24 March 2012

Information Architecture: Vatican Edition

Homepage of The Holy See.
The Vatican gets a lot of flak for its website (it was playfully critiqued during a design review exercise in my first Web Design class last semester, and I hope it doesn't remain the only window into the Church's online presence for my peers). If you've spent any amount of time on the site, you know well the frustration of getting lost, or at the very least, finding an apostolic letter or encyclical in only Hungarian and Italian (personally, Latin-only is less of a problem, although it does take longer to read).  It contains so many documents that I'm not sure I blame their tech people for their 'bare bones' approach. I've often joked that if I ever wanted to be employed for life, I would work my way into web development for the Holy See. But like any site, visit it often enough, and you'll get the hang of navigation. That is, if you know what you're looking for. If you don't know what an encyclical or apostolic constitution is, the current layout will not be helpful at all. This saddens me, because there is enough good reading on this site to last a lifetime, and navigation shouldn't be an obstacle.

The biggest flaw of the Vatican website is its discoverability and main entry point(s). The site doesn't appear anywhere on the first page of a Google search for 'Catholic Church' or 'Catholicism'. And even if curious non- or new Catholics find their way to the site, the bursting menus on the homepage look overwhelming. True to older principles of design, the homepage gives you a button to 'everywhere' all in one place. After that, the navigation is pretty simple and straightforward (everything is essentially organized into long, no-frills lists). But before they see this, the site's audience needs to know who the Church is, and what the Vatican is doing. Enter news.va.

With a characteristically sweet tweet, the Pope launched the new site last summer. The new site constitutes a much-needed multi-media and news portal for the Vatican. Although it also lacks the same kind of the discoverability of the Holy See's homepage (it won't be in the top results of search for 'Catholicism' or 'Vatican,' but will come up with a search for 'Vatican news'), I think the new site has so far been a great step forward for the new evangelization, serving as a much more effective means for engaging the world. With all the news feeds, links, videos, and photos, one really gets a sense of the church as busy, enterprising body instead of a static archive of encyclicals. Big improvements are still needed for the Vatican's homepage, especially in presentation and cleanliness (although I think the relatively new mobile site  looks to be much more promising in this regard, with the integration of multi-media and a more friendly layout). Another welcome development is the recent release of a new domain for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the the Faith (otherwise known as the Roman Curia). This will provide (hopefully) a more direct access point to the CDF's documents (although it appears to have the same issues appearing in Google results as the other sites). I hope that news.va can serve as a precedent for future Vatican web development efforts.

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