who want to go further can sign up for a newsletter, sign up for a donor program, or purchase a product.
Requiring payment or registration to access or download ministry content is thus the opposite of what ministries have been doing with radio for decades. Offering content for free online, with the option to sign up for something if you want to go deeper, is actually more in line with the traditional radio model. And, it is far cheaper. For the cost of less than one station for a year, you can probably post all of your content online and cover several years of operating expenses for the site.
Alternatively, something that should not be preserved from the traditional radio model is being brought over–namely, the temporary duration of the archives. With radio, the program airs and it is gone. That is part of the nature of the medium. But with the Internet, there are no internal constraints, other than storage and bandwidth (which are very cheap, especially compared to radio), determining how long you can make a message available. The Internet allows you to keep the archives up permanently. Yet, many only keep their program archives up for a month or a year. I argue above, the best thing to do is to put all content online forever. This is a strength of the medium that needs to be utilized, and it will drive traffic.
What we see here, then, is the irony that, in general, we as ministries are often bringing over from radio strategies that we shouldn’t (namely, temporary access to the programs) while failing to bring over strategies that we should (namely, free access to the programs without requiring signing up with the ministry first).
In Conclusion: Everyone Should Do This
Here is what we have seen: Ministry websites exist to be a major avenue for spreading your message. Your website will do this most effectively if you “make it free”–that is, if you maximize ease of access to all of your content and remove all barriers that get in the way of using and sharing your content.
The way you do this is by posting everything online, for free, without requiring registration, and in a very easy-to-use interface. In turn, this emphasizes the grace of God and serves people most effectively. And the result will likely be that rather than seeing a threat to your financial survival, you will see a more enthusiastic donor base and a larger amount of web traffic that results in more interest, more spreading, and the financial provision you need.2
I would love to see every ministry website implement these four principles and make their content freely available in the fullest sense of the word. What an incredible testimony that would be to the grace of God and what an incredible service it would be to the church and the world.
This is a site map I created for an early version of The Gospel Coalition website, back in 2007. I’m including it here as an example of what it looks like to create a site map on the basis of the usability, information architecture, and classification principles I outline in my resources.
These are the main sections of the site. They will be displayed in the navigation across the top of the site, but beneath the logo.
These are links that help people use the site or perform administrative actions, but which really aren’t part of the content hierarchy. They will be located in the upper right hand corner of the page, in smaller text than the main section navigation.
Ideally, you don’t want to introduce anything new in the footer navigation, unless you are introducing a whole new category of marginally-related links (such as network navigation that shows all the sites in an affiliated network). Consequently, my recommendation is that the footer navigation simply repeat the global navigation. It can also have another link to the subscriptions page. See desiringgod.org for an example of this.
The content of the above main sections is outlined below. When reviewing the contents, keep these things in mind:
- The regular-sized font bold items (for example, “Recommendations”) are not site pages, but organizing groups within the navigation.
- In the resource categories, clicking on one of the resource categories (for example, articles) takes you to the first listed-sub page for that resource category (for example, “articles by topic”).
- The footnotes give other ideas for organization and naming, and sometimes explain what will go on the page.
The elements of the home page are contained in a separate document and wireframe, “The Elements of the Home Page.”
By Scripture Text
By Scripture Text
By Scripture Text
Questions and Answers
Recent Books by Council Members
All Books by Council Members
Other Ways to Browse
[Name of Current Conference]
2007 National Conference
[Name of Conference]
[Name of Conference]
(Future Conference Navigation)
Once you have expanded your conference ministry, we would recommend the following navigation structure for the conferences section:
[Name of Current Conference]
[Name of Current Conference]
[Name of Current Conference]
Join TGC Network
The Gospel Coalition
Who We Are
What You Will Find on Our Site
Frequently Asked Questions
Board of Directors
The Gospel for All of Life: Preamble
Theological Vision for Ministry
Join TGC Network
Not sure if we even want to have this to start. But you will probably definitely need to create this when you get the chance, given the coming size of the site and extent of media. See the Desiring God help section for a good model: http://www.desiringgod.org/Help/.
 For resource category, the “by speaker/author” groupings could themselves be sub-divided into “by date,” “by series,” “by topic,” and “by title.” For certain authors/speakers will have a very large number of resources on the site, and this could allow their content to be more easily browsed.
 Types are: plenary talks, panel discussions, and workshops.
 I am not sure if we will end up feeling that “interviews” and “questions and answers” overlap substantially. If so, we would not want to have the interviews category, but rather have it merged with “questions and answers.” However, if possible, my recommendation is to have both. We have it this way on the Desiring God site and it works well.
 The Themelios Journal will also be its own major section of the site, so we may not also want to have its articles here. We could have the “Journal Articles” navigation item take the person to the Themelios Journals main section; however, in general it is bad practice to have a sub-navigation link in one section take the user to a different section.
 Types include: Book Reviews and Feature Articles.
 This creates a bit of a dilemma: Most of the “book reviews” will be from the Themelios Journal. Hence, it creates redundancy—and thus confusion—to have them as a distinct resource category as well. If almost every book review is coming from Themelios, then I don’t think we should have this as a resource category. Rather, with Themelios, we would have a “by type,” with the types being “book reviews,” “feature articles,” and whatever else.
 Christ on Campus would go in here.
 Also includes brief into to what Themelios is.
 This is where the conferences that you want to feature of council member churches would go.
 The chat feature is here. Since this feature will be a feature available only to members of the TGC Network, it makes sense to place it here in the TGC Network section. On the page there will be an explanation of what the online chat is, when the next one will be, and a sign-in box to sign in when the chat opens.
This is a document I wrote while at Desiring God to summarize our usability philosophy in about 15 principles.
Web design is about far more than the graphic look of a page. It pertains to how the site is organized, how the information is structured on a page, and how the user interacts with the site. Good design creates satisfied users; bad design means that your site will not be utilized to even half of its potential.
What follows are the core principles for designing an effective website.
1. Usability: Don’t Make Them Think
Sites that are hard to use, don’t get used much. Sites that are harder to use than they have to be, get used less than they should be. The Web is a mass medium. If your website is hard to use, you are failing to capitalize on the medium of the Web—not to mention making a bad impression and undermining user confidence in your organization.
Ease of use is our core principle, and therefore it is worth some elaboration.
What is usability?
“Usability is the extent to which a site can be used by a specified group of users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (Powell, Web Design: The Complete Reference, 50).
As Steve Krug has so simply shown in his book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, one simple sentence sums up the definition of usability: A usable website is one that doesn’t make people think. In other words, it doesn’t raise question marks in people’s minds about how to do this or that, how to get here are there, or how to respond to the information on the page. They see the page, and know what they need to do, and how to do it.
This principle is “the ultimate tie-breaker in deciding whether something works or doesn’t in a Web design” (Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, 11). It is the very definition of what a usable site is.
Krug fills out the meaning of this principle more fully:
It means that as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory.
I should be able to ‘get it’—what it is and how to use it—without expending any effort thinking about it.
Just how self-evident are we talking about?
Well, self-evident enough, for instance, that your next door neighbor, who has no interest in the subject of your site and who barely knows how to use the Back button, could like at your site’s Home page and say, ‘Oh, it’s a _____.” (With any luck, she’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a _____. Neat.” But that’s another subject.)
You could also take another angle on defining usability, which is complementary to “don’t make me think” but not nearly as memorable or basic. 5 things determine a site’s usability:
- Efficiency of use.
- Reliability in use.
- User satisfaction.
But it is much easier to just remember one thing: Don’t make people think.
What are the benefits of usability?
If your site is not usable, it adds to people’s cognitive workload: “When we’re using the Web every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to throw us” (Krug, 15). Add to people’s cognitive workload can have many ill effects, while lessening their cognitive workload can have many good effects.
- Good usability makes everything seem better. “Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: It just makes everything seem better. Using a site that doesn’t make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don’t matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm—and time” (Krug, 19).
- There is a better chance that users will understand what they’re looking for.
- There is a better chance they’ll understand the full range of what your site offers.
- There is a better chance of steering them to the parts of the site you want them to see.
- Users will feel smarter and more in control, which will bring them back
- Users will have more confidence in your organization.
- Good usability creates a good impression.
How do you know if a site is “usable”?
Not by talking about what you “like” or “don’t like.” Rather, you determine if it is usable by watching real people use your site, and seeing what creates obstacles (makes them think) and what works simply (doesn’t make them think). This is why user testing plays a key role in our Web design process.
But before the stage of user testing, you don’t have to shoot in the dark. There are several principles which are implied by the principle of usability—implied not only in terms of being logically correlated, but in terms of being shown to accord with usability in actual user research.
The remaining principles outlined below are just of this sort—they are all implied by the overarching principle of usability, and hence ultimately serve to flesh out more fully what usability means.
2. Use the smallest effective difference
When attention needs to be called to something or a distinction needs to be made between two different layers of information, it ought to be done with the smallest difference that effectively makes the distinction known. Otherwise, you are simply adding noise to the page.
For example, in a chart of baseball stats, thick, black gridlines simply distract from the information. They are one more thing to ignore. The gridlines should be soft and undistracting.
3. Eliminate the unnecessary
It is from this principle that the above principle of the smallest effective difference derives. Things that are unnecessary distract. In our homes, we call such things trash, and take them out to curb for the garbage truck every week. How do you determine if something is necessary? By considering your goal. If something advances the fulfillment of the goal for your site, or for a particular page on your site, it is relevant. Probably—as long as it doesn’t have side effects that are worth less than its benefits. If it does not advance the goal, it should be removed.
4. Group like with like
The basic principle for organizing anything is to group like things together. Crucial to good groupings is to define the basic similarity or quality that is serving as your organizing principle.
5. Arrange for access
Put simply, you put things where they will be used. On a checkout page, for example, this means you put the “You will have a chance to review your order before submitting it” sentence right next to the “continue” button on the payment screen, because it’s when deciding whether to click the button to go to the next step that that concern arises in the user’s mind.
Likewise, this principle means that you integrate content whenever possible. For example, on the page where people are able to sign up for an account, you wouldn’t want just have a link that says “benefits of registration,” requiring the person to click before they see any benefits. Rather, you would state the benefits right there. If you have more benefits than will fit, you state a few benefits right there, and have a link to the full list.
6. Provide good orientation
The most common user question is “where am I?” It is absolutely essential to orient your users. First, this is done by providing clear navigation that makes it obvious where they are—and how to get somewhere else. “Clear, well-thought-out navigation is one of the best opportunities a site has to create a good impression” (Krug, 60). Second, this is done by using good page titles—on every page.
7. Be consistent
Consistency means that if you do something a certain way in one spot, then it should be done the same way everywhere (unless there is a compelling reason otherwise—and the desire to “spice things up” and “make them interesting” doesn’t count).
This is illustrated very clearly in navigation. For example, as Krug points out, if a navigation label says “Lug Nuts” but takes you to a page called “Nuts,” you are making your user think—they have to ask the question of why the name of the page is different than what they clicked. Is it because they were taken to the wrong page? Or is it because “lug nuts” is considered a type of “nut?” Probably the later, but why make them as the question? The more different the name is, the worse you make it (for example, if the link was “Lug Nuts” and the page was “Spare Parts”). When I see sites do this sort of thing, it communicates two things: (1) They don’t care; (2) they are lazy.
8. Follow Web conventions
If you follow Web conventions (like global navigation goes across the top; local navigation goes underneath it or on the left; buttons are used when clicking initiates a task [like add to cart]; periods go at the end of sentences; etc.), then people will know how to use your site because they know how to use other sites.
If you don’t follow Web conventions, people will have to relearn your site. And it is hard to think of anything else that would make your users have to think more.
Many sites choose not to follow conventions because they want to be “unique.” If you want to be unique in this way, you need to weigh the cost—will it be worth what we lose by making our users think so hard? Usually, the sites make the wrong choice when they opt for the trendy over the conventional. Further, within the context of standard conventions, there is an infinite number of ways to be unique. Consider a book. Table of contents, page numbers, chapters, text that goes from left to right, and such are standard fare—conventions. But there are still plenty of ways to make your book stand out, without choosing to jettison page numbers or left to right text.
Be unique. Just don’t do it in the wrong way.
9. Don’t try to be fancy, and try not to use Flash
One trend that many sites give into is to use Flash. The typical thinking is that it looks neat and gives a multi-media feel to the site. But unless you are an entertainment site, where users come to be entertained, Flash will usually distract from the users’ goal, and therefore get in their way.
A related horror is that of splash pages—those nifty pages you encounter before the site’s home page which give you an animated intro to the site. These especially interfere with user goals. When you go to the Chipotle website to see the menu, for many people sitting through an animated scene of a talking burrito is just a frustrating delay in the pursuit of their goal. As someone has once said, the two most embarrassing words in Web design are: “Skip intro.”
10. Weave things in, don’t just start a new section
When a new idea comes up, the tendency is to want to create a “section” on the website for it. Sometimes that is warranted. But sometimes, after 10 such ideas, you end up with an incoherent site structure. Far better, when possible, to weave things in, integrating with existing content.
11. Make obvious what is clickable
The Web is pretty much about clicking. It’s how you get from one page to the next. Therefore, each page needs to make obvious what is clickable. You shouldn’t rely on users having to roll their mouse over something to see if it’s clickable (that makes them think).
It should also be clear where each link will go, so users do not need to proceed by trial and error.
12. Do not structure the site around the organizational hierarchy
Users don’t care about an organizations internal org chart. The site needs to be structured according to the content, and how users would think about the content.
13. Be concise
People don’t read Web pages, they scan them. Therefore write succinctly, and eliminate happy talk (the “welcome to this section of our site…” type of thing). Here are some basic guidelines for writing for the Web:
- Be succinct.
- Write for scannability:
- Do not use long blocks of text.
- Do use short paragraphs.
- Do use sub-headings.
- Do use bulleted-lists.
- Use inverted pyramid principle, as possible.
- One idea per paragraph, with topic sentences.
- Omit needless words.
- Minimize happy talk (such as “welcome to this page…”).
- Minimize instructions.
- Info that is only of interest to a minority of readers should be made available through a link.
- Use consistent capitalization and other style standards so that all usage is consistent.
- Should make sense even when the content is not right there under it.
- Should be clear and plain. Nothing cute.
- Should not be mere teasers. We should provide clear expectations.
- Should make the first word be info-carrying.
14. Don’t use cute or clever names for labels and links
No clever or cute label names should be used—people do not click on such links because they don’t know where they go.
Good labels are also consistent in these aspects:
- Style: punctuation, etc.
- Presentation: fonts, sizes, colors, white space
- Syntax: no mixing of verb-based and noun-based. Use a single syntactical approach.
- Granularity: all roughly equal in their specificity.
15. Focus on content
Ultimately, the interest and engagement level created by a site is a function of it’s content. Usability keeps the site from being an obstacle to its own content, so that the content can shine. “Original, quality content is the most valuable commodity of the Web. Users look for useful content and consume it voraciously once they find it” (Powell, 13).
This is not an exhaustive list of the principles we seek to follow in designing for the Web. For a more complete list, see our document Usability and Design Principles for DesiringGod.org.
Categorizing essentially consists of grouping like items together (classification) and assigning good labels to those groups (labeling). If it is going to be effective, categorizing needs to be done according to sound principles. Alternatively, if something is not categorized well, it is probably not understood well and will likely not communicate well.
This document outlines the key principles for how to categorize. It provides the framework to follow when grouping our content by topic (see the Topic Listing document for a list of our current topics and The Nature of Our Topic Index for a summary of the purposes and policies for our topic index) or into various other category groupings (such as those defined in the document Desiring God Classification Schemes).
Why Categorizing Matters
Categorization matters for several reasons, especially on websites. First, good categorization reveals site content. For example, thousands of site pages become more manageable when “summarized” by 8 primary categories. Second, good categorization reveals the structure of the content. Categories provide a framework for understanding and aid exploration because similar things are grouped together. Hence, presenting people with a logical set of categories that reveals the contours of the content is actually a form of teaching—a way of informing people how to think about and interpret what they find and associate it with other content.
Third, good categorization enables ease of use. This is especially important given the nature of our website. Our website is, in essence, “The Works of John Piper”—comprehensive and ever-growing. Therefore good categorization matters, as do consistent titling conventions, grammar, and so forth. Through good categorization, our site can be the complete Works of John Piper, easily navigable. Fourth, good categorization expands people’s horizons by exposing them to terms and groupings they would not have thought to search for—and probably couldn’t search for well, if they tried.
The Principles of Good Classification
Classification needs to follow solid principles if it is going to make sense and be useful. The characteristics of good classification, or grouping, are as follows:
- Follow a classification scheme. Identify the common trait that you are using as the basis of your grouping. This is the classification scheme, or organizing principle—that which “defines the shared characteristics of content items and influences the logical grouping of those items.” Classifications without a clear, definite, and consistent organizing scheme are confusing and reveal lack of clarity and understanding. See the document Desiring God Classification Schemes for a list of our major classification schemes.
- Do not mix classification schemes. Multiple schemes can be applied, but they cannot be mixed. For example, you would not want to use this category structure: CDs, MP3’s, and Christian living. The reason is that the first two items are product categories, while “Christian living” is a topic. You could subdivide CDs, however, by topic, or provide “Browse by Topic” or “Browse by Product Category” as two alternate means of browsing.
- Make the categories mutually exclusive. Categories should be mutually exclusive as much as possible. Otherwise, classification looses much of its value.
- Make the categories unambiguous. It needs to be clear what the categories pertain to, especially since ambiguity in effect works against mutual exclusivity.
- Eliminate redundancy. There should be no redundancy in labels, sections, and categories. For example, we should not have both “effectual calling” and “irresistible grace” as subject categories. If both terms are common, then by the least common one put a “see [name of the other term].”
- Keep cross-listing to a minimum. This means that each item should be in only one category. This follows from the principle of eliminating redundancy.
- Use “related items” sections to show people the full network of connections among resources. When an item seems to “fit” in more than one category, list it according to its primary category and designate it as a related item in other categories. This enables the item to be found, without making the user have to mentally sort each new category they go to in order to “screen out” the redundant elements.
- Make the categories comprehensive. There should be no gaps. The categories should be exhaustive, without being redundant.
- Seek to keep lists between 5 and 9 items. Groups of similar choices should generally be limited to 5-9 items; people can’t keep more in their mind for evaluation. If tons of links are needed, cluster them in groups of 5-9 links if you can. Of course, this is not always possible.
- Make the groupings intuitive. The customer should not have to work hard to figure them out. One way to accomplish this is through user testing. In user testing, the key is to observe how something works with them, not necessarily to incorporate all of their suggestions.
- Make the groupings logical. For the groupings to be logical means that they reflect the actual structure of the content. Since one of the purposes of categorization is to reveal the structure of the content, this principle is very important. At times, it may seem in conflict with making things intuitive. But in general, that which is logical is what is intuitive, or what will be found to be most intuitive upon use.
- Create the categories to anticipate future content. It should be possible to add additional content without breaking the category structure.
When categorizing by topic, there are two specific principles that apply on top of the above principles:
- Our topics should be universal to our organization. For example, we should not have one set of categories for products (online store), and a different set for resources (online library).
- Our topics should be historical. We should seek for the categories to be informed by traditional categories of theology and the Christian retailing industry.
The Principles of Good Labeling
Categories that are designed well need to be labeled well. Many of the principles of classification imply as their corollary certain principles of labeling. Good labels are:
- Not cute or clever.
- Consistent in style, punctuation, presentation (fonts, sizes, colors, white space), syntax (they do not mix of verb-based and noun-based terms, they agree in parts of speech, verb tense, and they have roughly the same number of words), and granularity (they are all roughly equal in their specificity).
The classification type depends upon whether you “group” your categories or just list them all without groupings. To group your categories underneath larger categories is called the encyclopedic method. To simply list them all without major groupings is the A-Z method.
Both have benefits and drawbacks, and the choice of a method depends on the purpose. The best example of an A-Z method is the phone book. This method works best for known-item-searching. If you know you need a plumber, for example, you just want to be able to flip to a section called “Plumbers.” You don’t want to have to go to a major category like “Household Services” to find plumbers grouped with electricians and carpet layers.
But for non-known item searching, the encyclopedic method can be useful, because it groups like categories together. For example, if I am interested in the field of theology, I may want to see all theological topics grouped together—rather than having to sort through a lengthy list that includes many other types of topics, in the hopes of being able to identify and remember all the ones that pertain specifically to theology.
When following an encyclopedic format, there are two main types of classification structures: the generic relationship and the whole-part relationship.
In the generic relationship structure, the relationship between the super and subclasses is always “IS-A.” An example of such a structure is:
- Automobile Companies
- General Motors
This is an “IS-A” relationship—Ford, Toyota, and General Motors are all types of automobile companies. According to “The Truth About Taxonomies,” an article in the Information Managmeent Journal, other characteristics of this type of structure are:
- Inclusiveness. The top class includes the subclasses. Everything beneath it is a type of it.
- Inheritance. Everything true of the given class is also true of all the items in its subclass.
- Transivity. All subclasses are members of every class above them.
- Systematic rules for association and distinction. All entities in a class are like each other in a predictable way.
- Mutual exclusivity. Each item can belong to only one class.
In a whole-part relationship, each item of the subclass is a component of the super class. An example would be:
In this instance, the fuselage, engine, and wings are all parts of an airplane. You have a whole-part relationship.
If you mix classification structures, you often have confusion. For example, you would not want to create this structure:
- Northwest Airlines
As can be seen, the problem with such a structure is that it does not adhere to a consistent classification. It mixes “Is-A” and “Whole-Part.” And among the “IS-A” relationships, you actually have two different kinds—Northwest Airlines is a type of airline, whereas the 747 and DC-10 are both types of airplanes.
This document provides the foundation for the two other documents in this series, Desiring God Topic Categories and Desiring God Classification Schemes. Some helpful external resources on classification are the following:
- “The Truth About Taxonomies,” The Information Management Journal (March/April 2003), 44-53).
- ECPA Christian Product Categories, 2003.
- Establishing Alphabetic, Numeric, and Subject Filing Systems, ARMA International, 2005.
- Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville.
See also the other DG documents pertaining to classification:
- Desiring God Classification Schemes
- Desiring God Topic Listing
- The Nature of Our Topic Index
 Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 55.