February 25, 2005

Why most University web sites suck*: Part 1.

Most University web sites are mediocre at best. (Try going to the site of your alma mater and browsing to find information about your favorite prof. If you can find a straightforward path to get there, you are lucky.) How can this be, with the bevvy of experts in computer science, business, marketing, psychology, sociology, and visual design that a University affords?

Part 1: Defining the goals and audience

Any successful web design project should start with defining the site’s purpose and intended audience. Without a clear understanding of these points, it’s difficult to make good design decisions. So, what do we want to accomplish with our University web site? That’s easy: everything. OK, I guess we can narrow it down a bit more than that: recruit students, reinforce our brand, process applications, collect tuition payments, collect donations, provide course catalogs, provide class schedules, handle course registration, collect and report students’ grades, showcase University success stories, provide news and event information, track payroll and budgets, provide resources for the community, provide online instruction, provide specific information from 50+ departments, provide a community for the parents of students, allow access the the Library’s holdings, provide necessary information to prospective and current students, aid in scholarly research, house policies and regulations … You get the picture. This is largely because the goal of a University in general is diffuse— there is nothing as clear-cut as we sell these products”. Universities (at least state universities) are not even trying to make a profit. The goal is to deliver knowledge, of any and all forms, to the public. The web seems like an ideal medium to do that quickly, effectively, and most importantly inexpensively. Well, then, maybe we can at least define the target audience of the University web site. Sure. There’s prospective students, parents of prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, current faculty, prospective faculty, current staff, prospective staff, administrators, local community, media, colleagues of the current faculty, and anyone wanting to gain knowledge in one of the areas of expertise of the faculty. How do we serve the needs of so many different users with one web site?

Intranet and Extranet

One way to accomplish this would be to not serve everyone with the same site. A logical split would be to have an outward facing site that prospectives, media, and the general public would use, and an intranet (or inward-facing site, since it would need to be accessible from anywhere) that on-campus stakeholders would use. That way the target audience for each site would at least be divided in half. Many campuses that can afford it have portal sites for for on-campus members with single sign-on to the various web services available on campus. However, most campuses either can’t afford to implement a portal system or haven’t overcome the technical barriers to doing so. However, no one said there had to be a portal in the technical sense. At work, I am looking into the costs and benefits of splitting the web site by hand— having the main university home page become the launch pad for an outward-facing site, and creating a new inward facing home page that would be the portal for on-campus users. The main barrier to this, besides the fact that I work with a web team of three (me, myself and I), is institutional inertia. Try getting 10,000 people who use the site every day to change their browser home page, as well as that of all the computer lab machines, etc. Many, many people on campus don’t know how to do this by themselves, and don’t know how to find certain information and services if they don’t start from the campus home page. The thought of moving such a big chunk of cheese fills me with concern for my life. For more on institutional inertia, stay tuned for Part 2 of this article.

Audience-Based Navigation

Many university sites tackle the problem of having too many potential audiences by employing audience-based navigation. Users are asked to identify the group to which they belong. Typical groups include:

  • Current Students
  • Future (or Prospective) Students
  • Faculty & staff
  • Parents
  • Alumni & Friends
  • Visitors
  • Local Community While this alleviates the problem somewhat, it is not a robust solution. Users do not fall neatly into categories based on audience. What if I’m a faculty member, but I’m looking for the student newspaper? Do I click on Faculty & Staff” or Current Students”? Ideally, the page should be accessible from both places. But this means double the maintenance if the newspaper url changes, and puts us back in the position of having to anticipate everything each audience might possibly need and making sure there is a logical path to it. So, audience-based navigation is often mixed with task-based and/or org-chart based navigation (Admissions, Academics, etc). This solves some problems, but creates others. Is the list of departments under Academics” or Faculty & Staff”? Does Admissions” repeat the same information as Prospective Students”? And just where is the student newspaper?

Search and Site Index

This may be the best way to solve the problem. A robust search and site index should be able to direct users to what they need. Many universities are instituting an A-Z index of departments, services and web sites. Just keeping up with this can be a full-time job in and of itself if it is not automated, and it often is not. Sure, it’s generated from a database and some information is updated automatically. But new sites pop up at the university on a daily basis, due to the decentralized model of web development that most universities have. These are not tied to any sort of technology that would get them automatically listed in the index. Many of them are ephemeral in nature — event sites, for example — and may be over before the person maintaining the index even knows about them. There is more to come about the decentralization of the university web site in Part 3. So, search it is. This is probably the most reliable way to find what you’re looking for. Most universities have decent search engines, since Google provides it for free to us if we don’t have the resources to develop our own. However, for many users, search is the last resort. They use it when all other avenues have failed and they are already frustrated. We really need to try to get them what they need without relying on it. So, what is the answer? I don’t know. University web developers are struggling with this on a daily basis. Hopefully one of us will come up with an innovative solution and get the administrators to let them implement it. In the meantime, I’m open to ideas. Please let me know if you have any.

Note: The title of this series came from emails I receive periodically from students. To paraphrase, they say:

Your website sucks!!! I can’t find anything I need! I have to use search to find anything and Google can do that for me. The webmaster needs to do some more research.

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