This week marks the launch of our new website for the UNESCO World Heritage site Durham Cathedral. The project is the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of research, design, development, and we’re excited to finally share it with the world!

This is actually the second cathedral website we’ve built — the first was Ely Cathedral, which launched last October. Interestingly, both these sites are also part of a string of newly relaunched and modernised cathedral websites around the country, including York Minster, Winchester, and Salisbury.

Four screenshots of the website homepages of Ely, York Minster, Durham and Westminster cathedrals


Clockwise from top left: the home pages of Ely Cathedral, York Minster Cathedral, Durham Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral

Over the past year we’ve been struck at how all these different web agencies, working on different cathedral websites in different parts of the country, have ended up designing user experiences that have a huge amount in common — not just with each other, but also with more conventional ticketing and venue websites.

For example, like many venues, cathedrals have rich programmes of events that cut across many different audiences, each with vastly different interests and needs. They have recurring, long-running events (their services). They have one-off concerts by touring artists. They have educational programmes, tours, and seasonal programming to coincide with festivals and school holidays. And they need to serve all of those audiences at once.

Also like many venues, cathedrals rely heavily on donations; they have a steady stream of visitors asking the same common questions (can you bring your dog?); and they want to grow their base of returning visitors over time.

But unlike many conventional venues, which often follow quite a constrained set of design and user experience conventions, cathedrals have been able to address some of these requirements in original and often really innovative ways.

So what can cathedrals teach you about your own venue website?

Build around your most important user journeys

Most venue websites have a way to browse shows and book tickets, plus an email sign-up box and often a donate button. So you might think that they’re already building around their most important user journeys.

But first of all, these are the journeys the venue wants the user to take (give us your money and/or data), not necessarily the ones the user wants to take.

And second of all, there’s more to building for common user journeys than just slapping a big “book tickets” button in the corner and calling it a day. Cathedral websites weave user journeys like this into the very fabric of their sites.

Take a look at what we’ve built for Durham:

Homepage screenshot with annotations highlighting a straightforward global navigation, key actions and sections catering to common user journeys


Durham Cathedral’s home page

There’s all the normal things you might expect from a venue website in the main navigation: calendar, visit, explore, support, etc. But notice that along the bottom of the page there are other, more targeted ways to get into the most common user journeys our research identified.

There’s a “Things to Do” tab that highlights today’s events and upcoming activities; there’s a “Visiting Times” tab to answer common questions about admissions hours and prices; and there’s a “Service Times” tab, so that people looking to worship know when to show up.

If you look at Ely, or Yorkminster, or Winchester, you can see that they all have very similar components on the homepage. In other words, if you’re someone considering a visit to any of these cathedrals, for whatever reason, you’ll likely find answers to all your questions and even enter the booking flow, all before you’ve scrolled the homepage.

Ditch the “What’s On” page (maybe)

I’ve written a separate article about why you should get rid of your What’s On page, so I won’t belabour the point except to say: if you look for a “What’s On” page on our websites for Durham or Ely, you won’t find one.

This is because it’s already easy to find your way into event listings from the homepage components mentioned above. If users can start interacting with a calendar widget from the homepage, it makes sense to put your link to the full event listings there, where they’re already looking.

Two screenshot showing different ways of finding events and things to do at Durham Cathedral


Offering multiple ways to explore the different things you can do lets users find what they want more logically than a bloated and confusing What’s On page

More to the point, by getting rid of “What’s On” as a top-level heading, we can more effectively separate out users with different needs from the moment they arrive on the site. Looking for a service? Click “Service times.” Looking for tourist activities or concerts and talks? Click “Things to do.” Want to see everything in one place? Click “Calendar.”

Looking for that exhibition you read about in the local paper recently? It’s highlighted on the home page. Better yet, it’s on Google. Just type “[exhibition name] durham” and go straight to the event page. That’s right: SEO creates a great user experience.

The point is, you no longer have to wade into What’s On, filter out the events you’re not interested in, and then — on a complex site like Durham’s — wonder if maybe there are other things listed somewhere else that you’ve missed.

When you have a hammer, every problem can start to look like a nail.

The same can be true with a digital team, when every problem can start to look like a custom design and build. But ultimately any interaction on your website is the start of a much larger user journey through a much larger set of experiences at your organisation. You need to keep sight of that fact, because the website isn’t always the best place to solve a particular problem.

A good example is Ely’s annual passes. Charities can’t claim Gift Aid on ticket fees, so Ely—like many other attractions— allows you to upgrade your one-off admission fee to an annual pass. This additional ‘benefit’ can be recorded as a reward for a donation, and allows the venue to claim Gift Aid on the original ticket.

Mobile screenshots showing a simple up-sell message, alongside actual add-on functions for other things


The checkout on Ely Cathedral’s website shows a clear message about the annual pass upgrade, simplifying the process and creating benefit for staff further downstream

Since we were building a new custom basket page for Ely anyway, we started off trying to facilitate annual pass upgrades through that basket page. We ran through a number of possibilities with Ely’s ticketing provider, Spektrix. The solution we all settled on was an “upgrade to annual pass” button that replaced the normal admission with an annual pass ticket valid for a year after purchase.

It quickly became clear, however, that further down the user journey, past the website, this solution was far from ideal. It generated lots of extra pieces of paper for staff at the cathedral to sort through, and made it more difficult to up-sell things like guided tours at the last minute.

So we went back to first principles, reminding ourselves that really, the only requirement at point of purchase was to offer an annual pass upgrade. So we re-engineered the flow with a simple message, explaining that visitors can exchange their ticket for an annual pass when they arrive at the cathedral.

Now, Ely can still claim GiftAid on eligible ticket sales, their on-site staff are happy because their jobs are easier, visitors are happy because they get a nice little pre-printed card to take home with them, and the user experience on the website is a whole lot simpler. Win-win-win-win.

Don’t be afraid to restrict choice

One thing you can’t do on Durham’s new site is view a dedicated event page for any of their various tours. We list the tours all over the place, of course, but as soon as you click on one you’re whisked away to Durham’s ticketing partner, Ticketsolve, to view the event page there instead. Likewise, one thing you can’t do on Ely’s site is book the same thing (for example, an admission ticket) on different dates as part of the same transaction.

When I used to work in a venue, both these ideas would have set my inner alarm bells ringing. We all know there’s no shortage of ways ticket-buyers can get muddled on a website — so why deliberately remove things that might be useful?

Well, here’s why: it’s a trade-off to make the user experience better overall.

With Ticketsolve, there’s no way to leapfrog an event page and go directly to ticket selection — users always have to visit the Ticketsolve page anyway. So all an equivalent page on the Durham site would accomplish is:

  1. Adding an extra, unnecessary step;
  2. Duplicating content; and
  3. Creating competing search engine results for a specific event.

Our solution avoids these problems, even if it means users can’t see a white-labelled tour page on the Durham site itself.

Image showing the transition of screens from Durham Cathedral to Ticketsolve, skipping an unnecessary event page on Durham's website


Understanding the requirements and restrictions of different ticketing platforms means we can tailor the user experience accordingly

Meanwhile, on Ely, restricting baskets to a single date meant we could build in all kinds of other upselling and validation features. These not only provide checks against customers accidentally buying things for the wrong date, they also let customers create their own visitor “package”, layering on different tours and building a whole day out in a way that hadn’t been possible on the previous website. None of this would have worked with multiple dates in the same basket.

The point is, the more choice you give users, the more chances they have to get something wrong. For that one outlier who wants to visit Ely Cathedral on Monday while the rest of their family come on Tuesday, is it worth confusing 100 people with extraneous options? If you actually take a stand and say, no, it’s simple enough for the outlier to go through the ticket flow twice, the whole system works better for everyone.

The better wheel

Most of these lessons all boil down to roughly the same thing: stop and think about what you’re building before you build it. These days, we’ve all bought tickets for something online, probably on multiple different websites and platforms. We’ve probably all noticed similarities between them.

Sometimes, those similarities are there for a good reason; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Or is there? There’s a danger in getting so used to the status quo that we just fall in line, not striving for a simpler, more useful, bespoke solution.

What these recent cathedral websites show is that, if you forget the existing patterns of a venue or ticketing website and actually think about what your users need, the end result is often much more thoughtful and engaging. That can mean the difference between doing the job well enough, and doing it brilliantly.

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