One of my favorite past-times is looking up university websites on the Internet Archive and laughing at what they looked like in the beginning. Ironically, it was probably easier to find the information you needed back when things looked like this:
The Web Marketing Association has an award for Best University Website. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s site won in 2007, but that version of the site seems to have disappeared. I remember using it once to try to find information about their library. I was impressed by how unconventional the site was, but I couldn’t find basic information I needed. Now the design is different – more structured but still attractive. This is unfortunate, though:
I see university websites as portals that must also contain a lot of content themselves, in addition to making a visual statement that conveys whatever the university is trying to emphasize about itself and enhances its brand. Ideally it should be impressive from a technological standpoint, since that in itself is (in my opinion) a statement about the quality of the institution. So basically university websites are probably one of the most challenging type of sites to design. This article from the blog of a design consultancy in Singapore sums it up quite nicely, covering issues of web standards, information architecture, and branding. An excerpt:
University websites tend to be more complicated than corporate websites. Here are some reasons why:
* Difficultly in defining a common vision: unlike corporate websites, it is difficult for a university to get all of its schools, divisions, centers, etc., to agree on a common vision for communicating on the web. This is a classic example of a house-of-brands or a branded-house conflict. Only the administrative offices are under the fold for obvious reasons. Thus, it is not uncommon to come across a school or a division crafting their own vision, often citing the hyper competitive education marketplace as their main reason (e.g. business schools).
* ‘Not invented here’ syndrome: because of the above, web design tends to fall into the hands of many different local webmasters who make decisions based on local directives – usually motivated by one-upmanship. This results in the hotchpotch that users finally get to see, and unfortunately, to experience.
* Lack of knowledge in user-centered design: this is crucial one. Because the needs of the user (or as Don Norman would say, people) does not take center stage, as the above two points show, design decisions are based on varying principles and random rationales leading to haphazard design outcomes. Unless there’s common understanding of user needs this is going to be a problem area for some time to come.
The xkcd comic above apparently started enough of an uproar to merit an article on Inside Higher Ed about the problems with university websites. And university websites don’t have half the problems library websites do thanks to all our different services which may require different interfaces, databases that require authentication which may have to occur on a page that isn’t the library’s, and the entirely separate (though maybe it shouldn’t be) beast that is the OPAC. But those are topics for another day.