Conjuring the ’90’s: 7 Thoughts on the Vatican’s “New” Website

In the First Book of Samuel, in the very famous scene between King Saul, the (dead) Prophet Samuel, and the Witch of Endor, the lesson to be learned is, poking about with things that are dead and buried is never a good idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story in checking out the Vatican’s new web site today. If you thought it was a mess before – and oh, it was – you ain’t seen nothing yet. I don’t know why the tech department at The Holy See is trying to conjure up the spirits of web designers from 15 years ago, but they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

So here are seven quick observations, just on a brief attempt to actually use the site:

1. Scrolling Banners: I mean…really? Where are the flying toasters and the Dancing Baby? And what’s worse is, it’s not just a scrolling banner, it’s a scrolling banner of the different @Pontifex account tweets. That’s like playing “Pong” on an X-Box 360. Actually no, it’s worse.

2. Language: The default language setting for the site is “Italian”, and fair enough, since the people who maintain it are in Italy. However, virtually any site can be coded to detect the browser’s country of origin when a visitor lands there, and will adjust the language setting automatically. Why isn’t this possible here?

Alternatively, on many sites there is a very obvious place to select what language you want to use, and on subsequent visits the site will remember your settings. Instead, every time you visit the Vatican site, it seems to default back to Italian. What’s more, the language selection isn’t an obvious thing, such as little British, French, and German flags you can click on to select a language. Instead, it’s a drop down menu headed by the word, “Italiano”. What if you don’t know the word for “Italian” in Italian is “Italiano”, assuming you even see it? What happens to the menu selection bar when people from countries which do not use Latin characters visit the site?

This brings us to the next issue, of long-standing duration.

3. Wallpaper: We still seem to be stuck with the pinky-orange blotting paper that someone at the Vatican thinks looks like a historic parchment. It doesn’t, especially if you’ve ever handled genuine papyrus or vellum. This combined with a small, skinny font in some sort of brownish-gray color makes the entire site difficult to read. STILL.

4. Menus: There are multiple menus, all over the place, leading to all sorts of different subsites within the site. Take a look at the sort of jumbo-menu, for example, sitting in the middle of the revamped page. Why is it there? Why are there other menus above it, and a circled-off menu next to it, full of things about Pope Francis?

And for that matter, why does the Pope Francis section look like a collection of those poetry refrigerator magnets you can buy? You know, where you rearrange the pre-printed words to come up with a haiku? Couldn’t they have just settled on a couple of overarching themes for their section about him?

5. Calendar: Click on “Calendar” in the middle of the page and you get…Ha, ha! Those tricky Cardinals! No, not today’s calendar with a listing of what Pope Francis is up to today, so you could see whom he is meeting with or where he is traveling. That would be too logical.

Rather, you get a list of the months in 2014, which you then have to go click on to find out what is happening. Once you land there, the layout, the colors, the fonts, everything is completely different from the home page. It looks like it was designed and maintained by a different company altogether…which is probably true.

6. Photos: Moving on to the “Photos” section – where even though the tab is in English, all the album titles are in Italian – you would expect that clicking on an album title would take you to a new page. Then you could see an online album full of pictures of Pope Francis, the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Museums, etc. Again, you would be entirely wrong, silly web user.

In fact, if it opens at all, which apparently is a struggle for it to do, whatever album you click on opens a mosaic of teeny tiny little thumbnails of the photos in that particular album. They are so small, that you can barely tell what they are, like something out of Geocities or Tripod back in the late 1990’s. In an age of Flickr, Tumbler, etc., this seems rather unforgivable, if you’ll forgive the expression.

7. Video: Clicking on the “Video” tab, one is connected directly to what at first glance appears to be the Vatican’s television feed on YouTube. This streams through a small YouTube window embedded inside the menu itself. That, at least, would seem to make sense.

Ha, ha! Fooled you again! Because in fact all you are looking at is a webcam, perched atop Bernini’s Colonnade on St. Peter’s Square. Yes, that’s right, a webcam. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good webcam as much as anyone else, particularly the newer and better ones with better-quality audio and video. But for an organization that has its own television studios, one would think that the Vatican might be streaming something a bit more interesting on its home page.

Those are just a few thoughts on the site revamp. It’s a pity that this continues to be a problem, because good design is like a calling card, especially for potential new customers. You’re not going to draw people in if they think that you’re not paying attention, or are sloppy. Let’s get it together, amici.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

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14 thoughts on “Conjuring the ’90’s: 7 Thoughts on the Vatican’s “New” Website

    • Thank you so much for reading. It’s really terrible, and I say that as someone who is NOT a web designer. Perhaps if all of you went to St. Peter’s and chained yourself to the Colonnade His Holiness might send someone out to listen…

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      • I’ve often found myself having to justify the need for doing this kind of thing well from a church perspective. When I first started offering my services, I thought it was a given that we need to do this well. I’ve come to understand that it’s not a given and we need to do more to try and express this need. I couldn’t have said it better when you wrote, “It’s a pity that this continues to be a problem, because good design is like a calling card, especially for potential new customers. You’re not going to draw people in if they think that you’re not paying attention, or are sloppy.”

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  1. Of course vatican.va used to land on a page where you chose your language by clicking on “the Holy See” in various languages. Not only was that functional* I kind of liked the upfront reminder that this is after all the universal church and the website serves a multilingual population. I would compare to other multinational companies like UPS or Penguin Books which use splashy choose-your-country pages to emphasize their global importance. So, ARRRGH, you had it right, why would you take a step backward?!

    *I think some people were annoyed that you couldn’t set a cookie to remember which language you wanted? But I think on the whole it worked. Certainly it was lots better than landing everyone on Italian and making visitors change the language themselves.

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  2. Pingback: Though shall not suffer a (bad) web designer » The Curt Jester

  3. Pingback: CW222: Roman Pilgrimage, Crank Calls, and Website Redesigns | SQPN: Catholic WeekendCW222: Roman Pilgrimage, Crank Calls, and Website Redesigns - SQPN: Catholic Weekend

  4. Ironically, the first Vatican website that I remember (in the 90s) was designed by the guys at Christ in the Desert Monastery (http://christdesert.org), and was pretty advanced for its time.

    Looks like Christ in the Desert hasn’t moved on much, and the Vatican… well, you did a good job explaining it. :-/

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