Website Needs Assessments and Surveys

Arguably the single most important step of a congregational website redesign is figuring out what users need — not what you think they need and certainly not just what you need — but what they really can use.

Sometimes you already know. For example, if your congregation doesn’t have a site at all, your number one need is a no-brainer. Of course even then you have to determine what specifically is most needed for the site-to-be. You can’t do it all with one design or redesign.

The easiest way to get this information is (no surprise here) to do needs assessments. It’s also one of the most enjoyable aspects of redesign — for everyone involved. People love to be asked their opinions, especially if it’s close to their hearts. At the same time, it builds support and enthusiasm for the project.

There are five steps involved in doing site needs assessments.

1. Identify the site’s “stakeholders.” The Web is divided into three great parts: users (your site visitors), builders (those who put the site infrastructure in place, i.e. you and me) and stakeholders (typically the leaders of the organization).

At my church the primary stakeholders are the staff and the committee chairs responsible for programatic parts of church life such as Worship and Fund Raising. As we move towards having a real intranet, the Board is also becoming a major stakeholder. In any event it’s a good idea to keep the Board happy, so why not do a needs assessment with them too?

2. Schedule meetings with the primary stakeholders. In my experience this is the most challenging step. Everyone is so busy.

What I did was to email the senior minister and the chair of the board. I told them a bit about the redesign and explained the benefits of the needs assessment. I’m married to the Committee Council Chair so it was easy enough to contact him. The minister invited me to the very next staff meeting, and the Board Chair suggested lunch. That was great fun, and turned into an invitation to the Board’s retreat. The Council meets very little and I wasn’t able to schedule with them. Instead, I set up a general session and encouraged Council members in particular to come.

The time required varies according to the number of people. Our staff of 5 took 45 minutes (though an hour would have been better). The Board of 12 took 1.5 hours. The general session we gave 1.5 hours.

3. Figure out the questions most likely to elicit the information you need. The questions I came up with were:

  • What is working well with the site?
  • What isn’t working so well? What are the gaps?
  • What are some key objectives for the website?
  • How might we measure success?
  • What kind of services would be most helpful? (Examples might be a Content Management System, an online calendar or photo galleries
  • If you could change one thing about our website, what would it be? What would be most helpful to you?

For the Board I did a full Communications Needs Assessment. (It has to do with our strategic plan.) In case it might be helpful, here are those questions too.

  • What communications do we do well? (Go around in a circle)
  • What poorly or not at all? What are the costs of these? What are the benefits?
  • What are the values you think are most significant in our congregation? Which get the least attention? Which get the most? Where are these communicated most clearly? How can we improve?
  • What aspects of our congregational life do you think are central, enduring and distinctive? Where are these communicated most clearly? How can we improve?
  • In what ways do we reach into our community? Which forms of our outreach are distinctive and unique for our congregation? What others might we do?
  • If you could change one thing about our communications, what would it be? (Go aound in a circle.)

4. Conduct the meetings. What’s needed for these again depends on the number of people. If it’s 10 or more people, you’ll need another person to help, so one can run the meeting while the other records the answers. You’ll also need a flip chart to do the recording on. Between 5 and 10, a flip chart and second person help but aren’t critical. For 5 and under, one person and a pad of paper are fine.

5. Write up your notes. Do this as soon as you possibly can, so you can fill in blanks. Then share your notes with the stakeholders.

My guess is you’ll be delighted with the results for relatively effort on your part.

For all three of our sessions, there were excellent ideas (some that didn’t even have to wait for redesign) and the enthusiasm and support were palpable. These sessions have created a sense of group ownership like never before. In the past the website has been somewhat siloed — perceived as work for only our Communications Committee. But now, a variety of leaders know and care about it. More to the point some are already building new web pages. The best example is our chair of Fund Raising. She wanted a Web page listing books and linking to Amazon as an affiliate. A retired librarian at that same meeting gladly volunteered to manage it. I’ve now set up a WordPress page for them and they will launch it as soon as our affiliate status is in place.


Similar to needs assessments, surveys can also help you get at what’s most needed. And they are remarkable easy to do using tools like SurveyMonkey. However, before you go down that path, be sure to get permission from leadership. At times, congregations can be over-surveyed. (That’s the case right now for my congregation.) In addition, I’ve never found the data from them as useful as the data from needs assessments, nor do they help build support. As a result, I wouldn’t recommend doing surveys instead of needs assessments, but they can be a helpful supplement.

If you’re interested in doing a survey, I’d suggest that you be as brief as possible and start with a warm but quick welcome — for example, “We value your opinion. Please help us improve our site by answering just 4 questions.” Here are some questions you might want to consider (but please don’t use all of them):

  • What is your involvement with our congregation? (List choices such as visitor, new member, member for over 2 years, staff)
  • How often do you visit our site?
  • Have you been able to find the information you were looking for?
  • If not, what were you unable to find?
  • How can our website be improved?
  • Would you like to receive our electronic newsletter?
  • Other comments or suggestions.

Next Week

The next step in our series will be drafting a “roadmap” of work. But that’s a couple of weeks away, since this weekend is Mr. Web Diva’s birthday and we’re having a tree climbing party. Consider it a little break. Until then, happy redesign.

3 Responses

  1. Chance says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said here, but there’s one important group of stakeholders you can’t (easily) meet with, and that’s newcomers. Newcomers and longtime members have different needs from the website, not always contradictory, but now always in sync either.

    I was involved with a redesign of a church’s website that had sprawled out of control by letting leaders put up whatever they want, sometimes even multiple pages. We did everything you outlined here, but we also established a priority of audiences so that we could decide who “won” when there was a conflict. That priority was:

    1. Newcomers (who don’t know what questions to ask or even what programs to ask about)
    2. Rank and file members (who know about what they’re already involved in but may not know much about other programs)
    3. Congregational leaders (who often know the lay of the land very well)

    We ended up bringing in a lot of new people through our website. And we’d get feedback that they could find what they were looking for, even if they didn’t know quite what it was when they started looking.

    Sorry for the long comment! Still loving the new header and footer images!

  2. Anna Belle says:

    Chance —

    Great comment! And a timely warning: it “sprawled out of control by letting leaders put up whatever they want.”

    I totally agree about the importance of newcomers. That I don’t classify them with stakeholders is a bit arbitrary. Primarily it comes from my building websites in healthcare, where the stakeholders are management and designated content editors. Congregations of a certain size do have management, but the way we work it seems to me “stakeholders” are a bit broader than the usual website definition.

    In my arbitrary breakdown, it sounds to me as if you’ve stratified primary audiences, with newcomers as most important, then rank and file, etc. That’s great that you have this established as a decision point.

    Also, we’ll analyzing newcomer needs with usability tests in a few weeks.

  3. Chance says:

    Usability tests are great. Even if they’re really informal, they add a lot. Always good to get extra sets of eyes. I almost didn’t do them, but I’m glad I did.

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