How the Gospel Should Shape Your Web Strategy, Not Just Your Web Content – My Message at the Christian Web Conference

Here’s the message I gave at the Christian Web Conference on “How the Gospel Should Shape Your Web Strategy — Not Just Your Web Content”:

Here are some of the things I talk about:

  • A few words on my upcoming book, and how technology and productivity practices exist to amplify our ability to do good.
  • What usability is.
  • Why there is a biblical case for making our websites (and everything else we do!) usable and helpful to people.
  • The process we went through creating the major redesign of the Desiring God website of 2006 on the basis of sound usability principles.
  • Some of the (perhaps unorthodox!) extreme productivity measures involved including 90 hour weeks and three all-nighters in a row.
  • On the necessity of avoiding the self-protective mindset in organizations in order to keep the user and people you serve first.
  • How it is Christian to make websites usable and just plain good workmanship in general.
  • Reducing friction so ideas can spread.
  • 5 principles for making websites usable.
  • A few words on why ministries should post everything online for free.
  • And other stuff!

Here are my slides (there’s just a few for this one):

And here is my manuscript/notes for the message:

Most of us aim for the content of our sites to be true to the gospel and gospel-centered. The gospel—the truth that Christ died and rose again for us, and that through faith in him we enter a right relationship with God—is at the heart of what we are here to say. Everything else that we say is founded on this. That’s what makes us Christian ministries and organizations, and just plain Christians, period.

This is as it should be. But I want to take us a step further and argue that the gospel should not only shape our web content, but should also shape our web strategy—that is, it should shape how we go about our websites altogether.

In other words, the gospel has implications not only for what we say on our sites, but also for the strategy behind how we architect our sites and design our sites and build our sites and utilize our sites. It should be behind everything about our sites, not just the content.

In particular, I want to look at two primary ways the gospel should shape our web strategy. First, the gospel implies that we should make our sites maximally usable. In fact, we should take pains to do this. Second, the gospel implies that we should make our sites free—even at sacrifice to ourselves.

And these two factors—a site that is maximally usable and free, combined with excellent content—are the pillars of an effective web strategy. That is, they not only are fitting ways to reflect the gospel, they are also what work best. There is no ultimate conflict behind a web strategy that seeks to embody the gospel and a web strategy that works.

1. We Should Take Pains to Make Our Sites Usable

We should take pains to make our sites usable. But what is usability? What do I mean when I talk about usability?

What is Usability?

Here’s one definition of usability, from Web Design: The Complete Reference: “Usability is the extent to which a site can be used by a specified group of users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (Powell, Web Design: The Complete Reference, 50).

But as Steve Krug has so simply shown in his book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, one simple sentence sums up the definition of usability: A usable website is one that doesn’t make people think about how to use it.

In other words, it doesn’t raise question marks in people’s minds about how to do this or that, how to get here are there, or how to respond to the information on the page. They see the page, and know what they need to do, and how to do it.

[Here’s an example of a hard to use page]

[Here’s an example of an easy to use page]

This principle is “the ultimate tie-breaker in deciding whether something works or doesn’t in a Web design” (Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, 11). It is the very definition of what a usable site is.

Krug fills out the meaning of this principle more fully:

It means that as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

I should be able to ‘get it’—what it is and how to use it—without expending any effort thinking about it.

Just how self-evident are we talking about?

Well, self-evident enough, for instance, that your next door neighbor, who has no interest in the subject of your site and who barely knows how to use the Back button, could like at your site’s Home page and say, ‘Oh, it’s a _____.” (With any luck, she’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a _____. Neat.” But that’s another subject.)

Everything boils down to this: Don’t make people think. A usable site minimizes the amount of thinking people have to do to use the site.

But why should we make our sites usable? One reason is that making your site usable is simply good strategy in general.

Why This is Good Strategy in General

1. If your site is not usable, it distracts from the content.

Hard to use sites add to people’s cognitive workload. This causes frustration and is distracting. Here’s how Steve Krug puts it: “When we’re using the Web every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to throw us” (Krug, 15).

People are doing important things. When our sites are hard to use, it makes it harder for them to do what they are doing—such as doing research for a sermon, or preparing a Bible study, or trying to find answers to questions their friends have asked them about the Bible or apologetics or such. We don’t want to make these important tasks even harder for people. We want to enable them to focus on their task rather than adding to their already significant cognitive workload.

2. In fact, if your site is not usable, people might not even invest the time to find and benefit from the content.

Not only are you making things harder for your user if your site is hard to use, you are also shooting yourself in the foot. When the user has a hard time with your site, he or she might just give up altogether and go somewhere else.

A hard to use website can cost you site visitors.

And even if it doesn’t cost you site visitors, it will cost you user satisfaction. People won’t like coming to your site as much, and they will be less likely to tell others because they won’t be having a good experience.


3. When your site is usable, everything just seems better.

Usability creates a better impression all around for the user. The user might not even be able to point to why they like the site, but they will walk away with a better experience and more enthusiasm for the site because it met their needs.

Here’s how Krug puts it: “Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: It just makes everything seem better. Using a site that doesn’t make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don’t matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm—and time” (Krug, 19).

4. When your site is usable, it increases site usage and user satisfaction

This is not just theory. We have seen results of this in the real world. For example, in 2006 we redesigned our entire site on the basis of sound principles of usability. Within four months of releasing the new site, visits increased 99%, audio listens increased 356%, and page views increased 359%.

To this day, we receive a continual stream of comments from people on how easy to use the site is. In other words, usability not only increased site usage, but also increased user satisfaction. People go away from the site with a more satisfying experience that makes them more inclined to tell others and come back to the site.

So there is a strong strategic case for focusing on usability. But there are also biblical reasons for making your site usable. And this is what is most important.

Why This is Biblical

So usability is good strategy. But that’s not the main point I want to make. The main point I want to make is that usability is biblical. In other words, there is a biblical case for usable websites.

1. Good usability is a matter of loving your neighbor as yourself

Jesus said the Great Commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and “your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). The Golden Rule is another way to put that: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the law and the prophets.”

How do we want people to do unto us? Do we want them taking shortcuts on their web design so that we have to muddle through their hard to use sites? Do we want people making things easier for us or harder for us?

Is there anyone here who likes hard to use websites?

Making our sites easy to use is simply a way of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. It is a way of loving our neighbor.

Here’s the thing: we often think we have to go to Africa to obey the command to love your neighbor; that’s a rare and special thing you have to pick up and leave town to do. You don’t, you don’t, you don’t. It’s great to go to Africa. But don’t limit your notion of service to large and complex and uncommon acts of mercy, like missions trips. We are to spend ourselves for the good of others right where we’re at: that is, in our vocations. And if you are in charge of your organizations website, that means making it usable.

Wilberforce said “Where is it that in such a world as this, health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?” Do this with your websites. You don’t have to Africa to do this. Start in your vocations. Make a difference where you are.

Now, it is interesting that this also syncs with good web strategy. Most people point out that the key to an effective blog or website is to serve the reader. You need to be about your users and creating value for them, not first for yourself. Sites that are about themselves don’t work. Sites that put the reader first are the sites that succeed.

Well, that’s not just good strategy. That’s biblical. That’s a matter of loving your neighbor—of loving your users.

And this extends not just to content, but to site architecture, site design, site construction. Everything.

We should be always seeking to make things better for people. Life is hard enough. Seek to make things better, not harder for people.

GPS: time crunch, tired. I don’t need the added difficulty of the buttons being hard to push.

Hotel room lights: Always hard to find. Last night I walked in, it was totally dark, no light switches turned a light on, and I had to feel around for the lamps.

My house: The hose box. The sump pump. (My whole neighborhood with sump pumps.)

In everything, we should seek to be making things work well for people.

2. Good usability is a matter of serving your user

This is simply another angle on what I have already said. Making your site usable is a matter of serving your user.

This angle also adds another dimension: it shows that we should make our site usable even at cost to ourselves. This comes out when we look at some of the texts on serving.

For example, Matthew 20:28 says:

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We see this teaching continued throughout the NT:

“Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘the reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Romans 15:2-3).

“Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor 10:24).

“So then, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who … made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:4-7).

Spend yourself for the good of others.

And where are we to have this mindset? Only when we do large and complex things, like going into missions or going on a short term trip? Certainly not. This is a mindset we are to have every day, in everything that is before us. And so one of the primary avenues in which we exhibit this mindset is in our vocations—our day-to-day responsibilities of life. The very fabric of our lives and work, and therefore of our strategies and approaches to our websites—is the arena for manifesting this mindset.

Be looking out for the interests of your users. Be genuinely concerned about their welfare, as Timothy was for the Philippians (Phil 2:20), and as Epaphroditus was, even to the point of risking his life (Eph 2:30). This is not about you. It is about them. Many web strategists rightly point out that the key to an effective site is to serve your users. Focus on them. Do what will benefit them and add value for them, not first yourself. That’s good strategy. And now we see that this is also biblical. What secular web strategists have recognized is simply an echo of the greater realities that the Bible teaches. So how much more, as Christians, ought we to be devoted to our users?

And we should take pains to serve them, because this is the biblical ethic of putting others before ourselves. We make our own lives harder in order to make other’s lives easier. We are to take the burdens of the user on ourselves.

Which means: instead of creating a site that the user has to spend time figuring out, spend that time yourself on the front end to iron out the problems. This may take you a lot of time, but it will save thousands and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people lots of time and trouble. And that’s a pretty good investment: a few people taking time to iron out the difficulties saves time for thousands of people. That’s a pretty good investment.

That’s why at DG we took an inside-out approach to technology rather than an outside-in approach. Explain.

3. Good usability adorns the gospel

Mt 5:16: the meaning of good works again, and their role in relation to the gospel.

Dan Cathy example.

4. Good usability is simply good workmanship

“He who is slack in his work is a cousin to him who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9). Hard to use websites are slack work. If your website is hard to use, you are a cousin to him who destroys because slack work makes life harder for people. Life is hard enough. Don’t make it harder.

5. Good usability enables maximum spreading of the gospel

Because it reduces friction.

This is all about reducing friction so the content can be primary. Eliminate anything that gets in the way of accessing and spreading the content.

Making your site maximally effective for spreading the gospel.

6. Good usability echoes the gospel


How Do You Make a Site Usable? Five Principles

1. Don’t Make People Think. This is the guiding principle, and we have already discussed this above. Seek to eliminate question marks. Etc.

2. Provide good orientation. Global navigation and local navigation.

3. Use good principles of classification.

4. Make obvious what is clickable.

5. Use the smallest effective difference.



The first principle for an effective web strategy is: create excellent content and make your site usable. You want users to think hard about your content—not about how to use your site. But usability doesn’t only make your site better and more effective. It is also important for biblical reasons because it is a way of serving your users and demonstrating the gospel that we exist to proclaim.

In other words, the gospel has something to say about how you do your website. Not just what content you put on your site, but what your overall web strategy is.

That’s what we’re going to talk about in this session. We will look at how the gospel should shape our web strategies and how we have sought to do this so far at Desiring God. This will take us on a tour of the biblical and strategic reasons for making your website usable, five simple usability principles that are at the center of every easy-to-use website, the four principles that matter almost as much as usability, and more.

As a bonus, bring your most difficult and challenging questions on web strategy. We’ll spend the last part of the session talking about them.


We Should Make Our Sites Free—Even at Sacrifice to Ourselves


Making your site maximally reflect the gospel

Free is a form of usability

Reduces friction and increases spreading

Funding: A Biblical Case and a Business Case for Why This Won’t Bankrupt You

One of the big questions people raise about free is: How do you fund this? What is the funding model to support making everything free? I wish I had time to talk about this, because there are two very cool things here. There is first of all a biblical case to be made for how making everything free can actually create a self-sustaining source of funding, and there is also a business case to be made that shows exactly how making everything free translates into revenue—often more revenue than you would have had if you sold sermons. So there is a biblical case and a business case for free, and if I am able I’ll make those another time.

Our Vision at Desiring God

Our web vision at Desiring God, stemming from these things: Post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.

This is actually very efficient. I spent 2 weeks I think it was pouring over how to do the architecture for the Desiring God site. During those two weeks, my visible productivity was very low. But the time I invested has saved millions of others substantial time. That is a high leverage activity.

Other Notes

It follows from the Christian principle of service, which is rooted in the gospel.

– First, this is actually rooted in the law. “Love your neighbor.”

– But it is even more rooted in the gospel, because of Christ’s example. And so we have a new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.”

– So we are here to serve, and our love for ourselves and Christ’s love for us are the two principles that guide us here.

– How do we love ourselves? We don’t make things harder for ourselves, but easier. Now, the Christian ethic doesn’t say: “focus your life now on making things easy for yourself.” Rather, it says, “OK, you love yourself by making things easier for yourself. So now sacrifice that to some degree by spending yourself to make things easier for others.

Related: See my message from the following year for additional discussion on the nuts and bolts of how to make your site usable.

  • Pingback: An argument for productivity as foundational for Christian Ethics (and some good web strategy stuff) | Venn Theology()

  • Alex – Willow Creek Association

    love how you’re engaging how Christian churches and organizations can best develop their web presences. very important question!

  • Loren Pinilis

    I love how these insights are so applicable to all areas of commerce and marketing. Amazing stuff.

  • Wendy McMahan

    I was there! Matt, this was a great presentation. It’s not often that someone shares a concept that feels totally “fresh” and yet biblically grounded. This is one to remember, and to listen to again… which is what I’m doing now.

  • Lisa Kidder

    THANK YOU!! This presentation was posted on LinkedIn under the Web Ministry group, and I found the information to be extremely helpful.