A celebration of cruft, the king of kitsch ministries.

The WikiPedia defines ‘cruft‘ is computing jargon for code, data, or software of poor quality and ‘kitsch‘ as art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an existing style. The Celebrations Of The King Ministries in Loma Linda, CA provides a website that is both. The only real question being, what % is kitsch, and what % is cruft – as the design of the this church website seems to take its queue from the Hamster Dance school  of design, circa 1998.

Click here to see the full-sized Celebration of the King Ministries - rocking like it's 1999

In short, this is a site where the content needs to be saved into plain, simple and separate text files and then from the root directory of the website, cured via the following Linux command line operation:
rm -rf * or in MS-DOS: del *.*

I know deleting everything sounds rather drastic, but here are five things alone on the front page I found that lead me to thing the current site is beyond healing:

  1. Spinning animated crosses – once again, if you don’t have a spinning gold cross on the roof or steeple of your church, then you’re not allowed to have one on your site.
  2. Gold lamé background image – aside from making any text difficult to read while limiting one’s color options, I’m not so sure imagery of satin sheets really conveys the right message for a para-church ministry.
  3. Using graphics to render text – and really unreadable graphics at that. I’m talking about the page and ministry title. Search engines index sites based on text – rendering the ministry’s name with graphics is like putting a lamp under a basket.
  4. Having to explain one’s navigation – especially on this site, where it instructs users to read through page scroll after page scroll of text below … before clicking on the image just above the instruction. Personally, I prefer text-driven menu navigation, but if you must – at least also offer a link into the ‘main site’ after the super-long, unreadable and not-so compelling text that while providing alot of information, still leaves one wondering why they should navigate into the site any further.
  5. Looking cheap – its no secret, one of the reasons para-church ministries create a web presence is to bring in donations. However, just like the parable of the sower indicates it was those who invested whom received the reward, so too a ministry will receive little if the website looks and feels like little, if any professional attention was invested in its creation.

So how does one heal a church website in such bad condition (and trust me, I navigated into the other pages – it doesn’t get any better)? Here are five steps I’d take:

  1. As I said earlier, copy off all the content into plain, simple and separate text files;
  2. Create a free account with Blogger to post the content;
  3. Create a free account at Odeo, OurMedia, or SermonCloud to post audio files;
  4. Create the following categories for content:
    • about us – for all the biographical, mission-statement and goal-oriented information,
    • news and events – for all the the news letter, email, and upcoming events type stuff,
    • podcasts – upgrade away from the tape ministry, Audacity and a half-decent sound card will get it done; and
    • help us – show people how they can assist through volunteerism, donations, etc …
  5. Now begin re-entering as individual posts the content once copied into text files, remembering that what you enter last will appear first.

Now I realize some might argue: “… but the site will look more like a blog instead of a website!

This is true, but it is also true that it will immediately provide the following benefits:

  • content that is more readable by humans and search engines;
  • content that is more organized both for the consumer and the provider;
  • content that can be easily revises, amended, and/or appended;
  • a consistent style and navigation that governs the entire site; and
  • no need for the content provider to worry about the technical details – nor to be led into temptation by evil design elements that cheapen one’s online presence with cruft and kitsch.

If nothing else, the above approach could be used as a very inexpensive but effective short-term stop-gap until the folks at the ministry can muster either the time or funds necessary to move to a more formalized website. Trust me, any designer walking into such a project will be more than grateful such an interim step was taken – a gratitude likely displayed by not charging nearly as much as to re-factor the current site.

How about you, what would be your approach to healing this para-church ministry website? Leave a comment, in love, so we can all learn.

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Don’t turn your front page into a splash page

What does it profit your church or charity’s website to have the most beautiful web pages ever designed if it doesn’t convince people to visit your church, engage in your ministries, or at least inquire for more information? Today I ask that question of the Westwinds Community Church of Jackson, MI – based in part on some advice offered by Cynthia Ware in her post 4 Simple Steps to Improving Your Website.

First this clarification: When it comes to Cynthia Ware, I would strongly advise all my cult members to add her most excellent Digital Sanctuary website to their blogroll (do this now, I’m watching). However, in a recent analysis she offered of the Westwinds Community Church website – I think I must respectfully disagree – to a degree with some of the advice offered.

In her  4 Simple Steps post she correctly identifies some emerging technologies that can add life to an otherwise static church website; these being:

  1. streaming video
  2. blogs
  3. podcasts
  4. fresh content

So no problems there. However where we diverge greatly in opinion is when she writes:

The web site of Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Michigan is a good example because with out being overly flashy or polished it provides evidence that their church is responding to the changes in our culture …

You can click into their landing page to see

Note the emphasis mine – and for good reason.

One of the other links all good HYCW cult members should have on their blogroll (please do so now if not, I’m still watching) is Vincent Flanders’ Web Pages that Suck. Specifically his page entitled “Biggest Mistakes in Web Design 1995-2015.”

Specifically I would like to draw everyone’s attention to point #2 – where Father Flanders reminds us of this important tenant of the faith:

A man from Mars can’t figure out what your web site is about in less than four seconds.

And quite frankly, the Westwinds page is such a web site. Here are just 5 reasons why:

  1. The <title /> reads “This Week | Westwinds” instead of “This week at Westwinds Community Church, Jackson, MI 49203” – considering many search engines index their URLs on the page title – which one do you think will provide better results for a new resident of Jackson, MI seeking a community church experience?
  2. Using graphics for text – again, a situation where the content, though fresh, does nothing to help users get to the site via Google, simply because there’s not much there for Google to index.
  3. Employing a DuHTML menu that is almost mystery-meat-like in its implementation as displayed below:
    As one can see from the snippet above, a user must first get past the “noisy” graphics to see the “+” sign, then must be net-savvy enough to understand that the “+” sign means the menu will open – provided one’s browser is up to the task.

    Why does the designer insist on hiding the following church essentials under a bowl or basket of Javascript: Sunday Services, Kids, Students, Media, Who We Are, Contact, etc … ?

  4. They employ a “this week” blog-like approach, but provide no alternate link to an RSS feed. In fact, there is no RSS feed I could find associated with said blog. This was okay back in 2003 when David Winer was still figuring it all out – but in 2008 – we need the feed.
  5. Grey text against a black background, except where fire engine red was used to shout something church-speaky, and/or blue to identify linkable points of ineterest using “click here” … all below the fold … instead of simply creating a context-oriented linkroll on the right hand column; that btw would be nice if it worked with smaller screen resolutions.

In short, while Cynthia is right in asserting:

  • podcasts are a great way to present sermons, tutorials, lessions, etc …;
  • so is steaming video (and/or screencasts);
  • blogs too, along with a way to detail upcoming events by ministry;
  • fresh content, which the three technologies above help deliver.

Where I disagree is putting them all on the front page, or constructing a front page around said technologies in such a way that one’s 2008 frontpage looks and functionally works more like a splash page from 1998.

Or as Gillian Carson asserted in article entitled “Turning visitors into users:”

Thousands of people may be visiting your site every day, but if you don’t convince them that they should be using your product, subscribing to your service, or registering in some way, then your web app’s homepage is simply not doing its job.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment in love so we can all learn from it!

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5 ways to save fuel and staff costs by screencasting webinars

One of the more painful big money issues facing churches and charities are upcoming energy costs that will consume more funds once allocated to other endeavors; while forcing some locations to have black-out dates to reduce the high cost of heating a facility during off-hours. Not to mention the rising costs to staff and laypersons to drive to said locations during the week.

With such exorbitant expenses in mind, there are many online technologies now available to an ever growing bandwidth-enabled congregations that will allow them to save money by moving mid-week meetings and classes out of bricks-n-mortar places and into the web space.

Screencasting

Save fuel & frustration by Screencasting webinarsA good example of this is Screencasting, which the WikiPedia defines as:

“… a digital recording of computer screen output, also known as a video screen capture, often containing audio narration … recent products support more compact file formats such as Adobe Flash and have more sophisticated editing features allowing changes in sequence, mouse movement, and audio.

Just as a screenshot is a picture of a user’s screen, a screencast is essentially a movie of what a user sees on their monitor.”

However, it is an ‘how-to-screencast’ article I found over at Smashing Magazine that finally got me inspired to post on the topic of remote learning – especially when the author of the article asserts:

“Some companies have made a living creating a sort of “virtual classroom,” allowing members to learn at their own pace when they have the time using video tutorials. The advantages of the classroom setting stem from a one on one experience and the ability of the instructor to show the ideas and theories rather than simply explain them.”

More on how you would apply this in a moment, but first, let’s talk about what we’re screencasting …

Webinars

Also known as web-conferences, webinars allow groups to conduct live meetings or presentations over the Internet. In a webinar, each participant sits at his or her own computer and is connected to other participants via the internet. This can be either a downloaded application on each of the attendees computers or a web-based application where the attendees will simply enter a URL (website address) to enter the conference.

In some cases, the audio is conveyed over a dial-in phone conference channel, though I’ve heard of cases where small conferences reduce costs by employing Skype for the audio portion – be warned though that such alternatives fall into the perilous category of “you get what you pay for.

Some companies that offer some moderately priced webcast solutions are (in no particular order):

Recite live once, record and re-use often
Some of the above systems also provide easy methods for “hitting the record button” to create screencasts of your webinar … allowing you to present once, but view often anywhere, at any time. That said, make sure you can move such videos off their storage (for which they charge) and onto a plaftform like YouTube.

That said, you may want to employ the tools cited in the Smashing Magazine Article including Snapz Pro X, iShowU, and Screenflow for the Mac or Camtasia Studio 5, CamStudio, Adobe Captivate, and Wink for Windows, or Screencast.com that works on both.

There are also some other high-end webinar solutions that certainly “have it all” but are as a result are more expensive to use are: WebEx, LiveMeeting, Adobe Connect Pro, and Elluminate.

Putting it altogether

Now start thinking along these lines:

  1. Screencasting the slides and audio from last Sunday’s sermon and/or Sunday school class for those who may be physically impaired or otherwise unable to attend in person;
  2. Providing a study series of Bible studies and/or how-to-lessons that you present once online live, then offer for view over and over and over again to anyone at any place on the planet at any time of day or night;
  3. Record an online tour of what a visitor can expect when they arrive, where to register, where to take the kids, and where to find the free donuts and coffee (.… mmmmm …. donutsssss);
  4. Leverage the relatively inexpensive international conference calling capabilities of some of these services to hold in-the-field meetings with missionaries and/or on-the-road lay-staff (like I should have done via ReadyTalk last year while in Jordan or Malaysia); and/or
  5. Hold committee and staff meetings – even if you don’t record them – allow staff and laypersons to simply conference in from the comfort of their den, library, kitchen table, man-cave, etc …

It’s not as expensive as one might think, and compared to the cost of heating an entire building wing to hold a single, 30-minute committee meeting in a single room, it might be a real steal.

(Oh who am I kidding? Who ever heard of a 30-minute church committee meeting? Gad, I crack myself up sometimes!)

There’s also the saving in gas and time realized by not having everyone – especially staff members – come (back) to the church during the evening for such weekday meetings.

With all these cost vs. savings issues cited, I strongly recommend you at least read the advice offered in the Smashing Magazine article entitled ‘Screencasting: How To Start, Tools and Guidelines‘ as a matter of of stewardship.

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A Conference Apart – where Dean gets to meet Zeldman, Meyer & Fried!

A ticket Apart, sign up now for your own!You bet I’m stoked! This coming October 13–14, 2008, I’ll get to rub usability elbows with Eric Meyer, Jason Fried, Jeffrey Zeldman, along with several other web standards rock stars at the An Event Apart 2008 conference held at the at the Sheraton Chicago.

Along with annoying you with bloggery over meeting my UI idols, there I’ll gain a deeper understanding of web standards and emerging best practices. Be inspired by fresh ideas and new directions. Join the greatest minds and hottest talents in web design today.

You can too!

Sign up by September 15, and not only do you get an early-bird discount, but you can either apply a discount for a stay at the Sheraton. Or do what I did, sign-up now to insure a room at the nearby Hampton Inn at a AAA rate that’s $25 cheaper, offers free breakfast, and most importantly – FREE WIFI (whoohoo!)!!!!!

Moreover, your conference pass includes admission to all sessions at the two-day Chicago conference, snacks and lunch on both days, access to all social events, and a bag of schwag … and most importantly … a chance to meet your cult leader, DEAN PETERS!

Now if I can just convince Vincent Flanders to go so that there is an earthquake of usability genius in a solitary Chicago-based epicenter this coming October!

Meanwhile, here’s a link to some JZ’s posts from last year’s Chicago Event Apart.

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Sky News war reports from Georgia makes case for editorial control

Sky News is reporting that Russia is doing to the entire state of Georgia what Sherman did to the city of Atlanta – in doing so making the case for engaging in editorial controls for online content as this horrible conflict is actually taking place in Eurasian country formerly the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic now simply known as Georgia; and not the U.S. State immediately north of Florida.

About 10 years ago, I had the pleasure of having two teenage young men from Georgia stay at my house for about three weeks while they were in transit between a private school in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Affectionately referred to as “the Boys,” both my wife and I are in prayer for these young men, now grown-up, and possibly in the field looking down the barrel of a Russian tank.

As a result, we have been watching the news stories, hoping and praying this conflict end. So imagine our surprise when we saw a story in Sky News whose “in depth” background section on Georgia read:

“Georgia is a state in the southern United States. Georgia was one of the Thirteen Colonies that revolted against British rule in the American Revolution.”

Here’s a screen shot of it:

Sky News makes a rookie mistake, identifying the wrong Georgia in war account.

Russia rolls into Atlanta?

No wonder why they disclaim their lazy journalism with this statement:

“Information generated by Wikipedia. Sky News takes no responsibility for its accuracy.”

So what does this mean for your church and/or charity website?

Glad you asked.

I think I can best sum up the lesson learned here by quoting myself from a post entitled “5 Things WordPress 2.3 Brings to your Church Web Site Design” where I wrote:

  1. Pending review – this to me is the BIG KAHUNA of features as many blog-driven church websites are also multi-author church websites. Who benefits? How about a youth minister who wants to enable students, but would like the final okay before publishing member-submitted content. Same goes for the main website, where a designated editor can help make sure what goes out the public doesn’t wind up on some “signs and blunders ” website.

Whether or not you’re church uses WordPress as a content management system on the cheap, it is probably not a bad idea to have someone – staff or lay person – preview select content before it goes out “in-the-wild.”

By select I mean stuff along the lines of:

  • lay-ministry submitted content
  • personal testimonies
  • sermons
  • directions

Sure, it creates a bit of a bottleneck, then again I don’t think this is an issue for most churches as they’re not in the news service game. And considering the costs of having something said on your website World-wide that you’d find embarrassing locally in your church bulletin, the effort and delay is probably worth the price.

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Dumping Outlook for gMail – how and why

Ever contemplate saying bye-bye to Outlook forever? How about your church volunteers and staff – are they missing important messages because they can’t afford, nor figure out how to synchronize, the latest version on their home machines?  Is the portability and price of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions like gMail sound almost too goo to be true?

Breaking Free of Outlook - ReadWrite Web

Hopefully in today’s post I can address these questions, first by presenting some of the downsides as identified as a comment to a recent, related post here, then by going over some of the good points identified in a ReadWrite Web post on the topic of dumping Outlook for gmail.

First the comment …

In response to the SaaS related oversights in my entitled XP is dead – Linux community misses marketing opportunity …. Scott Christensen opined:

“While I agree with you that SaaS is a great concept and has been implemented by some companies very well … can you really trust company X with your possibly confidential data? Or what if company X goes under? I think a lot of research has to be done by all parties making the decision to go with SaaS solely because you may be painting yourself into a corner that may be very difficult to get out of.”

While I’m a big fan of SaaS, I also think Scott is right to remind us to always execute due diligence whenever making an operational change – in the case of this post, dumping Outlook for gMail. And since email is such a huge part of any church and/or charity I think investigating the privacy policies and the financial health of any SaaS solution is a wise step.

In fact, I go well beyond those issues in my September 2007 post on the topic entitled “5 things about Google Aps that concern me” including:

  • publishing & privacy policies
  • version control,
  • backups, and
  • content ownership.

Now the article …

That said, in today’s ReadWrite web post entitled ‘Breaking Free of Outlook,’ author Bernard Lunn describes how necessity made him a believer in Software as a Service (SaaS) as a new office environment compelled him to ditch Microsoft Outlook for gMail. Pragmatically he notes the pros and cos, eventually siding with the SaaS solution without gushing gaga-like over Google Mail, including:

  • 99% of Spam kill rate
  • Searching much easier & more effective
  • portability across different platforms
  • use of multiple email addresses
  • ability to use gMail with your domain name
  • mobility, mobility, mobility

In fact, Mr. Lunn points out a situation that may force you into a SaaS solution regardless of one’s preference of software company when he writes:

“Microsoft is clearly well aware of the threat to Exchange, which is why they launched their own Hosted Exchange offering in July 2008. This will put Microsoft in head to head competition with their hitherto partners who offered third part Hosted Exchange offerings. This game is now clearly all about economies of scale on those giant server farms, so we are likely to see email server hosting consolidate down to a handful of companies in the next few years. This is the normal and expected lifecycle for a commodity market such as email serving.”

So what’s my point?

Simply this – as you and your charitable organization consider moving into the web space to deal with the ever-growing costs and complexities of maintaining multiple desktop solutions and/or the demand for more remote collaboration, there are both pros and cons.

Hopefully this post here will provide food for thought as well as a coupla helpful hyperlinks to aid in your final decision.

As for me, I’ve been off Outlook Express and into gMail personally since 2004. Of course, your mileage may vary.

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