University Website

This XKCD comic hit a little close to home. I work in higher education and the problem of what to put on our web site has been debated since it was first launched back in the early 90s.

The problem boils down to the question “Who is your target audience?

With a higher ed web site you’ve got several distinct target audiences; there is no singular target audience. You’ve got prospective students, current students, faculty, (administrative) staff, alumni, parents of students, media/press, and the rest which we lump into “visitors”.

Each of those groups have their own specific informational needs.

Prospective students want to know what they would be investing their time and money in when  choosing what university to attend. A web site targeting them will need to convey what their experiences with the institution will be like. This manifests on most higher ed web sites as things like a virtual tour and promotional materials about special events or accomplishments.

A current student doesn’t need any of that, they’re already on campus. They need more utilitarian things like course schedules, transportation information, faculty contact information, available resources like libraries, computer labs, the book store, dining, etc.

Alumni want to know what’s happening on campus, specifically things that make the institution (and thus their degrees) more prestigious. The university, in turn, wants to campaign to alumni for donations to help further grow the institution.

Faculty and staff tend to have more utilitarian needs like current students. Forms, procedures, policies, etc. as well as training and various HR-related operations.

Parents want to know their children are in a safe and healthy environment and that they’re getting their money’s worth.

Media/press want experts they can go to for quotes when stories happen. In turn the university wants to publicize all the really exciting and prestigious events happening on campus so the public (and the alumni, and the prospective students, and the parents) know what a great place it is.

The rest that we lump into “visitors” are usually coming from off-campus to attend some event being hosted on campus. They’ll want directions and parking information as well as contact information for those hosting the event.

There are areas of overlap, but (as the XKCD comic points out) there’s a lot of separation of the needs of each population.

So what do we do?

The first problem is the implication that the homepage of a web site is the whole of the web site. That the one web page must cater to exactly what the individual needs.

This is just not practical.

So what we do is break information down into logical components and then find a way to organize those components together in a way that caters to a given audience. The way my institution handles this is by creating “landing pages” for each audience. Each landing page is a glorified list of links to those components of the web site that the given audience might be interested in. We try to group links together to help make navigating a page of links a little easier. We also integrate a list of “most popular” links (based off web and search ogs, thus this list can change from time to time) in a prominent place on the page.

The homepage becomes something of a sign at a crossroads. We’ll put a few bits of news and campus events (those that would be of interest to a general audience) along side some links to landing pages. The user looks at the links, selects which audience they are part of, and continues down their road.

The problem is not everyone realizes they should self-select and will instead take off into the woods, not following any road at all and either get lost or get lucky. This is why we tend to stick a search button on every page to act as something of a North Star for those who lose their way. But there are still those who refuse to look up at the stars or follow the road, find a comfortable spot, and start to scream.

Can we do better?

I’ve often thought about creating a web site interface along the lines of 20-questions. A sequence of simple questions with a YES and a NO button. Answer each question and eventually you’ll get to the page you want. We remove everything that could possibly create confusion. No logos. No images. No text other than the question. Simple black background with white text and two buttons and that’s it.

I think such an interface would be very successful at getting users to the desired information, but I also think it would create a backlash from users who perceive such a thing as being extremely condescending.

So can we do better?

Some might suggest a portal.

The “guest” portal, which everyone would see before they log in, would contain all the marketing material you might give to prospective students and visitors. Then users would log in and the portal does the audience selection for them. Faculty get faculty-oriented content, alumni get alumni-oriented content, and so on. And with a portal you can target very specific audiences (all faculty members in the math department, all sophomores who are both in the SGA and greek philosophy, etc) without the user having to do anything. The server does all the heavy lifting.

Integrate the portal with admissions and student accounts. Allow prospective students of a particular major to communicate with current students of the same major to get their advice on the coursework. Allow alumni of a particular school or major to see what students of the same major are doing now. There’s an infinite number of possibilities, all of them positive.

So that’s it then, a portal.

Well.

Portals work if you have the time and manpower to manage it properly. You can be a little bit lazy with a static layout. It’s the difference between owning a pet goldfish and owning a pet monkey. Yes, you’re going to get far more out of your relationship with your pet monkey, but it’s going to be a much bigger headache as well, requiring far more resources than a goldfish.

I’ve rambled way too long. I could write 50 pages on this. You’ll have to live with being cut off and not having everything answered.

Two points:

1.) University web sites may seem to lack the specific information you want right on the homepage, but that’s because there are a lot of different needs that have to be met in such a small space. Put a little effort into using the site and it WILL work for you.

2.) There is no absolute solution for distributing content among so many different audiences through a  single web site. Figure out what you’re willing to invest into a solution and start educating yourself on the options and their pros and cons. Then pick the solution that best works for your situation.

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web

The United States Department of Justice has announced that it plans to create rules that apply the ADA to the web.

I’d like to begin by pointing you specifically to the section titled “Barriers to Web Accessibility“. It is a very good read with clear and specific examples of how web content can be inaccessible to users with disabilities.

I think this is a Very Good Thing. Not for any humanitarian reason, but for the very selfish reason that it will force developers to create better web sites. It will force developers to think “how will this affect users with disabilities” before they implement a web site design.

For example, there are quite a lot of stylesheets out there that make heavy use of !important rules. These rules override anything else that exists to style a given element, including user-defined stylesheets applied to web pages by users who have difficulty with low-contrast web pages (think gray text on a white background). !important rules are almost always a product of lazy developers who don’t take the time to learn the cascading order of CSS and resort to !important when they can’t figure out why their style won’t apply like it should.

However the are stickier areas that we’ll all have to deal with. For example the use of CAPTCHAs; those little scrambled words that you have to type into some box before you can submit a form. CAPTCHAs typically rely on images which are inaccessible to blind users. reCAPTCHA employs an aleternative, audio-based CAPTCHA along side it’s image CAPTCHA for such users. I’m a big fan of reCAPTCHA and suggest it to all web developers.

Another problem will be video content. Blind and deaf users won’t be able to access the full content of the video, however providing video captions or (more correct) a transcript of the video will solve the issue. It’s not a technological hurdle, just a tedious one. This web site specifically talks about YouTube and captioning as one way to solve this problem.

Mouse-driven events are yet one more problem area we’ll need to deal with. I myself make heavy use of drop-down menus with the CSS :hover pseudoclass. However, try tabbing through a web page yourself and you’ll see those drop-down menus don’t trigger. My approach to this issue has always been that the top-level items (those accessible to users who can only tab through the page) should link to pages from which the items in the drop-down are accessible. The drop-down provides a shortcut, but you are not limiting access to information for disabled users.

There are other areas to cover, but I’m not here to cover them all. In fact  I’m going to assume new areas will be created as technology progresses. The trick is to develop the mindset that as you develop a web site, or some web-based resource, to constantly ask yourself “is this accessible?”. If the answer is ever “no”, you need to find a way to make that answer “yes”. And, most importantly, follow through to make it a “yes” with vigor rather than apathy as I tend to believe developer apathy is the cause for the majority of inaccessible web sites out there right now.