Recently, I reflected on my experience speaking at BibleTech in 2010. The key starting point for my talk was that lots of people were doing Bible study using paper Bibles, word processors, and other general tools. Why weren’t they using our specially designed Bible software? Was there something wrong in the way we designed software? Or were our users wrong for not realising how much better our software was?
I think this mind-set illustrates a key problem with technology-led solutions. It’s very tempting as a software developer to think that if we take an existing process and replicate it exactly in software it will end up better. But what we actually find is that we were unable to replicate it exactly. Sometimes this leads to complaints, other times the system we build is just ignored.
While both Bible software and technology have changed a lot since 2010, I think the key usability principles I talked about then still apply.
In this talk I used one of my favourite tactics: starting with a challenging viewpoint rather than one everyone would accept. Had I been giving a talk to a group who opposed all use of Bible software, I would have sung its praises. However, since I was giving a talk to a group of technologists, I thought it important to remind them of some of the benefits of paper. That got some strong disagreement on Twitter, but, as I said: “If we don’t know what we’ve lost, we won’t recognize how software is changing our Bible study”.
Obviously I was involved in working on Bible software because I thought it important. I wasn’t just there to give a negative message, and I certainly wasn’t counselling everyone in the room to give up and go back to paper based methods.
The positive side of the message was this: It’s OK that your Bible software doesn’t do everything. It’s OK that even after you produce the perfect software people still drop back to using other tools. That’s not a failure. Rather than just assume “Paper process + digital = better process”, I thought it best to focus on areas where Bible software significantly added value. Specialised Bible software wasn’t the be-all and end-all of Bible study - but we could still make it better.
So, what are the alternatives?
Well, paper is the old-school alternative, and as a general purpose solution can do almost anything you want it to: Rough notes, organised notes, highlighting, drawing maps and diagrams, etc. If you want to draw a quick diagram in the margin and link it to a couple of points in the text with arrows, you can (good luck trying to do that with more specialised software!)
Paper also has a predictable mental model (text will stay exactly where you put it) and absolutely no need for batteries.
It does have its downsides: It is much harder to share with others or to back up to the cloud. If your notes are loose it can be difficult to find the particular notes you want (I have notes from almost every Biblical talk I listened to between 2008 and 2016, and I would love to be able to find some specific talks again). But if you want your notes in your Bible, even if small writing in a wide-margin Bible doesn’t fit that much, and it can be difficult to add, change, or remove notes. What’s more, those compact notes are harder to scan through. In fact, I’ve heard older people complaining they can no longer read the many miniscule notes they wrote in their younger days.
Word processing sits somewhere in the middle. It is very common, and, like paper, is general purpose and flexible (though it is probably harder to do free-form diagrams and text than on paper). It is also fairly easy to share notes with anyone, either electronically or in hard-copy. With the right tools it is much more searchable than a pile of paper notes are. But it lacks ready integration with the Biblical text.
In Bible software, not only are notes able to be searched, but notes and highlights are also able to be associated with particular passages and found when reading that passage. They can be much more structured.
However, for most Bible software this strength is also a weakness, because real world notes don’t always conform to the particular structure that the software expected. For example, when commenting on a text, do you want to comment on a particular word or phrase? A verse? A paragraph? Or maybe a chapter? Why not an entire book? Or do you want a collection of passages talking about a particular topic or idea? Did you want your notes to have carefully formatted text? Tables? Diagrams? I could go on.
Any of these things are possible with a paper Bible or a word processor. But with Bible software you may be out of luck. Depending on your tool, some of these things are likely to be supported, but others aren’t. There may be a workaround, but there may not.
One of the key differences between different methods of Bible study is how much they allow distractions.
One issue with using a computer, table, or phone is that distractions like email and Facebook are just a click away. It is easy to lose yourself, and hard to recover where you were. In fact, quite a few churches banned tablets and phones in services when they were new for fear they were distracting. Though the bans came down once enough members were accessing the Bible almost exclusively through their devices.
However, even if you avoid Facebook the Bible software presents its own distractions: Many interfaces (including BPBible) are crowded with cross-references, commentaries, Bible dictionaries, other versions to compare, and even the original language words. And despite showing all these extras, electronic Bibles usually show much less of the text on a screen at one time than a good old-fashioned paper Bible does.
One of the reasons I liked reading and summarising a section or chapter on paper was that I was fairly free from distraction, and could focus on reading the text and getting a rough idea of what it meant. I could take as many notes as I liked on as many scattered pieces of paper as I liked, and only had to structure my notes once I had come to a conclusion. So it really didn’t matter how many fancy editing tools were put in the Bible software I used: it could not give me that blank, distraction-free canvas.
So how can we improve Bible software?
I have seen many suggestions for adding functionality to Bible software: powerful tools that would make the software a word processor or a knowledge management system. Additional handy features like mind-mapping and diagramming functionality. And maybe it would still do notes and highlighting on passages in the Bible.
Yes, adding these features might be cool. And large commercial organisations are welcome to pursue them. But from my perspective as a hobbyist developer, I thought it more important to focus on where the Bible software can actually add value. Competing with general purpose software was completely out of scope.
I’ll discuss my general approach in a later post. But for now, consider mind mapping and diagramming from the point of view of a software developer. Do you want to try and build the best ever diagramming software to integrate into your Bible software? Or are you happy for your users to go away and build their diagrams in the best software available, whether or not it happens to be your software? Maybe scriptural integration would give enough of an advantage that Bible software with basic diagramming support would be more useful than state of the art software without scriptural integration. But I doubt it.
And that was part of my point: It’s OK when people use more general tools rather than Bible software for their Bible study. Maybe if Bible software could interact with external software to provide scriptural linkage it would be the best of both worlds (I’ve never tried to do anything like that). But there are still sure to be limitations.
I question whether you can ever have a specialist system with all the advantages of generalist tools, let alone an electronic system that has all the advantages of technology and all the advantages of paper. Each different tool has a different purpose, and Bible software is no exception. The more Bible software focuses on areas where it can add value, the more useful it can be.