Thursday, August 12, 2010

Re-Doin' the Vatican Web: An Open Response to Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz

I am a Catholic and have been a librarian and webmaster for the last 14 years. I am a regular vatican.va user and, as such, I would like to offer an open response to Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz's comments in L'Osservatore Romano.

1. Language: You talk about branching out into Arabic and Russian, and yet a substantial amount of material on the Vatican Web site is not even available in English. Italian may be the lingua franca of the Catholic Church but English is the lingua franca of the Web. It is the main second or academic language of those whose primary language is not represented on your Web site. This includes countries with substantial Catholic populations and vocations such as India and Nigeria. Before moving into new languages, it would be more important to make sure all materials currently available are in English too. Unfortunately, computer-assisted translating, which does not work very well from Italian into English, is not an acceptable alternative.

2. Structure: You speak of making the Web site a virtual replica of the Apostolic See. While that concept sounds laudable, it is potentially a recipe for very bad Web design. Organizations often want a Web design that replicates their institutional structure, where documents are organized according to the division that produced them. The result is that documents on the same subject are scattered all over the Web site. The end user, on the other hand, is more interested in the subject than the authoring entity and is better served by having documents grouped according to topic.

3. Navigation, Norms, and the Home Page: As the Web has evolved, some "best practices" or design norms have emerged. Among these are the left side text navigation bar and the upper right hand corner search box. Another is "bread crumbs" - that navigational line at the top of each page that lets the user know where it "lives" on the site so that the user can go back to a point where he or she might find related documents. While some may think that automatically implementing these kinds of norms makes the sites boring and identical, they make it easier for the users to get the information they are looking for quickly, especially if they land in the middle of the site from an external search engine such as Google or Yahoo. It's like the Catholic Mass. The universality of certain words or gestures helps the faithful to feel at home no matter which Catholic church they are attending, even if the Mass isn't in a language they know.

As for navigation, there are also common, universally understandable categories on an organization or corporate Web site that information professionals automatically look for: About Us, News, Publications, Departments or Divisions, Multimedia, Contact Us, etc... I would love to see a similar structure on the Vatican's home page instead of a bunch of meaningless icons, where I have to click around to figure out where you've hidden the Code of Canon Law, for example. The top and center of the Home Page is customarily used to highlight whatever the organization thinks is hot, what it wants to "push" to its viewers. That, presumably, is what the "Focus" part of vatican.va is doing right now.

4. The Look: With respect to graphics, my only plea would be to lose the ubiquitous pink marble background. There is a reason that most major news and corporate Web sites use a white background for their texts. The current look is old and stodgy. It may be in keeping with what some of us think the Vatican is like under the current administration, but it's probably not the image you really want to project, especially if you want to attract and keep young people in the Church. A little tasteful animation and Flash would not be unwelcome either.

5. L'Osservatore Romano: I'm glad to hear that this publication will have its own site and I hope this will mean a bigger archive of past issues, especially of the daily edition. You say that "osservatore" and "romano" come up as frequent search terms and it is because this publication is often cited in news articles and people look for the original source.

6. Interactivity: With all due respect, I believe that the Vatican is wrong to fear incorporating more interactivity into the Web site. Increased interactivity is the hallmark of the modern Web site and the direction in which most developers are going. Without compromising the basic communications structure, you could:

a) Include RSS feed options on news releases or the daily VIS for example.

b) Include "share" options for the big social networks on all major new materials posted, even if it means that a statement from the Pontiff winds up on somebody's Facebook page with the comment "Can you believe the Pope actually said this? Give me a break!" Note: We can already do this without the "share" feature; adding it just makes the Vatican look more modern and open.

c) Occasional controlled "chats" with the Pope and other high Vatican officials: You compared the Pope's Web presence to the Angelus where he is high up in a window, untouchable, unanswerable, offering his prayer and blessing to his flock. A clerical "wizard of Oz". But the Pope is our spiritual father and we should be able to communicate with him and ask him questions as children ask their biological fathers. Sometimes a child asks difficult questions. Sometimes the father doesn't know the answer or chooses not to answer. But if the Holy Father is afraid to participate in an online chat because someone might ask "Why can't women be priests?" or "Isn't it better to let people use condoms than spread STDs?", our Church has a bigger problem. The Pope should be able to defend the basic teachings of the Church in any situation, even when his critics may not like or agree with his answers. This Pope is a teacher, and it is conceivable that he might actually enjoy taking questions -- even contentious ones -- from his flock. Try thinking of it as a world-wide papal audience rather than the Angelus and you might bring vatican.va closer to a modern Web presence. Major news organs routinely hold online chats with celebrities and know how to do so without gaffes and scandals.

7. Focus Groups: As you are redesigning the Vatican Web site, I would strongly recommend that you convene focus groups of users in the ten countries that you say most frequently access vatican.va. These groups should combine "in house" users (clergy, Vatican staff), information professionals (i.e. librarians in different settings -- school, university/seminary, public), and informed lay users (teachers, professors, journalists). Three questions:

i) What do you expect to find on the Vatican Web site?
ii) How easy is it to find it?
iii) How would you change the Web site to make the information easier to find?


Knowing how people use the Web site can help you to help them and bring you closer to achieving your ultimate goal of getting the Word to the ends of the earth.

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