By now you have probably seen the xkcd cartoon mocking university websites. It highlights the differences between what users want and what the leaders of these organizations provide them. Inside Higher Ed published an article about the cartoon last week that ruffled lots of feathers and caught the attention of some of the very administrators and faculty responsible for the mess on these websites (yes, believe it or not, this is a leadership problem!) Like the 65 people who had commented on the article when I last checked, I too have lots of opinions on the topic.
But that’s not the point of this post.
This morning, Inside Higher Ed published a follow-up article on the subject, “Web Re(design)”. While they made some great points about the need for institutions to do their own research and understand their unique audience needs (they should have called the article [pre]design!), the debates among the “experts” about how to structure the home page left me with one thought…
ENOUGH ABOUT THE HOME PAGE ALREADY!
I’m not saying that navigation is not important. On the contrary, evidence shows that the find-ability and quality of content are the most important things on a college website to all audiences. I have years of primary research with thousands of high school students, parents, college students, faculty, staff and alumni that has always consistently pointed to this. I recently wrote about the need for usable and useful websites, which is borne out of my experience with this research. And if you don’t believe me, Noel-Levitz released a study last month that found the same thing.
But fixing the navigation and content on the home page doesn’t fix the problem. The home page is not a destination, it’s a starting point (and with search, you can’t even guarantee visitors start there to begin with). Perfecting the search engine and top-level architecture helps get users to their destination with greater ease, but what happens when they get there? Has the same level of attention been given to offices and departments at the college as to the home page and the slick top-level marketing veneer?
If you think college home pages are bad, you’ll really enjoy their department sites
For years, colleges and universities have been practicing what I call “trickle-down redesign”. They think that by redesigning the first couple of layers of the site and providing prettier templates and CMS tools to their departments, everything will get better. I can’t point to many examples where this has worked. Actually, I can’t point to any… because the problems with their department sites are more than skin deep.
I understand why they do this. Higher ed websites are decentralized behemoths. Not many schools have the time or resources to overhaul everything and they can’t afford to pay a consultant to do it all either. So they pay for the home page—give it all they got and hope for the best.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I’m here to say the cost of trickle-down redesign is high. You can’t afford to trust that “owners” of mission-critical websites at your institution will take your tools and get it right all by themselves.
You may be thinking to yourself, “we don’t let that happen on mission-critical pages of our site.” Well, think again!
We know from research that the most important content to the largest, most important external audiences on a college or university website is information about academics and majors. This is followed by cost and financial aid information. And for competitive, tuition-driven private institutions with sticker prices near $50,000 a year, this information becomes even more important. Yet the entire website redesign budget is spent on the homepage and its accompanying bells and whistles.
I’m arguing that for these institutions, THE DESTINATION for many of your most important visitors is the academic department site or the financial aid section of the site (a.k.a. the financial aid office’s website). I challenge you to pick a college, any college, and go to these sections. Most of the time you’re going to find hard to use, out of date, amateur looking sites that sound like they were written by financial aid administrators and faculty for a policy manual (because in many cases they were!)
These are generalizations, of course. I’ve been fortunate to work with a couple of schools that really get it and have devoted time, money and expertise to helping improve these mission-critical areas of their sites. We’re currently engaged with a great college client in a hard-core research, architecture and content strategy project for their financial aid, scholarship and billing areas of their site. A project like this doesn’t just help with recruitment, it helps make sure students enrolled at the college have access to information they need to STAY at the college. Can you say that you’re doing the same on your site?
Please, for the sake of your users, don’t stop at the home page. In fact, maybe you don’t even start at the home page. Find out what really matters to your audiences and start there. If prospective students want better academic and financial information, put your resources there. Talk to your enrolled students and find out if they really need or want that big portal you’ve been working on (we did that with a client once and learned all they really wanted was a better calendar). Find out what information your faculty need and if the website is the best place to get it. Determine whether or not that expensive alumni community is worth the time and money when your alumni tell you that they prefer to interact on Facebook and LinkedIn.
There’s so much more to a university website than the home page. Maybe someone will create another cartoon that helps people get that.
Image credit: Flickr user Jeremy Brooks