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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