Designing for Agency
in Bible Study
April 12, 2019
Bible software supports only a small subset of the Christian life as lived
but can support more if we consider agency during the design process
• Defining “agency”
• Player Experience of Need Satisfaction model: how current Bible
software does and doesn’t meet the needs identified in the model
• The Christian life as lived
• A practical Franken-Bible application that tries to apply this model:
life led well
life going well life feeling
as it should
Vision of a flourishing life
What is agency?
• Literally, “the ability to act”
• Video game theories talk about player agency in terms of making
• Because software is interactive, it can support these choices on a
• Exercising choices that lead (or not) to a flourishing life
Limitations of “Bible Engagement”
• Often with the Bible, we measure “success” of a product or a
campaign in terms of engagement—how much time and how often
someone reads or hears the Bible
• It’s easy to measure and is a reasonable proxy for spiritual health, but
this focus leads to engagement being an end in itself rather than
whether we’re actually meeting people’s needs
Religious orientations in sociology
• Intrinsic: religion as an end in itself
• Extrinsic: religion as a means (e.g., to status or power)
• Quest: religion as a continual search for truth
Whitley and Kite, 2010
Extrinsic Christianity is like an “idle game”
• An idle game is one that plays itself for you as
you go about your regular life
• You can drop in as often as you like to affect
what’s happening, mostly just accelerating
what would happen anyway
• Similarly, extrinsic Christianity isn’t really
affecting your life or bringing about change;
you just participate when you want and when
it brings you some advantage
• Psychological theory from the 1970s exploring intrinsic motivation (in
general, not for religion)
• Argues that people have three basic needs:
Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS)
• Grows out of Self-Determination Theory (competence, relatedness,
autonomy), applying it specifically to games, but with implications for
• Model developed in 2007 to provide a theory of fun and satisfaction
for video games
Competence in PENS
• Feeling of mastery and progress
• Satisfied by “optimal challenge” or “flow”
• Also by subsequent expression of mastery—“mastery in action”
• Sense of power
Bible software marketing appeals to mastery
Extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic feelings
• Naive gamification converts intrinsic feeling of competence to an
• Games have rewards of:
• Access. Unlock a previously inaccessible area/feature
• Facility. Increase player effectiveness (e.g., a new skill/weapon)
• Sustenance. Reduce a negative play state (e.g., an extra life)
• Glory. Quantifiable but don’t affect play state (e.g., badges)
• Praise. Game verbally or textually saying, “Great job!”
• Sensory feedback. Temporary visual/audio/tactile feedback
Phillips 2018, eprints.qut.edu.au/119100/1/Cody_Phillips_Thesis.pdf
Relatedness in PENS
• “Desire to connect with others in a way that feels authentic and
• In multiplayer games, can happen either with real people or with non-
player characters (NPCs)
• In single-player games, can happen with NPCs or outside of the game
through forums or livestreaming
Relatedness in Bible software: public
1. Forums: TTFKJVO score
2. Social sharing: YouVersion
reported over one million
shares per day in 2018
YouVersion’s most-shared verse from 2018
• Share your activity with friends
• Directly communicate with friends
• Up to 150 friends (Dunbar’s number)
Facilitating deeper relationships?
• Proximity. Being close together to one another encourages frequent
• Similarity. Players will generally be more likely to become friends if
they perceive one another to be similar
• Reciprocity. Players must engage in escalating back-and-forth
interactions in order to negotiate shared social norms
• Disclosure. At higher levels of friendship, there needs to be an
opportunity for safe, consensual, intimate sharing of weaknesses
Verbatim from www.lostgarden.com/2018/12/social-design-practices-for-human-scale.html
Bible software as NPC
Autonomy in PENS
• Not just freedom to do whatever you want, which can be
• A difficult interface can detract from autonomy because the player
knows what they want to do but not how to do it
• Think of autonomy as “volition,” or “wanting to do the things that you
are doing”—you can willingly give up freedom in exchange for other
goals, such as enjoyment
Scott Rigby, youtu.be/3vct13OhIio
Autonomy in Bible software
Logos Workflows YouVersion reading plans
• Short form (63% a week or less,
90% a month or less)
• Produced by a variety of
organizations and distributed
widely and freely
• Often promote the sponsoring
• In keeping with the times, almost
entirely devotional, occasionally
• Short form (generally pamphlet-
• Produced by a variety of
organizations and distributed
widely and freely
• Often promote the sponsoring
organization’s brand—but also
• In keeping with the times, 75%
1800s Gospel tracts
Source: Mullen 2017
2019 Bible software marketing
Competence Relatedness Autonomy
• Everything You Need to Study
the Bible In-Depth and with
• Better Tools (Accordance)
• Faster Searches (Accordance)
• Deeper Study (Accordance)
• Study with the Resource Guide
• Build your Bible Study Library
• Make yourself at home. Your
private groups, intimate
fellowships, and biblical
community now have a place to
live online (Faithlife)
• Uncover Biblical Truth for
• Customize Your Experience
• Daily Reading Plans (Olive Tree)
Designing for agency
• Means designing to support competence, relatedness, and autonomy
across a wide audience
• Bible software, in general, supports competence across a narrow
audience: mostly male Christians in some kind of leadership role
• This narrow focus limits the market for Bible software because it
doesn’t support life as lived by most Christians
The Christian life as lived
Hierarchical Ward clustering in SciPy based on verse similarity
80% of topics fall into this bucket: “human
relationality;” i.e., relatedness
Self-worth cluster: terms
• self worth
• our worth to God
• newborn baby
• giving birth
• God knew us before we were born
• being special
• the sanctity of life
• stillborn babies
• child sacrifice
• when life begins
• being under construction
Ten verses consuming the most clusters
15.3% Jer 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you
6.4 John 3:16 For God so loved the world
6.0 1Cor 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind
5.6 Eph 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths
3.8 Prov 22:6 Start children off on the way they should go
3.6 1Cor 7:15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so
3.4 Isa 41:10 So do not fear, for I am with you
2.9 Acts 20:35 It is more blessed to give than to receive
2.5 Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good
2.3 1Cor 6:19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit
Relatedness Competence Autonomy
Main text in bold
152,000 translation options at 66,000 places
Some options tagged “traditional” or “literal”; or is a different view or manuscript
• The Expanded Bible is actually a digital-native Bible that happened to
be published in print; it should be interactive rather than static
• Taking cues from interactive fiction games, the digital version requires
you to translate the Bible text as you read it
Prototype interface: “lectio machina”
• Requires active engagement; you slow
down and consider which of the options
• Make a choice before proceeding: you
have to choose from the existing
• Can make global decisions like “Always
use the literal translation” or “Use
Competence. As you translate,
you become more familiar
with the text and the decisions
that translators make. You feel
like you get better as you go.
Relatedness. Share your
translation socially and with a
Autonomy. You have freedom
to express yourself within
constraints. It’s also enjoyable.
“Reward” for finishing a chapter
• Custom audio recording (computer-generated)
• Pre-recording the Bible 30x (2,100 hours) isn’t feasible
• Text-to-speech is the only economically viable way to create an audio version
of your translation
• But you have to be happy with not much inflection, plus Jesus and his
disciples visiting “Caper-nom” rather than Capernaum
• $3,000 to create all possible permutations
Designing for agency
• Consider features in light of competence, relatedness, and autonomy
• Learn and design for what your users (and non-users) need and are
already doing so that you don’t unintentionally exclude part of your
Presentation at openbible.info/blog
What is agency? Published in January. Argues that theology has lost its influence over everyday Christians because doesn’t support the idea of a flourishing life; it’s an interesting book and has some parallels with the argument I’m making here about Bible software. In this book, agency represents the choices you make in love so that you can live a flourishing life. Their model suggests that the choices you make interrelate with how you’re feeling about your life and the circumstances in which you find yourself. I’m going to borrow part of this definition of agency.
Video games offer a number of useful parallels to Bible software and provide a useful theoretical base because they’re both software, and a lot of people are thinking about how to make better games and how to make games that are better for people.
Agency isn’t just people choosing to spend time with the Bible. Engagement is what Facebook uses. So let’s talk about what these needs are, starting with the abstract and becoming more concrete.
People who genuinely believe their religion. In this presentation I’m talking about an intrinsic orientation because these are the people who want to grow in their Christian life. Extrinsic: if they’re popular at church, they want to go there because they’re popular, not because they actually want to go there.
Nothing bad happens if you leave an idle game alone; it keeps playing itself. This is Universal Paperclips, where your job is to make paperclips, first one at a time and then exponentially more until you convert the entire mass of the universe into paperclips.
We’ll define these needs as we go.
Why are some games successful, and why do people find some games more fulfilling than others? Has decent empirical support that following this model leads to a better game across a variety of metrics. Not perfect but good enough to inform decision-making.
Not too hard (frustrating) or too easy (boring). Applying what you’ve learned and creating a sense of satisfaction from that.
These are how leading Bible software packages (Logos, Olive Tree, BibleWorks) portrayed themselves in the mid-2010s. Turn you into a Bible study superhero. The marketing appeals to a stereotypically male sense of power, which matched the 80-90% male userbase at the time. In other words, the rhetoric is tailored to the target audience.
For me, adding a leaderboard demotivates me; it turns something I enjoyed for its own sake into a competition. Animal Crossing Pocket Camp fishing tournaments. Catch fish, feed them to a hungry beaver, gain furniture. Now I can see how many more fish my “friends” have caught and how much better they are than I am.
People will find ways to connect with each other if they’re passionate about the same thing
One Bible-translation-focused forum I checked had a TTFKJVO value of 33 posts. YouVersion reflects 80% of shares on Twitter that include a Bible website link. Sharing is one of the most-common activities on BG, with over 15% of visitors copy/pasting a verse.
People you know or who are in your Facebook friend list (which is probably in part why they encourage you create an account using your Facebook login). Limited controls over highlights and bookmarks
Really tough in Bible software to create a healthy community.
Have a personal relationship with your Bible software.
If you’re working on a sermon at 2am on Sunday because you have to deliver it in eight hours—which is actually quite common on BG—you’re not feeling autonomous because of the impending deadline. Like waiting in line to board your airplane vs. Disney World.
Logos Workflows make it easier/more enjoyable to work through something you need to do. Does busywork for you so you can focus on higher-level tasks. Reading plans are a low-stress way to assuage your guilt about not reading your Bible.
Reading plans are updated gospel tracts for the 21st century and, in keeping with the times—according to Barna, half of millennial evangelicals think it’s wrong to evangelize—have a devotional rather than an evangelistic focus. And since it’s in a Bible app, you’re probably already interested in the Bible. Outsource evangelism to an app? YouVersion reported 950 million reading plan days completed in 2018 from an install base of 350 million devices. ATS had distributed 37 million tracts by 1840 to a population of 11 million (Ayres 2012).
Still heavy on competence, but not exclusively. Nothing about relatedness, at least in the top-level features.
Support competence, relatedness, and autonomy in the Christian life as actually lived rather than how we as Bible software designers want it to be lived. Using data, let’s understand what people want from the Bible.
Topical Bible, 70% US, probably heavily evangelical Christians. Start with 12,870 most-popular topics with high-quality verses (as determined by visitors), about 90% of total views. The merging process leaves 6,385 topics that have enough verse variety to overlap well with each other. The clustering process yields 3,732 topics in 198 clusters, or 75% of views; I wanted a manageable number for your handout and aimed for cluster sizes of between 5 and 40 topics. I then hand-arranged the 198 clusters into your handout. So the individual clusters (non-bold) have math behind them, but the larger groups and labels don’t.
What they don’t want is systematic theology. About the human experience rather than abstract principles. But this is what existing Bible software users want. Book I mentioned earlier / academic theology. “What are the nature and properties of God” vs. “Should I eat shellfish”
High-level groups. Me: things about myself that don’t directly involve other people. Others: things that involve other people, even if they’re about you. For example, hypocrisy appears here because you probably don’t think that you are yourself a hypocrite. Family: people you’re dating, married to, parents of, or children of. God and the Bible are the ones that most fall into typical theological questions: whether dance is appropriate for worship services, applied eschatology. Comfort could fall under Others, but it’s not clear whether it’s for you or for someone else. Social: social issues of the day, probably change over time. Often situationally dependent.
17 terms under comfort. Three clusters here: self worth, birth, and growth or potential.
52% of all clusters have at least one of these ten verses. Each verse consumes that cluster, so that it doesn’t count toward the totals for verses lower in the list. Variety of topics. Lack of Psalms. 1Cor shows up 3x. Only 1 gospel.
Just as the topics people are interested in vary depending on circumstances, people’s motivations also vary. This is a separate model, still for games, that quantifies the different motivations that gamers have, in different proportions. Many have parallels in Bible software and even church life, aside from action. This model gets at a little more detail than high-level competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
To get even more specific… Currently contains the core of what I’m about to describe. Grew out of a hackathon last October. Thanks to Keller Davis and Joe Carter.
Published in 2011 by Thomas Nelson to compete with Amplified Bible, two months before HC’s acquisition of TN. Similar to Amplified Bible but more rigorous and consistent. But the complexity makes it a little overwhelming. Both word-level and concept-level translation alternatives.
Interactive fiction game from 2014.
Data preparation was the hard part, as always—source files were usually rigorous but not always; had to hand-review 1,200, or 5%, of the choice points.
Also understanding the text better. You put your mastery into action. Experiencing the Bible in a way you wouldn’t be able to experience it in print.
Tried to make rewards tied to the core experience rather than extrinsic. Still missing a number of features, like progress tracking. Entirely static; it saves your decisions to your local device but doesn’t persist them in the cloud, making them fragile.
If you want to create a tool for users who are mostly interested in systematic theology, then that’s what you should do. But if you want to create a tool for a wide audience, it’s important to consider what their needs are and how to design for them to promote their agency.