Mar 19 2013

Featured Synagogue Website Design: Rodef Shalom

While Christians get lots of examples if they search Google for “best church website designs,” Jews get almost nothing if they search for “best synagogue website designs.” One site presents two lists of screenshots with almost no commentary, and several other sites appear to have republished articles about church websites after replacing the words “church” and “pastor” with “synagogue” and “rabbi.” (It’s probably no surprise that those sites belong to low-quality web design companies attempting to drum up business.) Even Google seems to give up by the second page of search results and starts listing church-related content at the end.

I’d like to address this dearth of useful information about synagogue website designs by featuring one each week and explaining some of the things that make it work, as well as a few things I would improve. Let’s start with one of my favorite examples at the moment, the website for Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, and discuss a couple screenshots in detail. In this entry, I’ll focus on some of the homepage elements.

Homepage (Above the Fold)

rodef shalom 1

This screenshot—without the numbers, of course—is what you first see when you visit Rodef Shalom’s website. Some notes:

  1. The design catches your eye with its bold colors, large images and text, and gradients. There’s also plenty of white space around the header and other elements, a welcome change from the wall of text you often find on synagogue websites. Teal and orange won’t convey the appropriate message for every group, of course, but it works well for this Reform congregation.
  2. Navigation menus for synagogues are often just lists of the various committees (“Adult Education,” “Women’s Chavurah,” and so on). The designers here have taken a different approach and started with “Visit Us” and “Rodef Shalom & You.” These listings are much more welcoming and emphasize the things that website visitors want to know rather than the institution’s administrative structure.
  3. Image carousels—otherwise known as “the things with slide-y images”—are visually appealing, but usability studies suggest that people rarely click on links after the first slide [1]. Moreover, they often miss content on the slides because they’ve learned to tune out things that look like banner ads [2]. If you use an image carousel, I’d recommend sticking with only a few slides, as the designers do here, and making sure that visitors can easily access banner content in other ways.
    (One other thing: the line spacing on the header here is way too large. I would tighten it up.)
  4. This section displays information about the next event at Rodef Shalom. Unfortunately, it took me a moment to realize that; I would probably add a heading making it explicit.
  5. I think this section doesn’t work as well as the others. I’ve already kvetched before about including the current date in English and Hebrew, but why does a religious institution have a “Your Cart” link on the front page? It appears to be a part of the system they use to process donations, but a synagogue’s front page shouldn’t make people think “e-commerce.” The “membership” link also seems useless here, given the prominent “Rodef Shalom & You” link in the main menu.


rodef shalom 2
This section appears at the bottom of the homepage and every other page on this site. A few more notes:

  1. I really like the “Meet So-and-So” feature that introduces a staff member and invites you to learn more about him or her. Some of the one-sentence introductions are more compelling than others—this one isn’t the best example—but the feature makes Rodef Shalom feel more human and less institutional.
  2. The action-oriented headings (“Meet So-and-So,” “Stay in Touch”) also work well. The social networking links aren’t prominent enough, though. I would make the icons much larger and hide the accompanying text: everyone familiar with Facebook and Twitter recognizes the icons, I suspect. Speaking of sizes, I would increase the size of the text in the footer somewhat: even with (corrected) normal vision, I found the text difficult to read, especially the Twitter updates.
  3. An updated Twitter account is always good to see, but a glance at their Twitter feed reveals that they use it only as an announcement forum and never interact or engage with others. (Twitter accounts merit several separate posts, though!)
  4. The “Visit Us” and “Contact Us” headings appear to be reversed, but I like the prominent button for online contact. The button would work even better with action-oriented text as well—for example, “Contact Us Online.”
  5. While the “Membership” link at the top struck me as redundant, the links down here are useful for visitors unsure where to go next after browsing the entire page.

Concluding Thoughts

Rodef Shalom promotes itself as an inclusive community, and its website reinforces that image: it’s open, friendly, and easy to navigate. While I focused only on homepage elements in this feature, the website does a number of things right in other areas, and offers a great example of an effective synagogue website design.

(In future features, by the way, I will probably focus on one aspect like information architecture or accessibility for each site. No matter what, though, I promise to avoid just dumping screenshots on a page.)

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