“Rough around the edges” is a colloquialism that is synonymous with “Diamond in the Rough.” Both refer to a person, place or thing that requires cleaning and polishing before its hidden beauty comes to light. Which is exactly how I feel about the House of Prayer Apostolic Church in Stone Gap, Virginia.
Here is a relatively new site with a very tired, old look. Which is a shame, because after overlooking its technical shortcomings, I see a church very vibrant and energetic personality and purpose. The problem is, these wonderful characteristics, along with some very compelling content, are hidden under a bowl of common mistakes.
Image Is Everything
Let’s start with the obvious, which are poorly aliased and poorly rendered images. While I’m usually not a big fan of the pastor/wife picture on the front page, this is a nice enough looking couple that its not a problem. Where the problem lies is how the image is “matted and framed,” a problem exacerbated by a 415 x 554 image that is displayed as a 185 x 246 sized image.
I’m going to keep saying this until Jesus returns, the height and width arguments of the <img< tag do not physically reduce the amount if disk space, and the amount of time it takes to download an image from the web server to a browser. In other words, on the current site, you are downloading a 23.5k image where a 7k image would do the trick. This triples the chance that a dial-up user will not wait around for the site to load – because studies have shown people don’t wait around for large images to load.
For those DSL and T1 users who do stick around, what they’re going to see on this site are images using 1997-style bevels and framing – which is sort of like me showing up for Easter service in the tuxedo I wore to my high-school prom 25 years ago. Yeah, I know, not a pretty site. Part of the problem occurs because of the background color selection. The grainy-gray background, not only makes smooth edges next to near impossible even for the most well aliased picture, it also conveys to me very dreary attitude. Gray, like winter. Gray like clouds, rain, snow. Still, if gray is your thing, then lose the background image, and use a single, color-safe shade of gray that is compatible with a large number of colors – and will allow you to “smooth” the edges of images to the point where they just blend into the background of the site.
One other thing, don’t forget, always fill in the alt=”" argument of <img> tag with a useful image description.
Content is King
As I said in my introduction, this site has plenty of content. The problem is, too much of the right content is on the wrong page. Let’s take the front page for example. I like their simple to paragraph welcome message:
We are a multicultural church that cares. Pastor Barron Duffy and congregation invite you to visit us and view this web site to see the various ministries we have to offer.
Our people are friendly, our services are lively, and God is moving among us in a beautiful way. We are seeing a wonderful move of the Spirit and hope you will join us for worship services soon.
What I despise is the bogus “Golden Web Award” splashed across the front page. Excuse me, the topic here is the personality and purpose of the church, not the skills of the web designer. Moreover, the individuals giving away this award appear to give it away to just about everyone, and is based upon no criteria for usability or accessibility I know of. About the only thing more irritating than the award are the evil scrolling marquees — especially the one’s on the status bar that break my Mozilla browser. I hate it when web sites break my browser.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if the text of what you have to say is so important, then why make your users chase it across the screen o-n-e l-e-t-t-e-r a-t a t-i-m-e? See what I mean?
In fact, everything past the award should be put on separate pages. Perhaps a page entitled “About Us.” And in place of the “award”, I would use the precious space “above the fold” for recent news, updates and events. For example, if you go to the Praise Reports page, you see this church has suffered from some flooding. Why should the pastor have to use an guest-book like mechanism to convey information that should be on the front page? There are several content management tools available to facilitate this need, this web site would be better served by one of them.
Another example of how a content management tool might be useful is in how this site deploys its calendar of events – as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file by default. Why? Considering how popular and useful this page would be to current members, and considering how frequently church calendars change, it makes no sense to write one’s calendar in virtual stone this way. If nothing else, use a simple PHP or Perl calendar application to render your events as fast loading and easy to read HTML.
Deep and Wide
There is an expression in object oriented programming of building deep forests versus wide. The former means you have level after level of abstraction. The later means everything is on (or close to) the top level. The menu/content hierarchy for this site is too wide. There should be a second tier of information. For example, under a top layer of “About Us”, you could branch to a second level that includes “Church History,” “What We Believe,” the cool photo album as well as the Mission Statement currently the front page.
I think part of the problem here is that a Java applet was employed for the rollover menus. Don’t do this! There are several corporate firewalls that now deny instantiation of ActiveX controls, and Java applets. It also makes your page terribly slow in loading. Moreover, it makes your page very unfriendly to individuals with visual disabilities – and search engines looking to index your site. One other thing. This particular Java applet is buggy. On more than one page re-load, I’ve noticed that some of the items get excluded.
10 Minutes x 24
So if I only had 240 minutes to heal this site, what would I do?
- First, I’d lose the gray patterned background as it paints me into a corner with regards to my color selections and rendering of images.
- I would fix how images are cut and framed. I would lose matting and beveling altogether, allowing the edges to gently
- flow into a solid-color background.
- I would create a second tier of choices, and limit the top level to “About Us”, “Current Events”, “The Pastor’s Page”, “GuestBooks”, and “Online Resources.”
- I would add a search engine.
- Make sure the calendar of events was in HTML
- Lose the Java applet rollovers in favor of CSS-based rollovers.
- Add the city and state to the <title> tag
Again, let me stress, my critique should in no way be perceived as a knock against the House of Prayer Apostolic Church in Stone Gap, Virginia. It is merely a criticism of how this church is portrayed online. The trick here is to quick playing with gimmicks and to allow the congregation’s true beauty to shine like a star.