March 27, 2005

Why most University web sites suck*: Part 2.

Most University web sites are mediocre at best. How can this be, with the bevvy of experts in computer science, business, marketing, psychology, sociology, and visual design that a University affords? In Part 1, I explored the problems created by the large and varied user base of a University’s web site. Here I discuss the phenomenon of institutional inertia, and it’s implications for university web sites.

Institutional Inertia

Think of a university as a monolithic beast, with thousands of brains. Once the organism gets all its various parts finally moving in the same direction and it’s making some sort of progress, it is loathe to change the course. It’s just too hard to convince all of its brains that a change in direction could improve their situation. The organism prefers the status quo, because change inevitably means chaos; it’s brains will be out of sync, with some making the change easily, some moving in the wrong direction, and some protesting loudly that they have to move at all. The web site functions at the organism level of the University, and is heavily utilized by all the constituents, or brains”. I chose the brain to represent university constituents, because they are almost all highly educated (or becoming that way), and many of them are experts in their own right. They are highly invested in a particular field of learning, and have a specialized set of functions they use the University web site to achieve. The important functions for one constituent, however, can be completely unimportant to another, who specializes in a different way. One thing university constituents all have in common with regards to the web site, however, is that it is an essential part of their everyday functioning. It is the jumping off point for many of the things they need to do, whether it be downloading a class assignment or reconciling a budget. Constituents are heavily invested in the web site, and have learned how to use it for what they need to achieve. The click path they need to follow to preform a task may be wildly inefficient and unintuitive, but the important part for many is that they have learned these inefficient pathways. They don’t have to think about them anymore. Trying to improve the information architecture of a University’s site is met with very loud protests from constituents that don’t want to have to think about how they use it. It is easy for this collective resistance to change to overpower the web team, which is typically small and full of members without the magic three letters at the end of their names. From the inside, the web site is not seen as a major communication tool for the University; it is seen as a means to an end. Therefore, the default state of University web sites is conservatism. They get redesigned every five years or so, when they’re at the point that they’re so broken or graphically embarrassing that they are hurting the institution. Often during these redesigns, the information architecture is not touched; they are graphic overhauls of the existing structure. This at least provides some consistency for constituents. However, we all know that five years is an eternity in terms of the web, and technology in general. University web sites are behind the times almost by definition, because the decentralization, politics, and inertia of a University preclude it from having the reaction time necessary to keep its web site current. The web just changes too quickly for Universities. (More on politics and decentralization is coming in Part 3 of this article.)

Battling Institutional Inertia

How do you stop a rhino from charging? I see two options: let it hit the wall, or convince it that stopping would be a good idea. The latter would be preferable for all involved, since no one would have to pick up the pieces of a broken rhino. The answer involves eduction of the University as a whole as to the multi-faceted role of the web site. It also involves the University investing in their web professionals, both in terms of resources and respect. The web site is a new enough player in the world of the University that many are unaware that there is a wealth of expertise out there, and that a web professional has much more to offer than the Dean’s niece that knows how to build pages in Dreamweaver. There is a disconnect between what university web professionals can bring to the table and how the university community perceives their expertise and abilities. I can’t count the number of times that someone has actually asked me what I do all day, since the homepage doesn’t seem to change. This problem isn’t unique to universities. Anyone who has had a client bring in a design” that they want you to code for them knows what I’m talking about. The question becomes: How do we educate the general public as to what is involved in creating an effective web site? How can we show them that although anyone can save a Word document as html, this does not mean that our jobs are trivial or easy? How can I make the academics understand that I do as much research and spend as much effort staying on top of what’s happening in my field as they do in theirs? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do what I can in my own small way: talk to everyone I can about what I do, and show them the passion I have for it. I hope that this will eventually lead to some increased knowledge about what the task of a web professional entails. The going is slow; there’s not going to be a revolution. What do you think? How do you educate your clients? How can we increase the general understanding of what it is we do all day?

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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