Matt Perman is Senior Director of Strategy for Desiring God. Desiring God offers resources from the ministry of John Piper in the hope of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, through Jesus Christ. Mr. Perman is responsible for developing Desiring God’s website strategy and supporting processes. In 2006, he led a major redesign effort for the ministry’s website. He also blogs on management and productivity issues at whatsbestnext.com.
We recently interviewed Mr. Perman about how Desiring God has integrates web activities into its ministry strategy. He shared with us many of the beliefs about excellence that shape how Desiring God approaches web strategy. “Risk taking has to be part of how you discover excellence, you can’t always know what it will look like from the start. You have to work your way there by trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works. The culture at Desiring God allowed me to do this while we redesigned our site; I think I took a year to just learn by research and testing.”
Below are some highlights from our discussion with Mr. Perman about excellence in online ministry. The outcomes from this research will be presented at the 2010 Christian Leadership Alliance’s Ministry Internet and Technology Summit next April in San Diego, CA. To get more information and to register, visit the Ministry Internet and Technology Summit website. To have your ministry participate in the research, please sign up here.
In that vein, online excellence will be different from one ministry to another. But excellence is not something that causes people to marvel at the site. It is that which serves people most effectively; though, you do want them to have a good experience.
What are the one or two key things that a ministry must do to achieve online excellence?
A ministry’s website must be usable. It must contain edifying content. Most importantly, a ministry must develop a coherent web philosophy. A web philosophy is really central to us; we’ve had our website since the mid-90s but it wasn’t until around 2003/2004 that we realized we had this great content but it was hard to access.
So defining a web philosophy is my number one and has had the highest impact, driving the impact of our web effort. We’ve been heavily influenced by Jim Collins [author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials)
and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (affiliate links)] whose research of leading organization shows that those that had the greatest impact had a coherent set of beliefs.
In your experience, how do the following contribute to online excellence:
All of these are essential; but if I was to identify one thing that contributes, it would be having a philosophy of usability. Great content must be wedded with high usability. If you have excellent content but it’s hard to use the content is obscured. Not focusing on usability creates distortion that gets in the way of the content. Even if you have financial resources and a competent staff, poor usability will lead to an ineffective website.
Quick thought about design — design comes after usability. In addition to poor usability, poor design is a guaranteed way to fail the user. Users don’t want to use sites with poor design. When you think about design, think first about consistency. Design is not first about making something look cool. You must have a consistent visual look that is faithful to your organization. Design is basically your permission to play; if a website looks atrocious, users will wonder if that organization actually cares.
What is Desiring God’s philosophy of usability?
We’ve found that there are certain principles of usability. The best exposition we’ve found is in Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition. (affiliate link)
For us, the one thing that has the highest impact is good navigation. The biggest question a user has is “Where am I?”
A ministry must have a user-centered perspective which is really the second commandment. I believe this is an expression of Christian love, to put yourself in the shoes of the other person, anticipate their problems and needs and take action to solve those problems. Looking at things from the other person’s point of view and asking, “How can we make this experience better for the people accessing our site?”
In addition, we believe strongly in usability testing, we don’t want to guess at what users find helpful or problematic. We need to find that out for real. And we don’t want to necessarily ask the user to tell us, though that is important. You need to experience fisrt-hand how they interact with your website. When we were redesigning the Desiring God site we said that we were going to see if the designs worked before rolling them out on the site.
What benefits do you believe a standard of excellence can create for ministries?
A standard of excellence creates a shortcut for ministries; they don’t have to reinvent the wheel while developing their web strategy. That saves them a ton of work. The best example of this impact at Desiring God is our philosophy of usability. The great thing about focusing on excellence is the articulation of principles that all ministries can look at and see so that they don’t have to spend their resources figuring it out on their own.
Ministries need to partner with each other. My desire is to find a way for ministries to join together and enhancing the sharing of knowledge, contacts, and point people that can be effective. We’re all advancing the same goal; we should seek to make one another more successful.
Interview has been condensed and edited.