First Baptist Church of Frederick, Last in Usability

UPDATE – 04feb04 – The site originally reviewed (see Wayback Machine Archive) has since been healed. Good work!

Macromedia’s Flash is like any other power tool, like let’s say chain saw. The latter is very useful for cutting down trees, but not ideal for hammering in a nail. For that, I would suggest a hammer, though I have to admit to using in the past a rock, the heel of a shoe, the butt end of my Makita Power Drill and a few other items that were handy and expedient at the moment … and items that later required I eventually go back to my work bench and get the hammer to do the job right.

That’s how I feel about websites that are rendered entirely in Flash. Take for example First Baptist Church of Frederick, MD (FBCF). I know some the people who lead this church, the pastor, then a student, having leaded me through the Roman Roads in of all places, a public high school cafeteria. Yeah, I’m such a rebel, but I digress.

The point is, I know some of the leadership and members at FBCF and know they are bright, faithful and servant-hearted. Unfortunately, their website fails to reflect this. Ignoring Macromedia’s Top 10 Usability Tips for Flash Web Sites, the FBCF home page immediately conveys the message that you are a servant to the technology, instead of the technology serving you.

Even their HTML version of their page is a slave to the Flash inspired layout and navigation, which by most standards is noisy and confusing and obviously doesn’t index well with any search engine I’m aware of.

In other words, once again we have a website chock full of compelling content hiding it’s light under a bushel because the individuals designing the site did not approach the design from the vantage point that web users are highly purpose-driven and technologies that interfere with their purposes should be set aside. This is not just my opinion, but that of e-Vangelism expert Andrew Careaga, the godfather of usability, Jakob Nielsen, and usability guru and all-around-great-guy, Vincent Flanders … to name just a few.

My suggestion to the good folks at First Baptist Church of Frederick is to:

  • Read up on the subject of usable and accessible web design. My suggestions are:
  • Sit down and reconsider the goals of their website. What human aspects FBCF makes them unique to their community?
  • Once they’ve defined their purpose and personality, then they should create, on paper, a hierarchical outline of their content that goes no deeper then three levels.
  • The web design team should peruse successful sites, church or otherwise, and see how they render their information so that is both user and search engine friendly.
  • They should also consider a more conventional navigation scheme, not because every site should look alike, but because users are goal oriented and such conventions help them find what they need quickly and efficiently

Personally, I’d ditch the use of Flash (chain saw) for navigation altogether. Reserve that for their video presentation, which users have the option of viewing, instead of having the viewing thrust upon them. That said, if they are going to use Flash as their primary design tool, then learn how to detect whether or not a browser is Flash enabled and direct them to the HTML version of the site automatically.

If this is too much in the way of time and talent, then there are simpler solutions such as those employed by Frank Ramage, whom after reading a review of his website last year, quickly healed his church website by purchasing a template for $50 and plugged-in his compelling content using FrontPage.

Similar healings have occured at other churches by putting to good use any one of a variety commercial and/or free content management solutions.

Again, the people at First Baptist Church of Frederick are good folks; unfortunately, they’ve confused the medium of the Web with TV or perhaps even video games. Such coolness only distracts from the furtive ministry I know they already have.

What about you. What constructive criticisms or suggestions would you offer to the webservant of the First Baptist Church of Frederick, MD website?