The ESV and Bible Usability (Presentation)

Below is the text of a presentation given by Stephen Smith, Crossway’s Director of Information Services, at the BibleTech08 conference last weekend in Seattle. The most interesting thing is the model he presents. (Scroll down and look for the picture.) Slides (pdf).

Erin McKean of Dictionary, in her talk at a conference last year, called the Bible the “bookiest book” of all—which is to say, when you ask people to picture a book in their minds, they’ll often think of a Bible. And they should. Since printing took off in the 15th century, printers have printed more copies of the Bible than any other book.

Until the 19th and 20th centuries, most European and American families had a modest library at best, with a “family Bible” at the center. Indeed, in a time before extensive government record-keeping, births, christenings, marriages, and deaths recorded in the family Bible served as legal documents. So it’s no wonder that when some people think of a book, the first thing that comes to mind is a Bible. And not a small Bible, either.

But despite the Bible’s being the world’s bookiest book, it’s an unusual book. You don’t sit down and read the Bible from cover-to-cover the way you do a less-booky book. But you hopefully don’t treat it as a reference book, either, like an encyclopedia that sits on a shelf waiting for you to ask it a question on any topic, as long as that topic begins with the letters E-a through E-m.

The central question of my talk is not what makes a book a book, or what makes one book bookier than another book, but how to keep the Bible usable when runs smack into technology. After all, parts of the Bible have been around for 3,000 years and have passed through many forms—from scroll to codex to illuminated manuscript to printed book, through to modern Bibles with their requisite two-column, red-letter layout.

And then there are ebooks. For the last ten years, ebooks have been the next big thing. And they’ll probably be the next big thing for the next ten years, too. The basic problem with ebook readers is that while they may do a fine job at letting you read regular books—novels, non-fiction, the occasional political satire—they don’t work well for the Bible.

I shouldn’t really say that ebooks don’t work well for the Bible, because they work OK. But most ebook readers don’t give publishers the flexibility to add the design cues that you usually find in modern Bibles—especially the quick book/chapter/verse navigation that people want to use 90% of the time when they read the Bible. In computer terms, ebook readers make sequential access easy, but random access hard, returning us from the days of the book back to the days of the scroll.

For example, to get from a random verse in the Bible on Amazon’s new Kindle ebook reader to any other verse in the Bible requires going back to the table of contents and following the links to individual books and then—assuming they exist—following the links for chapters and verses, as well. You might decide it’s not worth the effort. Compare this experience to a print Bible, where you simply flip some pages and then flip back when you’re done.

My point is not to disparage the Kindle—again, it’s adequate for Bibles and works well for books that you read through from beginning to end. My point is that technology in this case has failed to address the needs of the Bible reader. And the Kindle is not alone in this failing. But where does the blame lie for this failure? In short, it lies with me and with people like me.

As someone who works with computers all day, I tend to think in terms of systems: how does the system work; what are its inputs and outputs; if I lose access to my database, how much of my website will still function? But real people don’t think this way—they think in personal terms, with all sorts of messy things like emotions and attitudes. They have entire personal histories that they bring to technology. They have cats who insist on helping them with their technology, cats who like nothing better than throwing their paws into my well-tuned system.

And so, systems designers like me, who would like nothing better than to develop for people like ourselves—people who are logical, methodical, and rule-abiding—must instead develop for people who are flamboyant, artistic, and who don’t see rules as having any bearing on reality. And not only that, a systems designer has to develop for people in-between these two extremes. How do you do that? And more specifically, how do you design a system that integrates Bibles and technology in a way that anyone can use?


The answer lies in usability, a term that has a number of meanings but that I’m using to mean “designing a computer system that meets people’s needs, that works how they expect, and that doesn’t annoy them.”

So how do you meet people’s needs? You have to understand (as much as you can) who they are, what they’re doing, where they are, when it is, why they’re doing it, and how they do it. In other words, you need a model. Once you have a model, even an imperfect one, you can use it as a starting point to come up with new ideas and to keep in check some of the software-programmer tendencies you may have.

At Crossway we use a diagram based on research we’ve conducted, mostly through surveys and observation. (I should mention that a much fancier diagram of flickr at was the inspiration for our diagram.) This diagram tries to model what happens when someone encounters the text of the Bible. It tries to answer the who-what-when-where-why-and-how questions. And it does that by talking about three things: the person who’s encountering the text, the text itself, and the physical (or virtual) Bible.

Try the PDF or Illustrator formats for more-accessible versions
Also available in PDF and Illustrator formats. This diagram is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.


So let’s talk about people.

When it comes to people encountering Bible text, there are a number of things that are helpful to know about them personally. Do they work in a religious profession? How much formal education do they have? How old are they? Do they go to church? How often do they attend? What do they do for fun?

What’s their family situation? Are they surrounded by Christians, or are they the only Christian in their family? Are they a non-Christian dating someone who’s a Christian, someone who therefore doesn’t have much experience with the Bible?

What’s their view of the Bible? Are they Christian? Is English their primary language? How are they feeling when they encounter the text? (If they’re trying to read their Bible while exhausted, for example, they’re going to feel differently about the text than they would if they’re relaxing somewhere on vacation.)

Next we want to know where they are when they encounter the text of the Bible. Are they at home? Commuting? In class? Are they participating in a worship service? What kind of worship service is it? Are they doing something else at the same time?

It also matters when people encounter the text—both time of day and time of year. Do they encounter the Bible on a regular basis? How often? How does the Bible fit into their schedule?

In their physical context, it matters whether people are active or at rest. Or if they’re somewhere in public—in a group Bible study, for example—or if they’re at home—say, doing personal devotions. Or if they’re surrounded by noise and conversation and children screaming, or surrounded by silence.

These are all questions that affect how you design for people. You can’t, of course, design something that works perfectly for everyone in every circumstance—but when you’re designing software or anything with an adaptive user interface, you have a lot more flexibility than if you’re designing a printed Bible (which is what we at Crossway mostly do). But that flexibility means that people should have higher expectations for Bible software than they do for print Bibles.


Next, let’s talk about the text of the Bible. What do designers need to know about how people encounter the text?

Well, one of the most important things is the purpose of the encounter. Was it intentional or accidental? Is there a definite purpose in mind? Are they doing personal devotions or an exegetical study? Are they doing textual research or preparing a sermon? Are they witnessing to someone or just pretending to be interested in the Bible to impress somebody? Are they reading the Bible out of a sense of duty, or are they reading it to mock it? Do they see their time with the Bible as an act of worship?

The next question is what they’re reading. Are they just looking at a single verse, a whole passage, or multiple passages? What translations are they using? How closely are they reading—are they trying to read the whole Bible in a year, for example, and are skimming to get through Leviticus? How did they find the passage they’re reading? How systematic is their reading—do they just read when they feel like it, or do they have a definite plan? What other works are they consulting as they read? What background research do they try to do when they approach a passage?

And then there’s the question of what they do when they want to record their thoughts. Do they underline, highlight, or prefer symbols in the margin? Do they have a special pen or highlighter that they use? Do they take notes? If they do, do they record them in the margin of the Bible, or do they have something external, like a journal or a sermon outline they got in church? What kind of notes do they write?

These kinds of questions help you understand how you need to support annotations in your application—by understanding how people take notes, you understand better how they think and what some of the problems are that they encounter.

Another question about the text is where it appears. After all, not everyone is sitting down with a Bible. People encounter quotes from and allusions to Scripture more often than they might think. Is the text displayed or engraved somewhere—is it part of a work of art or a presentation, for example? Is it printed somewhere—in a book, on a computer screen, or on a mobile device? Or are people encountering the text in a purely auditory way, whether through public reading of Scripture, family devotions, or a professional recording?

The goal of asking these questions is to understand people’s goals as they approach the text, what they’re doing to reach those goals, and the strengths and weaknesses of each medium in which people encounter the words of the Bible.


The next section of our diagram looks at the Bible as a physical object. A Bible’s physical features represent an important part of how people approach the Bible, though the specific factors I’m going to talk about are somewhat less relevant to digital Bibles.

The typical physical features of a Bible are familiar: its type size, physical size, layout, and binding. Also important are any extra features in the Bible—from maps to notes to cross-references. But just as important are things that people do to customize their Bibles. Some people buy a cover for their Bibles; some people decide to re-cover their Bibles; and some people want so much more space for note-taking that they take a printed Bible, slice off the binding, insert empty sheets of paper between the Bible pages, and rebind their Bible more to their liking. The result is what’s called a “blank Bible.” A number of people have created these Bibles; I like to link to them from the ESV blog because it shows how people can get really invested in their Bibles. I get the feeling that we’d value our Bibles a lot more if we had to assemble and bind them ourselves.

Anyway, a central question for us as a publisher of a single Bible translation is how people hear about the translation, especially as it relates to their purchase. Did they hear about the translation before they bought the Bible? And if they heard about it, where did they hear about it? Traditional market researchers love asking this kind of question.

Marketers also like learning about why people buy the Bibles they do. There are as many reasons as there are people, since different things matter to different people at different times. Some people might care a lot about the translation, while someone else is just looking for something new. Others choose a Bible because their church uses it (or because their church doesn’t use it). Or maybe they like the cover design, or they need a gift for someone. Whatever the reason they bought it, it helps to understand their thinking.

An often-overlooked question involves what people do with their previous Bible once they get a new one. Most people keep them, of course, but do they keep using it or do they store it somewhere? And if they don’t want to keep it, do they give it away or try to sell it on eBay (where there were 3,000 Bibles for sale there the last time I checked)? With digital Bibles, this question becomes less important, since you can, in theory, keep everything you ever bought forever. In practice, though, digital copies often turn out to be more ephemeral than print copies.

The final thing we want to know about the physical Bible is where people keep it when they’re not using it. Do they have a specific location? On their nightstand? On a bookshelf? Do they keep it with them in their backpack? Or store it out of sight in a box? The answers to these questions all affect how much people use their Bibles and also reveal their attitudes toward it. In the context of Windows software, you might interpret the question of storage as, “Do people keep an icon for their Bible application in their most-frequently used programs in their Start menu?”

Why Not?

The final question this diagram seeks to address is why people don’t encounter the text of the Bible—in other words, if they have the choice between reading their Bible and doing something else, why don’t they read the Bible? Again, there are myriad reasons, with lack of time being the most common. But people also aren’t sure where to start, or maybe they think that reading the Bible during church is enough. Or maybe they don’t enjoy reading anything. In the technical realm, you find different kinds of literacy problems—technology intimidates a lot of people. They want something that just works.

Works How They Expect

And that brings me to the second key about usability and the Bible: Bibles should work how people expect. I mentioned at the beginning of this talk how people have long had associations with the Bible—they know how a Bible should look and feel. But technology can sweep away these associations, unless you want a leatherbound USB keychain Bible, which at $29.99 is cheaper than most printed leather Bibles. It’s King James Version only, though, if that’s important to you.

What I wanted to get across by going into so much detail about understanding how people encounter the text of the Bible, is that, without first understanding people, you can’t hope to understand what they expect when they read the Bible. You have to understand them so well that you can meet needs that they don’t even realize they have. (A leatherbound King James USB Bible probably doesn’t meet one of those needs.)

So let’s combine some data points from our model and see what we can come up with. Let’s meet Jerry. Jerry lives in the suburbs of Chicago and usually takes the commuter train to his job in downtown Chicago. He has a wife and a couple of kids. He goes to church regularly, though this time of year he’d sometimes rather stay home and not have to go out in single-digit weather. He doesn’t read his Bible a lot outside of church because he doesn’t feel like it’s particularly important—plus, who has the time? Recently, though, his church kicked off a campaign to read through the New Testament in 40 days, which works out to a half-hour commitment per day. Besides more time, what does Jerry need to be able to fit the Bible reading into his day? Actually, what Jerry needs is more time. And we can give it to him—sort of. Instead of reading The Wall Street Journal during his commute, Jerry can read the New Testament. But how can technology help in this scenario?

Well, what Jerry needs is something that divides up the New Testament into roughly equal sections, taking into account the five-day workweek and any upcoming holidays. Then this technology needs to keep track of what he’s read and help him catch up if he falls behind. Finally, it needs to be portable, so he can take it with him on the train. Now that we’ve defined the problem and understand a bit about Jerry and the circumstances in which he’ll be using our application, we can try to develop a solution for him.

At this point, it sounds like the best thing for Jerry is an application or website that’s accessible from his iPhone- or Blackberry-like device. It’s an application that knows he needs to read the New Testament in 40 days and knows his calendar. It knows when he gets on the train and doesn’t bother him before then. In short, it takes care of all the drudgery and scheduling—boring things that computers are good at—so Jerry can focus on reading the Bible.

But what if one day Jerry decides to drive to work instead of taking the train? He can’t read his Bible that day. Well, suppose this application can switch between textual and audio representations of the text, so Jerry can read the Bible when he’s on the train and listen to the Bible when he’s in the car—or just when he wants a change of pace.

Of course, in this case, carrying around a print Bible and a bookmark would probably work pretty well on most days. And it’s an open question whether there are enough people in Jerry’s situation to warrant developing an application like this one. Even if we develop it, we don’t know how much Jerry’s willing to pay for it (if he’s willing to pay anything). But if we choose to develop it, we have a reasonable understanding of how the application will work from Jerry’s perspective and how it fits into his life. In other words, for him, it just works.

We just created what’s called a “persona”—a fictional character who helps us solve design problems and identify unmet needs. By combining aspects from our chart with some critical thinking, we can start planning the application in more detail. You don’t have to go all-out and find pictures of people when you create personas—you can leave them nice and abstract if you want. But doing this kind of thinking helps you understand what people are looking for in Bible software you develop.


When it comes to specific design guidelines—in other words, elements or behaviors to use in a Bible application—Crossway published our findings back in 2002. There are about 50 guidelines and examples of what we learned from developing the ESV website. We’re definitely eager to learn from other companies or people. If you conduct a usability test related to the Bible or have insights from developing such products, I definitely encourage you to publish your findings informally on the web so other Bible software developers can benefit from shared knowledge. It seems like there should be a large body of latent knowledge of what people expect from Bible applications, but not a lot of it gets shared publicly. I appreciate Logos for organizing the BibleTech conference and letting some of these discussions happen.

Don’t Annoy People

My final point about usability, “Don’t annoy people,” follows from understanding people’s needs and meeting their expectations. An annoyed user is probably a lost user. I know that I make unfair snap judgments about websites all the time if they do something to annoy me—whether it’s requiring registration to try out a basic feature or starting to play an ad out loud to me when I move my mouse over the wrong part of the page, or just a general slowness of performance.

The best way to figure out what annoys people—and to validate your design—is to ask real people to try out your application. See if they can do the things that you want them to be able to do. This is called usability testing, and it’s not hard to do. You just have to sit a couple of people down and watch them as they use your product. What do they have problems with? What doesn’t make sense? Those are the things you need to look into.

It helps to ask people to try to do things with your application even before it’s done. That way you can make changes more easily. If you wait until you’re done with development before you ask people to try things out, and you find that you need to make a major change to the way the application works, then it’s much more costly to make the changes you need. It’s also a lot more tempting to slap a band-aid on it and ship it anyway. If you want to learn more, I recommend Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug as a good introduction to the basic principles of usability.


In conclusion, if I had to sum up usability as it relates to the Bible, I’d say that the key is to make sure that you don’t force people to think like a computer just so they can read the Bible; instead, design your product so that people think you designed it just for them. And by following some of this methodology, in a way you’ll find that you did design it just for them.

I’ve shared with you some of the research that Crossway’s done to help us figure out what people need in a Bible and how they think about it. I hope that you build on the model I’ve presented—a model that is by no means complete. I want to encourage you again to publish any non-proprietary user research that you conduct. The Bible software community can learn a lot from general human-computer interaction research, but like any specialized field we have our own quirks. I hope that by sharing knowledge, even informally at conferences like this one, we can create a better user experience for everyone who uses modern technology to access the Bible.

Thank you.