3 idioms reveal the truth about university websites

2 Comments Written on December 13th, 2012 by
Categories: Articles, Content strategy, Governance

I’ve worked on Australian university websites for the last 18 years, in internal roles and as an external consultant. I’ve met some great people and seen the potential to do great work. But I’ve also seen the same problems, over and over. Three well known idioms act as powerful labels for these problems.

1. Too many cooks spoil the broth

One of the most persistent problems on university websites is the ‘too many cooks’ syndrome. Its symptoms include the following.

A disorderly collection of sub-sites rather than a single coordinated web presence

Years ago while doing some usability testing with current students, I asked them to use the website to find out when they could go on holidays. They couldn’t find the information by navigating to it. The site was a collection of organisational sub-sites, and users needed to know who owned the information to know which site to use. And they couldn’t identify it in search results because it was labelled as a ‘University secretariat’ page and as one student said, “that’s not for me, that’s for secretaries”. Sadly, sub-sites are still more common than not. And in some universities, every organisational unit seems to have one.

Another memorable example was a university with two ‘wellbeing’ sub-sites. The owners of each claimed they needed separate sites because they had different target audiences – staff in one case, students in the other. A quick look at their content showed otherwise. But politics rather than common sense won the day.

Lack of consistency in navigation, look and feel, behaviour or content style

I’ve witnessed many instances of senior university staff refusing to adopt the university’s web guidelines. Instead, they hire an external web designer to create something for them. No one stops them—probably because no one can. I recently heard a project manager say “the deans have gone feral again”. She was desperately trying to coordinate a university-wide approach to information architecture, and failing.

Duplication of content

All kinds of content—from course information to services—gets duplicated on university websites. It’s often because everyone is intent on building their own site rather than contributing content to a single site. Or they don’t like the way it has been done on the ‘central’ site. And while everyone seems intent on publishing, most fail to manage what they’ve produced. Commonly, departments don’t have any idea how much content they have online, and almost always fail to remove content that is out of date. I’ve recently read two university project briefs that admitted their sites had over 1 million web pages!

2. Putting lipstick on a pig

Most of the problems I’ve described above are so entrenched that even with the best of intentions, redesigns usually end up being merely cosmetic—visually and structurally.

A central web team, in marketing or IT, creates a layer of content for external audiences over the top of the chaos that exists below. This layer is nicely re-branded with the new look and feel, but within a few links users are dumped back into a land of siloed, inconsistent, duplicated content. In a recent consulting role I found sub-sites that were using a design that had been superseded 13 years and three redesigns earlier.

3. Airing your dirty laundry in public

There’s a strange notion in universities—which might partially be explained by the notion of ‘academic freedom’—that unless it’s highly sensitive, content should be open for everyone to see. Consequently, external users may have to wade through content that has no relevance to them. Perhaps worse, they sometimes click on links that demand what they don’t have: a staff or student login.

Occasionally, I’ve benefitted from this approach. When working on university web projects for clients, I’ve had no problems finding out what’s going on among their competitors. I’ve been able to access minutes of meetings, draft policies and plans, and project presentations on a number of university websites.

Early attempts at creating intranets in some universities have resulted in just that–intranets, plural. And they’re often attached, and the entrance to them visible from the organisational unit’s public web presence.

In the corporate world, as in government, the boundaries between internal and external content are clearly understood and applied. While a keen sense of competition or risk might account for this, there are many benefits to  universities in creating a properly structured intranet. For starters, they could keeping their external web presence lean and focused on external audience needs and tasks.

2 comments “3 idioms reveal the truth about university websites”

While working in central web teams at a couple of universities I’ve observed the same thing. The people who have dedicated roles working on the uni websites understand how important ux, content etc are, but the system in which they work simply doesn’t support a unified approach, and the sheer scale of the mess is now completely overwhelming.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on what needs to happen to improve the situation? I think that it’s a combination of:
1. give complete governance of the site to the university web manager (who can then blow away about 99% of the existing stuff that should never have been made public in the first place)
2. the universities become more focused on commercial realities of the sector they find themselves in. This means the web team could measure effort against conversion which would help focus people on the reason the website exists. (If the content serves no measurable need, if the design is just an exercise undertaken by a bored web developer out there in faculty x, there is absolutely no reason for it).

Thanks for your thoughts, Kristen.

Governance is certainly one of the key issues, but it’s not easily resolved. Many universities have a University Web Manager, but often that role is not senior enough. Even when it is, the deans can still ‘go feral’ and either do their own thing or whinge to the V-C and get the Web Manager’s decisions overridden.

None of the universities I’ve worked with seem likely to see themselves in any ‘commercial’ reality. And there seems little understanding of the cost of creating so much content or so many different websites, let alone measuring return on investment.

I think it’s going to take a concerted effort by some senior people who really ‘get it’, to make any real change. Some organisations to watch in this space are the UK government, and the Queensland government who seem to be moving in a similar direction to the UK.