I’ve worked on Australian university websites for the past 18 years, in a range of internal technical, design and content-related 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 some problems again and again. They are aptly explained using three simple idioms.
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
Many years ago I remember doing some usability testing with current students on a large university website. We asked them to find out when they could go on holidays. They couldn’t find the information by navigating to it, because you would need to know who owned it to know which sub-site it was on. They couldn’t even identify it in search results because it was labelled as a ‘University secretariat’ sub-site page and as one student said, “that’s not for me, it’s for secretaries”. Sadly, sub-sites persist. And in some universities, every organisational unit seems to have one.
One of the most memorable examples I’ve seen was a university with two ‘wellbeing’ sub-sites. 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, and a very murky line of demarcation between the two. But politics rather than common sense won the day, and those two sub-sites probably still exist.
Lack of consistency in navigation, look and feel, behaviour or content style
I’ve heard of senior university staff who have refused to adopt the university’s style and simply gone out and hired a web designer to create a design for them. No one stopped them. And even if they wanted to, they probably couldn’t have. I recently heard the phrase “the deans have gone feral again”, from someone desperately trying to coordinate a university-wide approach to information architecture.
Duplication of content
This occurs across all kinds of content – from course information to services. And 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, so they redo it on their own. And while everyone seems intent on publishing, most fail to manage content well. They don’t know how much they have and 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
This third idiom brings me to the ongoing intranet debacle in many universities. There’s a strange notion — which might be partially attributed to a misplaced sense of ‘academic freedom’ — that unless it’s highly sensitive, internal content should be open for all comers to see. Consequently, external users have to wade through content that has no relevance to them. Perhaps worse, they’re sometimes presented with links that when clicked demand a staff or student login they don’t have.
Occasionally, interesting tidbits of internal information (that really should be considered commercial-in-confidence), are readily accessible to anyone. When working on university web projects for clients, I’ve had no problems finding documents created by other university web project or management teams – strategic plans, minutes of meetings, internal policies and procedures, presentations, and so on.
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 that universities could achieve by creating a properly structured intranet. For starters, they could keeping their external web presence lean and focused on external audience needs and tasks.