Along with another staff designer (the brilliant Joe Day), I designed (and redesigned) the full UX and UI of a groundbreaking application for churches that enabled deeper personal connections within churches nationwide and changed the church software industry.
The year is 2009. Churches, arguably one of the world’s first social networks, are riddled with bad tech and outdated modes of communication. How might we use modern tools and approaches to help people continue their church community experience throughout the week?
The beginnings of the solution were developed at a local church in Seattle, and the project was bought by a large publishing company. I joined the team just as we were starting out with our new owners at the helm.
The initial product had promise and had been vetted at a real church, but it was not actually a product yet - at least, not in the market. We needed to establish ourselves as soon as possible and make it clear what we were doing and how it would help. And then (surprise) we needed to deliver on that promise.
What research told us
Bringing social media into the church - at least in the way we envisioned it - was going to force some important issues. The first, we found, was around privacy. The groups in a church are often closed and private: a place where people can work out deep issues in their lives, deal with grief and heartache, and in some cases get help for addiction. If our group model was going to work, our online analogy would have to closely model that very tight-knit, trustworthy structure found in real life.
This was a complicated undertaking, as one of the fears of social media was that it was open and public: this is one of the main reasons why churches didn’t have much success using Facebook to engage their congregations.
As we talked to congregants, we realized another very important thing: while a church staff is paid to use their software tools, the congregation does so voluntarily. That leads to less tolerance for discomfort and different expectations around value. If we are to engage a church congregation (which outnumber church staff 50:1), it has to be clearly worth their while to use our product, which means it has to be clearly better than the alternatives. We were not competing with other church management software; we were competing with Facebook, email, Google Groups, etc.
What we did
Along with another designer, I designed everything from a group communication system to a kid check system for the children’s ministry to a donor management system to a system to manage church newcomers.
This included a global redesign of our Information Architecture and UI, as the one we inherited wasn’t going to scale to accommodate our feature growth; it also included the product identity and visual language.
In less than six months, we brought the product to market; in less than two years, we built a huge suite of church engagement and management tools, focused around the congregation; then I took the engagement features and worked them into native apps for iOS and Android.
As we built these things out, we discovered that many churches weren't ready to make the paradigm shift to the distributed leadership that The City promoted, but their group leaders were — so we started working on 'Metro', a grassroots version where it was possible to establish individual groups and link them together, then bring them all under an official City instance. I also focused on set of tools to make provision and launch easier for churches.
Impact and Takeaways
The City almost single-handedly changed the face of church management software. Where in 2009 all the major players were focused on back-office functionality, today they are all promoting the notion of congregational engagement, and of the power of software to help churches build and grow their community. That’s new, and it points directly to the work we did on The City - and it’s gratifying to see that even though various companies are trying to build it into their products, none have even come close to what The City did.
I worked on The City for four years with an outstanding team. We built a visionary product that had no equal (and almost no parallel) in the market, and brought the concept of UX design to an industry that hadn’t even considered it.