Friday, August 12, 2011


College Websites

I know this is a big topic, but it has become salient recently in my world.

My college is taking a fresh look at its website. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the previous version won't be missed.

But in trying to put together a new one, it's becoming clear that different sets of expectations are crashing into each other. This can't be the first time such a thing has happened, so I'm hoping my wise and worldly readers can shed some light.

If I had to boil it down, I'd say that there are three fairly discrete purposes of the website, and they don’t always work well together.

The first, obviously, is the student or external user experience. At this point, a good website isn't just an advertisement; it actually allows you to get work done. It should be easy for a prospective student to find a particular course of study or professor; for a current student to see the next semester's course schedule and even to register; and for local companies to scan the workforce development offerings. You’d expect to find an employee directory, a list of faculty by department, and any job postings, too. And yes, there should be an obvious path for prospective donors to follow to find the development office.

The second is usefulness to employees. Websites make great repositories of forms and policies, for example. While prospective and incoming students may care only about the current course catalog, internally it's crucial to have access to previous years' catalogs, since students stop and start, and degree requirements are frozen at the point of entry. Some colleges handle the difference by putting the internal stuff on an intranet; we aren't doing that, but I wouldn't rule it out.

The third, and this is where things get tricky, is as an expression of institutional values. What does the college choose to highlight about itself to the world? How does it explain what it is, and what it aspires to be?

The symbolic function can clash pretty directly with the first two. What works from a marketing perspective can be pretty hard to swallow for the employees. Internally, we’re justly proud of academic rigor, the excellent transfer record, and the like, but those can be hard to represent visually. (And just about every college likes to claim that its academics are strong, so it’s not much of a differentiator unless you already know.) The things that the marketing folk tell us are the most appealing aren’t necessarily what we’re most attuned to internally.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m looking for the wisdom of experience. Have you seen a site that balances these three sets of demands well? If you have, what makes it work? (Alternately, have you seen a real train wreck?)

One way you can handle the marketing / daily work problems is to funnel people into the appropriate location early in the process., for example, has audience-identifying links for prospective students, faculty & staff, existing students, alumni; the faculty and student pages are very goal-oriented, whereas alimni, prospectives, and the home page are very promotional.
As with so many other topics, xkcd has a great comic about university/college websites.

I would add, don't make the homepage a fancy splash screen with a link you have to click on to get to the "regular" homepage. That was the case in my university website's previous iteration, and it was extremely annoying.
We just moved to a new website that aside from a modification of graphics is not any different from the old. It is still just as hard to search and find what you need. Still too many clicks to get to things and still no smoothness. And things are still incorrect.
I put a few observations in a blog entry on this topic almost exactly one year ago, complete with cartoon.

The one thing I would bring up that I would not have considered a year ago is how (or even whether) it works on a variety of tablets and phones on this, the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC. Many companies are moving toward tablets as "enterprise" devices to replace laptops, and lots students already have done so. Big busy entry pages with lots of Flash do not work on an iPhone. Neither do some homework system interfaces.

I would emphasize the importance of the "two click" criteria and add that you should data mine incoming traffic to each page with specific emphasis on indications it came from a Google search. The latter will tell you where they are going.

Do some informal research yourself. Seriously. Get some folks around a table with tablets and maybe one laptop with a projector to share discoveries, and visit random campuses like your alma mater, nearby transfer targets, etc.

My alma mater gets a FAIL on one key criteria: If I click on student and click undergrad advising, I get a wonderful PR page about all the things they do (2 click fail) and a useless link to a list of majors but nothing about recommended program of study. Entry page is pretty, however. In contrast, another school gives you the list of programs of study on your second click, and it is not buried in a list of 20 things. That CSU East Bay example has a student page that is busy as can be, but gets you to academic programs in three clicks even though their crude catalog list of classes offers no guidance on sequencing.

Closing Question:
Could elaborate, perhaps next week, on the mismatch between what marketing tells you and your own internal view of the college?
We have two websites. Our 'public' one, and then an internal one that only people on campus (or with a college email/password) can access that has a lot more of the mundate forms and stuff like that.
I'd suggest that the most important things for a college website are:

- No flash (doesn't work on iPhones/iPads)

- Disabled accessibility (useful alt information for all images, a layout with text that flows well when resized, appropriate contrast between text and background, and so on)

- As much as possible should be able to be accessed without a password, so that students who can't remember theirs can still get the information they need (obviously, students would need to log in to get student-specific information such as their grades, but don't put information like course websites with syllabi/due dates/professor office hours/etc behind a login if you can avoid it)

- Clear ways to get to the different "roles" from the front page (prospective students/current students/faculty/donors/alumni/community) some links may be under each category, but that's not a problem. Get actual people from each role to try to navigate their section and give you feedback on whether it makes sense to them.
Some important information, in my opinion, for students to have easily accessible:

- Clear list of program offerings (and the levels of credential offered in each field - ex. short-term certificate, 3-semester certificate, associate degree, etc.)

- On each program page, a clear table showing program requirements and electives, along with a sample student schedule

- A graphic of program pathways on each program page, showing which credentials are stackable and perhaps listing stop-out points and wage information (ex.

- Clear information about the placement tests that are used, and the consequences of your score (ex. what score will lead to taking 3 semesters of developmental math? What score will lead to 2 semesters?). Clear information about the re-testing policy, etc.

I guess, in general, I fall on the side of making things as easy and accessible for current and prospective students as possible. If they are thinking about pursuing a program, what information do they want to know? What information do they not know yet that they need to know? Almost all young incoming students are going to look at the website, so if you want to reach them, that's the way to go.
Put the links on one side of the top of the homepage. My school has them at the bottom right which means you have to scroll to the bottom of the page first. It isn't that time consuming but annoying none the less. Also, it is not obvious to people new to the site where to find the links (as documented by the number of calls from new students at the beginning of the year who cannot find the link they need).

Our school's new website was rolled out last year and is, in my opinion, worse than the old one. They tried to be too fancy and include everything on the homepage. Keep it simple, make the links obvious, and be as compatible as possible with a variety of tech gadgets.

Someone mentioned that information can be linked in more than one page. I think that is a fabulous idea. For example, put a link to the school's directory in an employee page, prospective page, and student page.
There's no need for conflict here. You can have your cake and eat it too. They invented this amazing thing with the Internet: did you know you can have more than one web page on your site? Amazing, huh?

All snarkiness aside, this is pretty easy. You make your front page targeted at the broadest possible audience. You include a few links: "for students", "for prospective students", "for employees", "for faculty". Each points to an index page that has an overview of resources useful to that particular audience. Done.

I completely agree with the others: make your web page accessible to those with disabilities, avoid Flash, make it portable across browsers and tablets/phones, avoid a splash page, minimize password-protection, etc. In general, if you have anyone with any experience with usability or UX (two specialties in computer science), get them involved: the usability and user experience is the most important criteria for your web page.
I think that the best I've seen at doing all three would be the Portland Community College website:
We're engaged in the same exercise at the moment, and I'd strongly endorse CCPhysicist's advice: study the entrails of your traffic analytics and see what people are actually using your website to find. This was a surprise to us.

I think people will also offer to mow your lawns for a year if your search function is powerful and clever. It doesn't matter how logically you arrange all the things in groups, your logic can't be universally shared. People will look for stuff in the wrong places, and then they'll turn to the search box. If what they're looking for comes up in the first five hits five times in a row, really, they will mow your lawns. Guaranteed.
Two thoughts, which are more about process than results.

Attention to detail is key. I chose not to apply to the University of Alabama because on the web application they spelled the name of my state wrong. Stupid mistakes are easy to make, and spread quickly when all you need to do is grab a screen shot.

It should be relatively simple for departments to maintain their own pages. At my last school, control of the web site was entirely in the hands of the admissions department, who would routinely ignored requests to update information, so that lists of faculty offices and phone numbers would be months out of date.
You're forgetting an incredibly important audience here....your alumni/donors....

Segmenting your home page by audience (prospective student, current student, alumni/donors, employees) can cut the clutter and drive them visitor's to accomplish site specific goals.
Do yourself a favor and listen to the marketing folks. There are reasons why they have their job and you have yours. While we all have opinions and like certain things about certain sites, marketing people have quantifiable data to back up why they are doing things the way they do. Remember also that the primary function of a website is to appeal to an EXTERNAL audience. Internal forms, policies, accreditation schedules, etc. can easily be remanded to an intranet using something as simple as sharepoint.
My main complaint about the websites at my current and former universities is the lousy search engine. I get better search results for our campus site via google than via the search box built into the website. It shouldn't be that hard to search within the site.
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