The recent redesign of the Orthodox Church in America website represents a step forward only in ease of administration for the webmaster. Any critique will necessarily be skewed with subjective bias, but web design is not entirely a subjective field. On nearly every question of usability and accessibility, the new OCA website fails.
Accessibility is perhaps the most glaring issue posed by the new OCA website. The opening abstract in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium (the body responsible for the standards that make up the web, like HTML) makes the most convincing case for designing accessible websites:
These guidelines explain how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. The guidelines are intended for all Web content developers (page authors and site designers) and for developers of authoring tools. The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility. However, following them will also make Web content more available to all users, whatever user agent they are using (e.g., desktop browser, voice browser, mobile phone, automobile-based personal computer, etc.) or constraints they may be operating under (e.g., noisy surroundings, under- or over-illuminated rooms, in a hands-free environment, etc.). Following these guidelines will also help people find information on the Web more quickly. These guidelines do not discourage content developers from using images, video, etc., but rather explain how to make multimedia content more accessible to a wide audience.
The new OCA website consistently employs images with empty “alt” attributes, which violates the above referenced guidelines. Disabled users, as well as users of non-visual browsers, cannot use the site as currently designed. “Alt” attributes give a description of an image for use by screen-readers and other text-only browsers, such as those used by blind users, other disabled users, mobile phones and PDAs. Many images on the site are being used instead of text; the omission of “alt” descriptions makes the site unusable for these users.
A major impetus of the site redesign was creating a database driven site that is easier to administer. I am sure that this goal has been accomplished, since the webmaster is clearly irritated by complaints that all inbound links have been broken by the redesign. However, links are what the web is all about. If you break inbound links to your website, you make your 404 error page the first thing that many users see. When you redesign a site, preserving the integrity of inbound links should be your first priority.
The use of banners for faux advertisements is cute, but it wastes screen real estate. In usability studies, “Banner Blindness” has been shown to cause website users to miss important information that looks like a banner ad. (Search Google for more information on banner blindness.) Creating faux ads would be cute for a parody site like The Onion Dome, but its cuteness seems misplaced on a serious project like the official website of the Orthodox Church in America. Users of ad blocking software may never even be aware that they are missing content, since all of the faux advertisements have “Advertisement” in their URL.
The most annoying area of the new website is the new photo viewer. It employs pop-up windows, which makes it a major annoyance already. Once the pop-up viewer is loaded, the interface leaves much to be desired. The viewer provides a drop-down menu for selecting events, then labels the events with dates and locations rather than useful text such as “The Meeting of the Lesser Synod of Bishops.” Further, compare the printable version of a photo with its viewer version. The photo is larger, no particular screen size or resolution is required, and it is generally a better designed page. (In fact, printable versions of web pages are generally better all around.)
Let’s be clear on one thing: The OCA website has some great content. The daily readings, hymns and hagiography, the “Life in Christ” series by Archpriest John Breck, downloadable musical settings for choir directors. Its problem is not that it doesn’t have great content; the problem is the work that it makes users do to get it. Arguably, the daily commemorations are the strongest area of content on the site. Why make the user go through a circus of ten or more steps to get all of this wonderful content? Would it be so difficult to put it all on one page?
On the positive side, I applaud the website team for using the Bible Gateway API or something like it to get the Scripture readings for each day. Too bad it’s below the fold; I almost missed it. If a fellow user hadn’t pointed it out to me, I might have taken forever to find it. The huge photo of a guy reading the Bible is nice but gratuituous and just gets in the way of the real reason I asked to be served this page: the actual stuff from the Bible! Content below the fold is a big problem on the new site; the front page has tons of links to great content hiding out down there, while a confusing menu takes sits on the top.
I am looking forward to seeing what others think of the site redesign. I have looked for positive things to say about the new site, but I have found few. The web team has clearly worked very, very hard, but they do not seem to have a clear vision of what makes a solid web presence. A good starting point would be Human Factors International’s “UI Design Update Newsletter” from December 1999. Most websites have long since integrated these suggestions into their designs; the web team at OCA.org seems not even to be aware of them.
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