Photo by Curtis Cronn, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the spring, I blogged here about our websites being our front doors. Our websites, our social media presence, and our events that involve the broad community are all important entry-points for prospective Unitarian Universalists. This season, as many congregations return to full all-ages programs and worship, we would do well to think about our actual front doors, as part of our consideration of the overall user experience (UX) of the congregation.

User Experience is a new way of looking at online development: one that has incredible relevance to congregations, online and in person. It’s a holistic way of examining and evaluating the process of getting to know a congregation. The user – in this case, the person who’s exploring your congregation – is going to make decisions about participation based on their experience. That may seem obvious – of course they would. But UX offers tools for analyzing that experience, and becoming more intentional about “curating” that experience.

A user experience occurs in touch points. Every time a user interacts with (or touches) your organization, an emotional or information-based transaction is taking place that can positively or negatively impact the user (the person you’re trying to reach). (Josh Neuroth from “Curating Your User’s Experience.”)

What are the touch points the typical user has when they experience your congregation? They may not be obvious to you. Regular participants get used to the way the congregation is and stop noticing what they noticed the first time they walked in the door.

In my first year as a congregation’s minister, we hired a Membership Consultant. She evaluated the experience of a newcomer outside the hundred-year-old building – a building that had an awkward relationship to its parking lot, which was behind the church. She took notes and pictures, and presented these interesting observations to the Newcomers Committee:

  • Someone arrives in the parking lot. They see four doors to the church.
  • One, up a steep cement staircase with only one handrail, looks official but unused. Probably an emergency exit. That must not be the way in.
  • Another, at the end of a long wing of classrooms, is friendly and attractive—but its sign says it’s a preschool. That must not be the way in, either.
  • When you get close to another door, you see it leads to the trash area. Definitely not the way in.
  • Another door, the one that actually works to go in to the building, is a plain gray painted door, hidden in a corner, with no sign.
  • Someone finally makes it through that plain gray painted door, and the first thing they see upon entering are two refrigerators, one with a sign on it saying it’s out of order.
  • Then they find themselves in a rather dark hallway, which is actually just below the sanctuary where worship is about to happen, but that may not be obvious.

What kind of emotional and informational transactions were taking place there? All sorts of frustrating, confusing experiences – before they ever got in the door or heard a single word.

Let that sink in: before even meeting anyone, or hearing the welcome and announcements when we proclaimed “whoever you are, wherever you come from, we welcome you,” people were having a frustrating and confusing time with us. Our newcomers didn’t know how to get where they wanted to be!

The congregation was a great place for people of all ages, with meaningful worship and vibrant programs. But everyone who participated regularly had figured out the ins and outs of that hundred-year-old building. Their user experience was no longer the same as a newcomer’s – they couldn’t see what a newcomer saw.

In response, members and staff set about creating better signage, moving those old refrigerators, developing a small welcoming area where the refrigerators had been, brightening up the dark hallway, and stationing friendly greeters there every Sunday morning. The newcomers’ user experience immediately improved.

We often focus so much on the messages we deliver from the pulpit, the values we embody in the youth group lesson, the stories we tell in the children’s workshop. But those intentional messages are only one part of the user’s experience of our congregations.

The early parts of the user experience are formative. The old adages about first impressions are true: they really stick, and you never get a second chance to make one.

How can you become more intentional about your new users’ experience? We’ll explore this question as our series continues in coming weeks.



SarahRev. 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.



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Tandi Rogers


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