Why Higher Ed Websites Suck (Follow-up on XKCD-Inspired Discussion)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mike Petroff at .eduGuru had a clever rebuttal (“Redesign Your University Website According to xkcd”) to the criticism posed by the recent XKCD cartoon chastising college/university websites.

Having been involved in higher education web design for the better part of my professional life, I thought it might be valuable to break down the “whys” behind the problematic aspects of so many sites.  The common theme for most of them is trying to reach too many audiences with the front page of the website.

Things on the Front Page of a University Website (and why they’re there):

  • Campus Photo Slideshow
    Limited technical resources, a lengthy approval process, and an inability to shrug off the old constraints of print media are to blame for the ubiquity of campus photo slideshows.  The prevailing belief is that people like to see people who look like them (and apparently also pictures of the buildings they’ll be studying in) so that’s what makes the montages the dominant content.  Problem is though, colleges have such a diverse constituency that in an attempt to depict it all an incomprehensible mashup results.
  • Alumni in the News
    Most schools see alumni as an important constituent group; they contribute money, they give their time, and they serve as good evidence to the community that the school is successful in its mission.  Administrators also figure that students are compelled to attend by seeing examples of the outcomes of education.
  • Promotions for Campus Events
    Current students and community members one of the many audiences served by college websites, and as a nod to the outdated principles of traditional advertising, most schools think that advertising events on a high-traffic page will result in higher attendance.
  • Press Releases
    Yet another of the many disparate audiences that colleges/universities cater to is the media, and the public relations side of the college try to make information as accessible as possible.  Most schools also use press releases as their method of disseminating news to students and the community.
  • Statement of the School’s Philosophy
    This is one of those mandatory “the president/chancellor/board of trustees says” items that no one really reads, but which is given disproportionate attention.
  • Letter From the President
    Again – another “president says” item that everyone feels is mandatory.  These letters are also included in printed materials like the catalog where they’re also summarily ignored (and often the letter on the website is exactly the same  as the letter in print).
  • Virtual Tour
    For whatever reason, college administrators are enamored with the spaces in which they work and figure this will be a selling point to prospective students.  To be fair, this may be the case for large universities that have impressive, sprawling, ivy-covered campuses – but it’s not the case for the majority of schools.

Things People go to the Site Looking For (and why they can’t find them):

  • List of Faculty Numbers and Emails
    Actually many school sites do have faculty numbers/emails, and of those – many have them accessible from the front page of the site in a “people finder”/”phone directory.”  Trouble is, the lists are often incomplete or hard to find.  This is attributable to a couple of factors: 1) many sites are organized by department, so one needs to find the department of the faculty member to find their contact info, and 2) many adjunct faculty are not listed because they change regularly from semester-to-semester and most schools don’t have a publicly-available database of this info.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a database – there is in the form of the human resources department.  Understaffed IT departments usually don’t have the time/resources to write the scripts necessary to query these secure databases.
  • Campus Address
    This is actually an unfair criticism; most college/university sites have the campus address in either the header or the footer of every page on the site.
  • Application Forms
    This is also a curious inclusion as most schools prominently display an “apply now” button on the front page of the site (and nowadays the link usually goes to an online application form – as opposed to a printed copy that one would need to mail/fax in).
  • Academic Calendar
    Ideally the academic calendar should be merged with all of the other campus activities calendars into one super-calendar tool that is easily searchable.  Unfortunately as is the case with many other enterprise databases, the tools are either powerful OR user-friendly; never both.  Most schools have complex space reservation management systems (because in addition to scheduling thousands of sections of classes, they have myriad events happening on campus and often maintain catering/room rental operations) – but it’s difficult to crowbar these into being user-friendly calendars.  Conversely, static web pages or simple databases can’t handle the load that event schedulers require, so a lot of schools have both.
  • Campus Police Phone Number
    Good point.  I have no excuse for this not being on the front page of the website; though I would say that it’s unlikely in an emergency that anyone would take the time to fire up their laptop/mobile browser and go surfing for the campus police number – they’d likely just dial 911.
  • Department/Course Lists
    This is another unfortunate case of enterprise databases clinging stingily to the data they hold.  While departments are usually a common part of any college website navigation scheme, the course lists are not.  They’re either hidden behind the wall of a database (with an insufferably complex search tool) or they’re locked inside of a static PDF.
  • Parking Information
  • Usable Campus Map
    The campus map is an unfortunate case of trying to appropriate static content designed for the world of print materials for the web, so JPGs and PDFs are turned into web content.  Fortunately the tide is turning, given how open Google and Bing are with their interactive maps – so now many schools are able to embed helpful, dynamic maps into their sites (without having to have a Flash designer on staff).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s