In this day and age, peoples’ experience with our UU congregations and groups typically begins online. They engage with our websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, and the feelings and conclusions they develop will lead them towards, or away from, engaging in our communities. I blogged here this summer about the rising field of User Experience (UX): how it can reveal to us the unintentional signals we send to newcomers and how we can learn a lot from our new users.
If we’re going to do effective outreach online, we some insight into the experience of the large and slightly mysterious pool of people we call prospective visitors. Who are they? What do they want? And how do we design our websites for their positive UX?
Creating personas can help. It’s an imaginative exercise, one that helps us “insiders” see things from a different viewpoint.
For a General Assembly 2015 workshop on websites, I developed two personas and “looked” at two congregations’ websites through their lenses (with their blessing, of course!)
First persona: James from East Tennessee. James is a white male high school student, age 17, who identifies as gay. He’s been raised without religion, yet he has had some profound spiritual experiences he wants to talk about with peers. His ideas about the sacred don’t fit neatly into any box. He calls himself agnostic.
“James” the persona
James has some questions. He goes to the nearest UU congregation’s website, in this case Oak Ridge UU Congregation, and tries to find out:
- Is this a place where I can talk about my spirituality?
- Will they accept me as a gay person?
- What is there for high school youth?
- What are the other teens like?
I encourage you to click through ORUUC.org. Are you able to find answers to his questions? How hard, or how easy? It’s a beautiful website. You might notice that right away, the website speaks to his spiritual question. Yes! You might also notice that it doesn’t say it’s an LGBTQ welcoming congregation, though the FAQ indicates that there are transgender-welcoming bathrooms. And where does he know to look for information on the high school youth program? Under “Get Inspired?” “Grow in Faith?” “Be Involved?” He doesn’t really know what any of those three sections are. He’s kind of confused. Even though this is an extravagantly welcoming congregation for a gay teen like himself, he doesn’t know that. Looking at the website he is getting some really positive answers to some of his questions, and is not quite sure about the answers to some others.
“Tricia” and her family
Another persona is Tricia. She is 37 years old, an atheist, a teacher, multiracial, and a mom of two. Her husband is white and believes in God. Their daughter is asking them big questions, and Tricia is looking for a place where their whole family can explore meaning together. She lives in Eastern Massachusetts, and she Googles First Parish in Cambridge to find their website. She explores it with these questions in mind:
- Is this a place that includes people of multiple ethnicities and cultures?
- What do they believe? Will everyone in my atheist/God-believing family be respected?
- What do they teach the kids about God and the supernatural?
- Will the kids like it?
She explores FirstParishCambridge.org and immediately sees text and images that tell her this is an intentionally multicultural congregation. She is thrilled to learn this and thinks this bodes well. She loves what they affirm on their homepage: “You are loved… You are free… Your are called…” She wants to know more about what they believe. Where does she look? The navigation bar says “Home, Welcome, Get Connected, Worship, Children/Youth, Justice and Transformation, Y2Y, Pastoral Care, Giving, and Contact Us.” Hmm. No obvious place to click to learn about beliefs. So instead, she clicks on Children/Youth to learn more about the kids programs. She finds this great page called “What We Are Learning.” “Yes!” She says. She reads about “Spirit Play” and “Moral Tales,” which are both focused on the kinds of questions her daughter is asking: “Where did people come from? What are we doing here? What happens when we die?” She really likes this, and the programs sound like things her kids would love to do. She still doesn’t have the detailed answer she seeks about beliefs, but she’s willing to give the congregation a try.
Using these personas, we are able to imagine the experience of a user, and change our design accordingly. For James, we’d make our inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities much more obvious, with words, photos, and images. For Tricia, we’d create clearer path to find out what UUs believe. For both personas on both websites, we’d do some re-organization and re-titling of the sites’ sections, to ensure our navigation headings are clear, and help our users find what they need to find.
Do you see what James and Tricia helped us see? As Usability.gov makes clear, personas help us write for the appropriate audience, focus our content decisions, test and prioritize, evaluate new content and features, and more. They help us improve our users’ overall experience, by expanding our frames of reference beyond those that have become habitual.
Who do you as a congregation want to make sure you’re reaching? Try creating some personas, some real-seeming people with real needs that might be served by your congregation. You might develop five or six personas, or even more, and look at your website with the questions and concerns of people who are:
- Different theologies/spiritual orientations
- Different ethnicities/races
- Different social classes
- Different ages
- In interfaith families
- Parents of young children
- Going through rough times and needing support
- Not experienced participants in any religious community
Two cautions in using personas: one, beware of stereotypes and pigeonholing. Just because you changed your site to work well for your persona who’s a lesbian in an interfaith family, it doesn’t mean that all lesbians in interfaith families are going to like what they see on your website! Every person is unique. Two, don’t use personas heavy-handedly. For example, let your atheist persona help you find places in the site that are unconsciously marginalizing people who don’t believe in God. But don’t let your atheist persona demand removal of references to the sacred in order to be welcoming to her! We want our personas to help us clearly communicate who we are: an inclusive and spiritually-diverse movement that is seeking to grow our love and broaden our welcome.
In addition, real people come with a range of abilities, disabilities, and educational levels. Some users may be having a very difficult experience of the site because of the color contrast, the reliance on un-transcribed video content, or the highfalutin language. The UUA’s Web Team offers guidance and tools for building accessible sites. You don’t even need personas to work on making your site work for people of all abilities.
May personas prove to be a fun, creative way to build a more effective web presence for Unitarian Universalism. I would love to hear your stories of what you learn!
Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, the UUA’s Outreach Associate for Digital Ministries, will be blogging regularly on Growing Unitarian Universalism about the connections between outreach, growth, websites, and social media.