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Church Site Architecture

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Is your church website like a house with clothes, toys, and podcasts scattered around the floors of every room? Or, are you the Martha Stewart of webmasters, organizing and categorizing your content for easy use? (sounds like there's a biblical parable there somewhere...)

On today's 'cast, we're going to encourage you to be like Martha Stewart. At least the pre-jail, "I haven't stolen money from anyone yet" version. We talk all about how important it is for your site to have good information architecture and a navigation scheme that's easy to use...thereby not frustrating your visitors by making them sort thru your dirty socks to find the latest blog entry.

Before all this, we announce the enhanced version of the G&G podcast, and we give you the opportunity to support this podcast (just click any link and see the new donate button on the sidebar)

Site Architecture is important... finding out the hard way.

I've really come to appreciate how important this stuff is.
I had a difficult experience that I thought I might pass on in the hope that it might ease the way for others:

About 9 months ago my church started a long delayed effort to prepare an updated web site.

As a IT Group guy, my attention and input was focused on physical and software platform for a new web site. Though I personally was quite interested in participating in all phases of the work, our church leaders wanted our Marketing Group to execute development of the visual and informational content and organization/navigation stuff. My understanding is they were concerned with issues regarding division of authority in the church and optimal use of our congregations volunteer resources. It believe it was their understanding that the principle value of a church web site is marketing.

Unfortunately the Marketing group was not all that familiar with a lot of the issues and concerns discussed in this podcast or others in the past. Marketing was also given a very rushed schedule and not provided with the time or resources to educate themselves or enlist quality outside help.

This didn't work out well for me. When I finally was brought in to build the site... I found I still had to deal with a lot of these issues to make the site basically usable and maintainable. I found rather a mess. I was then in the position where I couldn't clean up a lot of problems without tearing up the work done by others. That would have both blown the time-line and resulted in a lots of motivation crushing bruised feelings.

I found I was able to tweak things to minimize some of the difficulties, but there were a lot of other problems that were just baked into the information and visual architecture that I couldn't do much about. It also made development take longer because the design was developed in the abstract, and decisions that made the site more challenging to build and maintain had gotten baked in. The result was the build period and user training period were much longer than desired.

In reflection I think it might be good to develop at least a rough working model of the information architecture and visual layout to examine these elements by use test, before design commitments.

Today our new site is in production. It looks fresh and modern. It is +90% "planned feature" complete, and most at the church leadership and staff is very pleased with improvements. People are happy with the result. But I am aware that in many respects it is now harder to understand and navigate than the older site it replaced.

If this was just a client, I would probably feel better. But it is my church, and by the end of the process, I came to realize that a lot of the work was going to need reorganizing and restructuring for us to achieve the kind of effectiveness that would be valuable today, and which we will really need in the future. The platform and hosting architecture is good (Drupal and a good web host). The top level stuff is OK (theme enforced CSS, WYSIWYG editing, scheduled content publishing). But not sweating this middle level stuff, introduced a lot of problems that are likely going to take a couple years of dedication to clean up (if we can continue to find time to work on them). I'm guessing we could complete such a cleanup by around 2010 if we are able to stay focused between now and then.

Mark

Mark

Tough

It can be very tough to go back and clean up an old architecture. To move to something architected well. I've been there. Good luck.

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Co-Host
www.innovatingtomorrow.net
www.mattfarina.com

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Former Co-Host
www.mattfarina.com

City, State and Zip

Okay, I'll be the first to admit that this little rant might not quite belong as a comment on this episode, but it's close enough.

<rant>It would be really cool if more churches decided to include their city and state on their directions or campus listing pages. Helloooo? People? It's the World Wide Web - though people don't use that term much any more. Some people may come to your web site for reasons other than seeking a local church. Perhaps they've followed a link from a person's page on another site, or stumbled upon the site while researching a topic. Or maybe they are looking for a local church in an area that's new to them and don't know where all the suburbs are.</rant>

Well, I feel better now that I've gotten that off my chest. It's just that this has happened to me a couple of times recently, and it's really annoying. Especially when the site navigation is reasonably sensible, and you can get to their location information relatively quickly, only to be forced to follow their link to Google Maps (if any) just to find out where they are in the country. In any event, complete contact information, with a full mailing address and phone number, should be automatic for all church web site designers, but for some reason, it's not.

Micah

Another reason

Another reason to have the address right on the site (and preferably somewhere on the homepage) is that google and yahoo pick that up for their local and business searches.

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Co-Host
www.innovatingtomorrow.net
www.mattfarina.com

Matt Farina
Geeks and God Former Co-Host
www.mattfarina.com

One idea to see examples of

One idea to see examples of sites that don't suck is to look outside of the genre. Right now, there is a presidential campaign going on and each candidate has his or her official site. Some of these sites are impressive and can be good for stimulating new ideas for church websites. I have not seen them all, but the ones I have seen look nice. Some are excellent. Here a couple of examples:

http://www.fred08.com/Index.aspx
http://johnedwards.com/
http://www.joinrudy2008.com/
http://www.barackobama.com/index.php
http://mccain.senate.gov/public/
http://www.hillaryclinton.com/
http://www.mikehuckabee.com/

Categories

OK, I confess that our church website is still HTML. I hope to change that when I get some free time.

That said, I wanted to add one comment to the idea of categories: You mentioned "Interactive" as a separate category. While this may be unavoidable, the goal should be to build interactivity into *every* part of the site, so every node can have comments: People can post photos from the last youth activity or chili supper, testimonials in the "About us" section, or whatever. Forums are really web 1.5, and I've been trying to come up with a way to have open-ended interactivity without a traditional forum setting. I haven't yet, but it'll likely come to me in a dream or something.

Dale
Cohost, CrossFeed Religious News Podcast
http://www.crossfeednews.com

A little misunderstanding

Hey Dale...
Great point, and that's the mentality we get to in our current community site series. However, I think maybe you misheard (or misunderstood) what we meant when we were talking about that "interact" section of the site.

You're right when you say the entire site should be interactive (people should be adding content that populates the entire site), however, when creating menus and navigation (ie. User Interface stuff) it's really important to put it in terms that the USER understands, which will be different from what us, on the backend, understand.

"Interact" to the user will mean traditional interaction with other people: forums, discussions, blogs, etc. It wouldn't mean "adding content to the website" (ie. interacting with the SITE). So, we suggested a menu title that would reflect what the user thinks, as opposed to what we think of as interaction.

Hope that makes it a little more clear...good point, though.

-Rob Feature
Geeks and God Co-Host
www.mustardseedmedia.com

-Rob Feature
Geeks and God Co-Host
www.mustardseedmedia.com