Designing one solution for multiple mental models

Projects that I work on at ACS Technologies require consideration for multiple personas which usually include the paid staff member, a volunteer, and an attendee. Managing expectations at this level can be challenging as each person has a different way of solving a similar problem or they might have completely different problem sets altogether. But recently I’ve worked on a feature that took that complexity to another level… it’s called Sacraments.

In case you’re not familiar with ACS Technologies, we provide technology solutions specifically for faith-based organizations… basically churches. Even though our work revolves around this fact, the problems we face from a UX perspective are similar to those being solved in many other industries. So, regardless of what your belief background is, I encourage you to read on.

Some context

A sacrament is…

a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace.

  • In the Roman Catholic, the rites of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony.
  • Among Protestants, baptism and the Eucharist.

Catholic and Protestant churches are…

vastly different in the way they perform sacraments and record sacramental data. Catholic churches follow canon law, a system of laws and legal principles that need to be strictly followed. Some Protestant churches have their own system of canon law but most don’t.

Plus, protestant churches have many branches, just to name a few… Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist. And each branch has their own differences as well.

A mental model is…

an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.

New territory

To get a better understanding of our users and their mental models, we had the privilege of visiting multiple Catholic churches. We even had a Catholic priest lead a class to educate us on each sacrament. All this prepared us for a design studio where we collectively put our ideas together to come out with a design concept that our UX Researchers could take out to validate with existing clients. I can’t stress how critical this learning phase was; without it we would’ve made a lot of wrong assumptions.

Some of what we learned

Catholic churches record all sacramental data in what’s called a Register, a sacred physical book. These are locked up in fire resistant safes and depending on how old the church is, some may even have registers that are hundreds of years old. Some branches of Protestant churches have a similar process but most don’t keep a physical record.

Not all churches use the term Sacraments. Some may call them Acts, Ceremonies, Rites, or Milestones… just to name a few.

Different churches can have different terms for the same sacrament. And within each sacrament there are different terms used for the same type of information.

No two churches are the same. And despite their traditional differences, both Catholic and Protestant churches find value in digitally recording some or all sacramental data to match what they’re recording on paper.

Flexibility was key

By understanding early on just how vastly different the Catholic and Protestant church experiences could be, one major goal was to provide a single flexible solution that could fit different mental models. Of course, that flexibility had to be given in a structured way to prevent bloat for the user.

We introduced a way to rename the default feature name from Sacraments to what the church is familiar with (Fig. 1 below). This brings better understanding to our users throughout the product and matches their mental models.

Fig. 1

For each sacrament there’s additional pieces of information (Fig. 2 below) that are important to record. And again, the level of importance will differ between Catholic and Protestant. Furthermore, it will differ between all of the many branches of Protestantism.

Fig. 1 — New research revealed that this isn’t 100% accurate. We have ongoing research to get this right.

We ended up with yet another flexible solution (Fig. 3 below) where simple checkbox options would allow a church to specify the most important information to them. It’s not the most glamorous UI but it was very well understood by research participants. The use cases and scenarios are so complex that a simple checkbox was the most useful solution.

Fig. 2 — Catholics tend to record all pieces of information whereas Protestants generally record just a few. So we tried to optimize our defaults to accommodate appropriately.

We’re still learning a lot about how churches manage sacramental data. I’ll be sure to share more of our findings and solutions as we continue the work.