The OSIS Bible Tool

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for anytime will know that I’m passionate, in fact almost rabid, about using the Internet to get the Word of God out to every corner of the Earth. So naturally I was quite excited when I discovered that the CrossWire Bible Society, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Bible Society are combining IT resources to create “… a free, evolving open source tool for exploring the Bible and related texts online… ” appropriately named “The Bible Tool.

Having experimented with the website over the past week, I would like to offer this mini usability review as ‘The Bible Tool‘ is currently a work in progress. Hopefully, both through this review and through your comments, we can provide these obviously capable Java programmers some feedback to their awesome work. Yes, class I said after YOUR comments. This means you have homework over the holidays. Sometime after you read this review, I’d encourage you to also experiment with ‘The Bible Tool,’ leaving feedback here so this site can be tweaked to perfection.

‘Tweaked’ being the operative word here, at least for the ‘mechanics’ of the site. You see I have a problem, a vision problem. Specifically I have a problem with their rendering of this electronic Word of God with an ‘orange-brown parchment color background image‘ that is not only hard to read, but at least to me, is a bit “kitschy.” And this is what truly bugs me as this site is all about the text!

Think about it. We have been blessed with the ability to shine God’s word electronically to a lost and dying World, yet we hide it within a grainy and distracting background that discourages individuals from spending lengthy amount of times pouring through all the wonderful documentation this site has to offer. Go ahead, try reading their parallel Bible for any length of time.

Fortunately, The Bible Tool provides the user the ability to “change styles,” which I did almost immediately from “parchment” to “washed-out.” Why they didn’t pick the latter as the default is beyond me. Then again, why anyone would think that God’s Word needs to be dressed-up is beyond me.

Why would I pick the “washed-out” skin you might ask? Glad you asked! First, it gives more of my browser back to me. The parchment version consumes the first 50% of the frontpage that is above the fold with a swirly title underscored by a picture of the Bible and pen that is gratuitous at best. I mean, the name of the site is “The Bible Tool,” do we really need a non-functional 22 kb image to inform us what the purpose and personality of this site is?

The Parchment skin also consumes more bandwidth, which means longer load times for you the user, and more expensive server costs to host the site. Contrast this with the “washed-out” style and you have a site that is fast-loading, easy-on-the-eyes as it is to the server’s bandwidth, and in my humble opinion, makes the Word of God look relevant, exciting and up-to-date.

In other words, before I spend any further resource on graphic design, I would encourage the developers to bring somebody in to perform usability testing. This is where individuals are brought in off the street (or from down the hall), put in front of the computer and with little instruction, walk through a site while a facilitator records responses, keeps the interview from slogging down and makes sure certain questions are asked.

I suggest usability testing not only because of the parchment problem, but also because of some of the navigational issues I ran into. For example, the very first time I visited the site, I entered the word “frog” (note the singular). I got zero responses though I knew that there are about 14 occurrences of “frogs” (note the plural) in the Old Testament. It wasn’t until I guessed that I needed to click on a translation other than the NASB that I got partial finds … provided I clicked on a translation that included both Old and New Testament.

What I would suggest is giving the user quite a bit more instruction when errors or made or empty sets return rather than leave the user to figure out what the meaning of “0 result in the text of New American Standard Bible.” If nothing else, give the user the “power search” so they don’t feel like they’re wandering in the wilderness; though I would prefer a link to and/or a short how-to find things.

Another search/navigational feature that the developers might find needs tweaking is what happens when they click on Glossaries or Essays. My assumption was that when I clicked on Essays and then entered a search query, that the search engine would query the essays. Instead, the selected/default Bible translation was searched. In other words, the programmers got the really hard and hairy stuff nailed-down cold, now they need to double back and idiot-proof the system for people like me.

Finally, I noticed that the menu options on the left changed as I changed modes. In other words, once I committed a search, I could no longer change styles. To do this, I had to use recall instead of recognition and remember that I had to go back to the home page due to this lack of navigational consistency.

As I said near the beginning of this review, this is a stellar work of programming. It is brilliant and I want to strongly encourage those who have developed “The Bible Tool” to continue their good work in Christ. That said, I think they’re making a huge in “dressing-up” God’s Word with the default hard-to-read parchment interface.

Yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse, but this is going to become a huge obstacle to any first time visitors. I say this because survey after survey indicates that web users are goal oriented. That they don’t so much as read text but scan it. That is, they don’t want fluff. They want their data and they want it now in concise and scannable format that meets their goal-oriented tasks. And since this site is all about the written Word, I would focus my work on making the interface, especially the navigation, easy on the brain as it is on the eyes … in the words of common-sense usability expert Steve Krug “Don’t Make Me Think.”

In other words, folks, it’s a Bible Tool … it’s all about the Text. Whatever gets in the way of that purpose should be put aside.

This said, I want to encourage all of you to visit and test this site, then report back with your findings. I’m turning on the HTML for comments so you can be as specific as you need to be. Hopefully, we can provide these very capable programmers with the usability input they need to make “The Bible Tool” the sledgehammer for God I know it can be.