I’m an avid reader of the web comic XKCD by Randall Munroe, which offers a daily dose of hilarity in the form of snarky, science/geek-laden humor depicted by stick figures and often charts and graphs. One recent strip (below) featured a Venn diagram illustrating the problem with most college/university websites:
The instant I saw it I forwarded it to the web team at Grand Rapids Community College, which is gearing up for a redesign of the site.
The comic is a superb example of how comics/cartoons and a bit of humor can parsimoniously strike at the heart of an issue in a way no lengthy academic treatise can.
The comic has been passed around many higher ed circles, and was recently featured in an article by Inside Higher Ed (“No Laughing Matter”) about all of the other web development staff who did exactly what I did the minute they saw the cartoon. In the comments section, a discussion was sparked and unfortunately much of it focused on “clicks” and navigation – which I don’t feel are the heart of the problem with too many college/university websites.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I had to say:
Navigability is important, but thinking about websites in terms of navigating by clicks ignores how the web has evolved, which has resulted in the dominance of search engines. It’s far liklier that a prospective student is going to run across the information they need on a college/university website by searching Google than by typing in the domain of the school and picking their way through menus.
Search is doubly-important when it comes to mobile web use (which a growing majority of our students are relying upon as their main connection to the Internet).
Any college/university website that can get students to the information they need in a couple of clicks likely doesn’t have enough information on it to be truly valuable to students; higher education is very information-dense and even portals are strained to provide enough real estate for links to all the content students need.
This is why navigation schemes are inherently problematic, and why they’re de-emphasized as we move toward the Semantic Web where search (and recommendation) are king.
I would rather see an emphasis put on freeing the data locked away in our vast enterprise systems than paring down content to streamline the front page of a website in order to meet an impossible standard.
Rather than trying to please everyone by imposing click limits on navigation – it’s more important to be developing a big footprint online and tagging content so that it’s easily indexed by search tools (and social media platforms).