On websites and covens

Last week (this’d be mid-October 2008), I put together a coven website. You can see the website here, and our Witchvox listing here. So, now seems like a good time to talk about what I think makes a good group website.

(We’ll pause here and note that I started doing basic webdesign back in something like the fall of 95, and did some educational design for my college for a year after graduation. Which is to say, I am opinionated. I don’t think I’m fabulous at this stuff, but I do aim for competent.)

Design:

I don’t think that design is the only thing that matters – but it is a big part of first impression. Design also plays a big role in navigation and site organisation, so it’s worth looking at before you do anything else.

I think there are lots of ways to go about looking at design. When I redesigned my former group’s website a few years ago, I wanted to keep a hint of the Egyptian focus that the group had started with (and that the former website reflected) – but I also wanted to include the sense of transformation, movement, and potential for change that’s part of a teaching group.

And so, there, you see that the background is a very faded out parchment image – just a hint of texture and shading. The header image is from a photo of the sun through a stained glass phoenix image made by a former student and now initiate (it’s a *stunning* piece: this photo just shows a strip of it.)

For Phoenix Song, I wanted to reflect our emphasis on intentional simplicity and on .. well, okay, giving people a lot of information so they can evaluate it. We do intend to have a nice header graphic at some point (L’s working on some designs) but we expect to keep the dark green color as the dominant color on the site with a white background and gray/black text. (That said, I didn’t want to wait for the art to get the site up: it’s been nagging at me more and more the last few weeks, which is why I pushed to finish it this past week.)

You will notice that neither site has spinning pentacles, blinky text, or other such things. (I consider them bad design, even if they’re sometimes sorta fun to poke at.)

CotP’s site is done in straight HTML with a simple CSS overlay (and a chunk of it was hand-coded for various reasons.) I recently offered to shift them to WordPress (to make it easier for others to edit: they’re currently hosted on my website account and I do the changes as needed since they require the master account password), but no word on that yet.

Phoenix Song’s is set up in WordPress as pages (for easy editing), currently using a slightly edited (color choices) version of the Skimmed Milk theme. (I may well change the theme slightly when we get the graphic, though, as I’m not entirely crazy about some of the spacing.)

Content:

There are different ways to approach content. Some groups put the bare minimum up online, and encourage people to talk to them if they’re interested in the next step. Some groups put a good bit more information up there.

The first thing about content is “Why are you putting this up there?” The second thing is about making it easy(ish) to read and move around in.

Phoenix Song’s site, if you look at it carefully, falls into 3 categories.

1) The “About our group” stuff.

This is designed to start general, and get more specific (ideally, you start at the main page, if you like what you read you get the “More details” which has some other useful practical specifics. If you’re still interested, you get to the membership stuff (which is three pages to make it slightly less painful to fiddle with – one general, one “Here’s how the process works, so there’s no surprises” and one with the letter of introduction.

The last 2 pages could have been handled in email, but I chose not to do that for two reasons.

– I think it’s often useful for people to see how other groups handle things – having it online may be useful to someone else.

– It gives us a good read on whether someone’s willing to read 6 pages into the site and follow some specific directions. If they send us a generic “I’m interested in your group, tell me more.” they probably aren’t a good fit for us. (In practice, I’d probably do a “Our website has all the basic info you need: we’re glad to answer specific questions not answered there” and see what happens.)

2) General information and resources:

Mostly, this is outreach stuff. We’re a small group, we don’t do public ritual, etc – but we can choose to point to other local resources. Doing so, I think, makes it a little easier to say “Not for us, bye!” Having it online (rather than in email) means I can say “Oh, we don’t seem to be a good fit – but here, go look at this page, it has links to a bunch of local options” in a way that’s easy for me to keep updated or edit on the fly.

Likewise, the music resources page is because as soon as we say Phoenix Song’s got a focus on music in ritual, people go “Oh, really, what kind of music?” And doing the listing once (with edits as needed) is a lot easier than trying to remember what’s on the iTunes at home.

The “Visiting us” page falls into both this category and the “About us” one. It’s obviously useful for people visiting us, but it’s also useful for people wondering what kinds of things they might want to be aware of with other groups.

3) Member info:

For actual members, there are some other useful bits of information – links to stuff for class discussions/resources, plus password protected page of other info. I’m thinking basic meeting dates plus some general training sequence stuff – stuff that would not be the end of the world if the password protection failed, but which we’d rather not make broadly available.

Stuff to be added:

  • Photos (of things, not people, probably)
  • L is going to work on a bio and some music notes (she’s already agreed with everything else on there.)
  • The members-only stuff

Other choices:

Now, one set of choices here is about how much text to have up. As you can see, for Phoenix Song, I erred on the side of “More information is good”. This is my natural inclination, but I did think about it a great deal (and about each segment), and in the end, decided it needed to be there.

I wanted to provide enough information that someone could make a reasonable choice about whether it was worth their time (and ours) to explore this further – that means that a lot of practical details (location, scheduling, etc.) are in some ways a lot more immediately relevant. At the same time, I wanted to give enough of an idea of what we do in ritual that people could say “Yes, that sounds interesting” without giving out too many personal/intimate details on the web.

It’s also informative to note which things we don’t talk about in detail – you’ll notice, for example, that there’s nothing about which deities we work with on there, because that’s a conversation we’d rather have in person. At the moment, it takes a bit of explanation. (That said, we do mention polytheistic practice, etc. etc. so people should be aware of what they’re looking at.)

The choice of amount of text is also deliberate in some ways: the way we’re planning on training involves a fair bit of reading (there are some alternatives if that’s an issue for someone, but it’s our base assumption.) If that’s an issue for someone, better we figure that out early, before taking everyone’s time.

What frustrates me in Pagan group page design:

There are – okay, more than a few things – that frustrate me as I’ve looked at sites over the years.

1) Playing music at me.

No. Just no. Bands get to do that, and even then, please make it easy for me to turn off (I’ve got my own music playing, thank you!). Everyone else? No. Really no. I love sites that *include* sound files – but please give me the chance to decide what to play, when.

2) Graphics that take away from the actual information

I deeply appreciate good web art – but I also believe that good art in an information source should support the information, not make it hard to find or read. I’m in the design camp that says that attention to good basic design (readability, structure, color choices, etc.) goes a great deal to support the art, as well.

If you do choose to use eye-catching graphics, a few go a long way. Or set up a page to play with the pretty shinies, and let people click into it only if they want to.

3) Navigation issues:

If your goal is information, people need to be able to find it. Sequential pages are one thing (like how our membership pages work so that you must read the initial pages first) – but it should generally be easy to get back to the index or general info and find your way around. (This is one of the reasons that doing this in WordPress makes my life easier: set the links up once, and they continue to work.)

Broken links? Not good.

4) Currency

I always wonder when I look at a site where it says “Brand new for 2006!” (and it’s 2008). It doesn’t imply regular editing, certainly. Makes you wonder what else has changed that they haven’t mentioned.

There’s two ways to handle this – avoid time-based stuff entirely (which is what most of our site does), or limit it to a small number of pages that can be easily updated. (which is what we do in the exceptions: I know where the dated stuff is.)

5) Sites that give you little idea about the feel of the group

I’m not talking about ‘put everything out there’. But I do wonder about groups that have very minimal text info, very little design coherency, and very little.. well anything. How is an interested reader supposed to distinguish you from any other group out there?

Sites don’t need to be fancy, but most witches are aware of at least basic color theory (since we use the same stuff in ritual and spellwork!) and it’s nice to see it applied or handled accordingly. If your site is all reds and orange, but you’re talking about calm reflection, I’m going to raise an eyebrow.

(Likewise, I expect some people will go “Phoenix? Why the green?” with ours. Which is okay: there’s a specific reason for it, and once we get some graphic work up, I think it’ll be better. And otherwise, I think we give a good sense of the overall feel.)

So. My opinions and thoughts. If you do have comments on the site, or think I’ve left something out, I’m open to suggestions. (Don’t promise I’ll follow them, just that I believe in listening to reasonable suggestions.)