Why Most University Web Sites Suck*: Part 3
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. In Part 2, I discussed institutional inertia, and it’s implications for university web sites. Here I tackle the subject of university politics and the decentralized nature of the University web site.
It is almost impossible to make a general statement about the number of “webmasters” a typical university employs. About the only statement I can make with confidence is that there is always more than one. The actual number depends on such factors as the size of the university, the number of vice presidents or colleges, whether the institution is private or public, and legacy org chart structures— with a liberal dose of politics mixed in. Often, major units of the university have their own webmasters, but this is by no means a rule. It is common for a university to have some units with their own web staff, and some without. Even among those units with their own staff, there is no rule as to whether the staff work for all of the individual departments within that unit. If a department doesn’t have professional web staff available to it, the maintenance of the web site often rests with the administrative assistants, who are given the task on top of their regular duties. Decentralization of the university web site is not surprising, given the independent streak typical of many folks in power within an institution of higher learning. They want to have full control over their piece of the pie. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the situation. Decentralization may be essential if there are not enough staff in the university web team to do all that needs to be done. It may also be preferable for units with specialized functions to perform, such as Admissions or the Registrar’s office, that rely heavily on web based workflows. However, decentralization can also lead to a web site that for users seems fractured and convoluted. One of the challenging consequences of decentralization is that there are folks of all skill levels working on web sites within the institution, ranging from highly trained web professionals to folks with virtually no web training and no interest in learning any more than the basics of wsyiwyg software. This creates logistical problems for those trying to coordinate the university web presence. University web, graphic, and accessibility standards must be reduced to the lowest common denominator so that everyone involved can understand and implement them. This is especially difficult if there is no CMS in place to help control some of the graphic and code structure centrally. Decentralization also makes it difficult to even communicate with all the web developers on campus to get across institutional goals and priorities. Some universities have implemented a formal committee of web developers with regular meetings to deal with this issue. Although this is one more committee to add to the org chart, and one more meeting to add to the rotation, it is essential that all the web developers communicate with each other to minimize repetition of duties and to strengthen the overall site. How can plan (let alone an information architecture) for the web site as a whole be built if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing? Yet, there are institutions where formal web developer meetings are seen as unnecessary. Perhaps the most frustrating result of web site decentralization, however, is borne by the users. The web site is not developed in a user-centric manner— each faction develops according to own internal goals (or abilities), without thinking about the big picture. A department-level web developer often doesn’t consider how a user gets to their site, under what conditions they use it, or where they need to go when they leave. They instead post information that they, the departmental staff members, think is important and set up a navigational system that makes sense to them as insiders. Users are expected to traverse organizational hierarchies that are often obtuse to find what they need on the web site, and frequently have to go back to the university home page and start over when they need to move on to a different activity. For many institutions, decentralization is here to stay. Dealing with it effectively becomes the important challenge. Communication is the key to this— web developers communicating with each other, and everyone communicating with the users, who use the web site as one big whole, not millions of subsites.
This section has given me writers block for months now, because I haven’t been able to think of a way to discuss University politics that wouldn’t be a very bad political move on my part. So this section will be short and sweet, and let me state for the record that what I’m discussing here are generalities that don’t necessarily pertain to my particular situation. Also, this article, and this entire site for that matter, expresses opinions that are my own and not necessarily those of my employer, my husband, my cat or my mother. My dog shares all my opinions, because that’s what dogs do. I have been on the University Web Developers Listserv for quite some time now, and one of the most frequent question posted there essentially boils down to “Who owns the University web site?” Does it fall under IT or PR or Marketing? Is it a technology or a communication tool or an essential student service? The truth is that it is all these things, and that a department can gain a lot politically from “owning” it. Department managers will fiercely defend their claim to the website, and thier colleagues in other departments will try to usurp control of it. Until administrators realize that the web site should fall under the Web Office, and that it is enough of its own discipline that it can’t be effectively housed in one of the aforementioned places, I fear that those battles are going to continue. And they are not good for the website. Another political minefield is the University home page. Many, many people within the University want a link to their program/department/service web site on the front page. The web team gets to field these requests, try to balance them against university priorities, and make reasonable decisions about what to include. These decisions are then either accepted, or moved up through the chain of appeals until they get to a political ally that reverses the decision. And the web team then tries to add them to the home page in a way that isn’t confusing for users and that won’t offend the “owners” of the other links on the homepage. And then there is a snowball effect of additional requests, from folks who consider their program/department/service to be just as important as the one that was just added. And on and on… I try to end all of these sections with potential solutions, but I don’t think there is a solution to politics. It’s just too much a part of the way humans behave. A well-crafted policy can help with some of the home page decisions, but there will always be exceptions. So the best solution I can offer here is a love of the web, a sense of humor, and friends standing by with the margaritas. And thus ends the saga. What are your thoughts? Strategies? Words of Wisdom?
Note: The title of this series came from emails I receive periodically from students. To paraphrase, they say: