The Vatican Website Needs a Miracle

The Vatican website received a refresh (it wouldn’t really be accurate to call it a redesign). Here’s what it looks like:

My first, uncharitable impulse was to list and bemoan all the things that are wrong with it. Yes, the parchment background is horrendous, and the scrolling Twitter marquee is perplexingly archaic. In fact, I’ve made a Safari extension to get rid of those, which makes the site look like this when you install it:

However, just nitpicking without offering solutions is all too easy and common, and doesn’t really add much of value. So instead, I want to take a deeper look at some of the reasons that what’s there is bad, why it’s important that it could be better, and what possibilities are open.

Why redesign at all?

A major reason for the failure of many redesigns is that the reasons for them are never fully developed. All too many projects start with nothing more concrete than the idea that “the site has looked the same for too long, it’s time to refresh it.”

If the people who have commissioned the design — those who have a say in how it develops — don’t have a clear, practical idea of why it’s necessary, then this leads to a host of problems. It’s often the job of the designer/developer to explain to the client why the client was right to hire them!

There are many valid reasons to redesign a website — in the case of the Vatican website I’d say some good ones would be:

  1. Getting casual visitors the information they’re looking for without frustrating them.
  2. Providing a better resource for the thousands of people working with Church documents and materials.
  3. Improving public perception of the Catholic Church.
  4. Creating a more efficient stage on which to communicate new information.

There are undoubtedly many other areas that would be improved by a well-done restructuring and design of the website, but these four seem — off the top of my head — to be some prominent ones.

All about the people

The important thing about the list of reasons I came up with there is that they’re all based on improving things for people. I’ve come to realise over the years that starting anywhere else is a mistake. If as someone who commissions a design you make that mistake (“I like [competitor’s] website better than ours, they have feature x!”) then you end up with idiotic things like a scrolling Twitter marquee. Likewise, as a designer, never make the mistake of doing things because you can, or because you just learned how.

Every design should start with: how will this make the right people feel the right way and take the right actions?

Audience (and Problems)

Therefore, before it’s possible to make anything more than the most basic recommendations on any aspect of the design, it’s necessary to ground the discussion in an idea of the intended audience and what you want them to do or experience.

I imagine that a rudimentary breakdown of the main desired demographics accessing the Vatican website would look something like this:

  1. Non-Catholics
  2. Laypeople
  3. Clergy and those connected with some Catholic mission.

It’s often helpful to walk through a few projected case-studies to validate your assumptions about audience.

1. Bob Non-Catholic.
Bob has been searching for a faith to call his own for a few years. He’s tried a few different things: Buddhism, a local Protestant house-church, even a brief, awkward flirtation with Wicca. Interested in learning more about the Catholic faith after a chance encounter with a friendly priest in an airport, Bob finds himself on the Vatican website. He’s mostly interested in finding out some basics about what Catholics actually believe — he doesn’t want to show up at his local parish completely unprepared.

2. Cynthia Layperson.
Cynthia is having a conversation with one of her friends about the fact that a lot of people seem to raise their hands at different times during the Mass, and she wants to find out whether there’s any easy cheatsheet for when to do that.

3. Lorraine Catholic Publisher.
Lorraine is working on compiling a book of quotations from Popes of the 20th century. She turns to the Vatican website, which is host to a giant collection of material from popes… somewhere.

Right now, the Vatican site doesn’t serve any of these people particularly well. It’s confusing, and poorly laid out. Bob would be much better off going to the Wikipedia entry on Catholicism. Cynthia doesn’t have a chance. And Lorraine will probably grow more than a few grey hairs before her book goes to print.

These people are quite obviously failed by the functionality of the site. But making it easier for people to take action on your site is one thing. Making them feel a certain way is a yeti of a different color. In my experience, explaining the value of increased ease of use and greater functionality is always a lot easier than explaining why things should look and feel pleasing.

Why is it important? Well, when design is beautiful it makes the information it contains seem more important. It seems more trustowrthy. It positively reinforces our opinions of the content. In the excellent article In Defense of Eye Candy, Stephen P. Anderson has this to say:

The more we learn about people, and how our brains process information, the more we learn the truth of that phrase: form and function aren’t separate items. If we believe that style somehow exists independent of functionality, that we can treat aesthetics and function as two separate pieces, then we ignore the evidence that beauty is much more than decoration. Our brains can’t help but agree.

I think that the people calling the shots on the Vatican website are probably making two common mistakes:

  1. Because they themselves are intimately acquainted with the material it contains, they assume that everyone is going to be able to find things as easily as they can. I mean, who doesn’t know what an encyclical is?
  2. They don’t recognise that beauty is an innate part of a good website, and they don’t realize the level of skill needed to achieve great aesthetics.

The second part is just as grave an error, to my mind. The primary mission of the Church is evangelization — bringing the Gospel to new people. To put it bluntly, the online version of the Catholic Church that people encounter looks awful. Archaic, boring, confusing. Based on their websites alone, would you rather join the Catholic Church, or this one:

Nowadays, an organization’s website is almost always our first port of call — our first interaction with them. How many people have decided that there was no chance they were ever becoming Catholic once they visited the website? I bet it’s a non-zero number.

You would think that, of all people, the Catholic Church would realize the benefit of dressing the truth in beautiful garments. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

A Way Forward

I have no doubt that there are a lot of people with a lot of good ideas about what to do with the website. Design by committee and years of red tape are probably the main reasons that the site is the way it is. However, here are a few ideas for basic improvements that could be made:

  1. Build the site out from basics again. The underlying code needs to go, it’s hideous. I can’t even imagine what it looks like behind the scenes. It’ll save so much time long-term to stop tweaking and patching the monstrosity that exists. Work it up from something simple again. This will require retraining and hours of content migration. So be it. It’s going to have to happen eventually.
  2. Completely gut the home page, and slash the number of menus from six to a maximum of two. Figure out what doesn’t need to be on there. Right now there are a hundred elements with roughly equal weighting. Instead of throwing all possible links at the visitor, work out what pathways they are likely to follow and make that your starting point for what shows when you visit the home page.
  3. If you’re going to have a multi-lingual site, make sure that everything is multilingual, even the error messages.
  4. Assume that the visitor is a lowest common denominator. Does the casual vistor know what Motu Proprio means? Angelus Regina Coeli? Of course not. Group information into more straighforward categories: Pope Francis — Written Material, etc.
  5. Don’t use a cross for the “abuse of the minors” menu item. What a terrible blunder that was.
  6. No more parchment. Instead, make the most visually minimal design that you can, and then iterate very carefully on that. Complexity is unavoidable, and that’s why you start simple. White space is nothing to be ashamed of.
  7. Make sure that the site is responsive, and on some kind of grid.
  8. Seriously, make sure that it’s responsive. Test.
  9. If you want to get extreme, maybe the Vatican site is trying to do too much in one place. Perhaps it should be split so that the main site is people-friendly, and the rest of the resources are provided elsewhere.

Of course, any good designer worth their salt knows all of the above. So step one should probably be hire a good designer and give them enough space to work without fear of excommunication.

The Vatican website shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s one of the most important ways the Church communicates with the world. It’s time for someone in Rome to recognise that.