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University websites: The so-so, the bad, and the egregious

By MELONIE FULLICK | July 4, 2016

Yes that’s right, it’s time to take a look at university websites and why they are perennially difficult and unpopular. For quite a while I’ve been meaning to write a post about this; it’s a problem that’s ongoing, and one that generates much wailing and gnashing of teeth among regular users of the sites, including current students and faculty. Yet it’s something that never seems to change, or if it does change, it’s merely “upgraded” to a system with new and equally infuriating flaws.

So why are university websites often terrible? Or, to rephrase that, why are these sites apparently impossible to construct in ways that work for their users?

This is a pretty well-known problem, so I decided to ask the Twitterverse what “gripes” they had about university websites (you can read them in this Storify). Unsurprisingly I got quite a few replies to this one, and I recognized a lot of them from first-hand experience. That’s probably why the responses were also consistent with what I’d already planned to describe in this post; basically, we’ve all “been there”. My rough categorizations are as follows…

Design, navigation and site search

I know that’s pretty broad, but it’s difficult to separate the overlapping and interconnected problems in this area. For example, aside from sheer ugliness (which is another common complaint) the front page of the website might be badly designed, making it difficult for users to find any signs of how to navigate — let alone how to get to what they’re actually looking for. Cheng H. Lee noted that “I’d rather Google “site:<X>.edu <whatever>” than use most unis’ site navigation”.

Directly related to this were complaints about the number of clicks it takes to get to important information from the front page. “Buried” information is often of the most basic kind, including schedules and timetables, fees and financial information, campus maps (frequently available only in PDF form), transcript requests, and even the university’s mailing address. Then there are the infuriating “link loops” where you just keep clicking on links that take you back to the same two or three pages repeatedly, none of which has what you’re looking for. Key links, including contact information for the institution, should be on the university homepage and clearly visible. These could also include links to the library, to postings of available jobs, to faculties and departments, and to a contact directory and a site index.

A number of people sounded off specifically about useless (and huge) drop-down menus and how they affect a reader’s experience on the site. This is something I’ve encountered myself, and it seems best that menus should be kept to a minimum and not impede use of the page. There’s also a lack of accessibility for site users with disabilities, which is a huge problem; and many sites aren’t even compatible with mobile devices, when an increasing proportion of visitors will be trying to access information that way.

Another issue is the way university websites usually pre-categorise content by its presumed audience, and organise it accordingly — i.e. by group such as “current students”, “staff”, and so on. If you don’t fall into one of those groups (and even if you do!), you end up searching the site for what you need. Given the diversity of groups that are participating in university life and also those “outside” the university who are potential audiences for university comms, this kind of organisation isn’t particularly helpful. Some of these different groups have very different needs and priorities. The entire site may also be geared towards one particular student population, i.e. undergrads, while grad student needs are ignored (thanks to Celeste Sharpe for pointing this out).

On a related note, site structure reflects what the institution thinks is important, not what site users actually want to know. I would say that many university websites reflect the structure of the institution in general, with informational silos that make it difficult to find out what you need to know — unless you already have some background knowledge.

Site search is another major problem. Search effectiveness can be radically different from one website to the next. For some universities a search can turn up useless details from an archived calendar from 5 years ago, but no basic contact info for a staff person. When combined with crappy navigation and buried information, this is a recipe for user frustration.

Missing info

Which brings us to the next serious flaw on many university websites: missing, outdated, incorrect, contradictory and/or ambiguous information. For example, universities seem to have a problem with dates in general; usually there’s no accessible master list of important dates (even though everyone seems to want it), and some universities don’t even bother to put dates on press releases or news items.

There might be missing staff and faculty pages (or none at all), or the pages don’t list key information such as email addresses and phone numbers, in a standard format. Usually universities have a “directory” link (not always), but the usefulness of these directories is wildly variable and in some cases all you get is a list of pre-selected titles of university offices and departments, with physical addresses listed but no links to their pages or other details. Information that would really help but which is rarely provided, would include for example an organizational chart with descriptions of what each department does or what an administrative position is responsible for.

Then there’s the information that’s just out of date and/or wrong, including links to pages for departments that no longer exist, faculty members who have left or retired, and other old links that are left floating, untended, yet somehow still showing up in searches and never removed from the site. Meanwhile, frequent URL changes to pages that contain vital information can make it difficult to keep track by using bookmarks.

It’s possible that many of these problems are caused by confusion about responsibility for the maintenance of websites, which was another problem pointed out by Twitter commenters. Sometimes a mistake can’t even be fixed because it has to go through a particular person or office and no-one has taken the time. Colleen Derkatch mentioned that “at many unis, faculty are responsible for maintaining [department] pages. What do we know about web design? Misdirected resources.” On the other hand, faculty may need to make changes but have no access to do so. Some functions might be centralized and others devolved to departments, while the latter have varying levels of support available for website issues.

Stop selling me

Lastly, there’s the conflation of promotional and informational material and approaches. This is something I did some research on during my MA, so while it wasn’t surprising, it was still striking how much of a problem it is and how site users notice the effects. Comments included “designed…for marketing but not utility”, “designed for recruitment rather than current students/staff/faculty”, “overwhelmingly oriented towards recruiting; work-related resources buried” and as Dan Greene put it, “in the U.S. at least, we have rich, responsive content for prospectives/parents and then a Geocities page for folks already there.” So there’s a clear sense that the investment in marketing and recruitment comes at the expense of those already part of the university who need to use the site for everyday purposes. Ironically, many prospective students seem to hate these sites as well.

All this isn’t just about kvetching; there’s a serious point behind the enumeration of grievances. The university website is how institutions communicate not only with students, both prospective and current, but also with parents, journalists, prospective faculty, and anyone else who’s looking for some kind of information or interaction with the university. As @charloween commented, “to me, it reinforces a sense that the uni isn’t interested in research, potential for public engagement; no outward reach.” If websites are the medium then the implicit message here is “we don’t really care about your needs.”

It’s possible that in trying to cater to so many audiences at once, the universities fail to please anyone. It’s also possible they’re just not taking into account user feedback or even providing channels for that feedback to happen. Universities aren’t the greatest at this kind of thing in general. But surely the website should be seen as an opportunity to help people make sense of, and navigate, a complex institution. When viewed that way, it’s clearly an opportunity still being missed by most.

With many thanks to all those who chipped in on Twitter, listed here by handle:

@aasher @HuShuo
@AbsP @jlphistory
@AnnaAnthro @katesang
@call_me_cathy @lizmorrish
@celeste_sharpe @Neuro_musings
@charloween @NyashaJunior
@chenghlee @ProfBrandle
@CliffordTheHutt @RallidaeRule
@ColleenDerkatch @readywriting
@complexin @reallyHibbs
@DavidKaib @RohanMaitzen
@doctaj @rkmcknnn
@DrKateDoyle @sarah11918
@GavinMoodie @savasavasava
@Greene_DM @terfle
Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. eric / July 4, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    As a community college webmaster, many of these ring true for me. But there is a factor that’s strikingly absent: Staffing levels.

    I’m aware of a precious few universities or colleges that appear to have anything approaching adequate staffing in their web support teams. Yes, the organization is usually bad and the delineation of responsibilities is usually awful, but even in cases where most control is centralized there’s rarely TIME to even begin to do the work thats required.

    This often leads to pressure to do things like farm out content maintenance to departments, where maintenance often languishes or is done badly. Management is typically unable or unwilling to understand that distributed content maintenance actually requires *more* staff than centralized content maintenance. (Attempts to explain the concept of the “Mythical Man-Month” as often as not fall on deaf ears, though occasionally I seem to get through.)

    From my perspective, almost all these problems are at base cultural. (That could just by my bias — my degree’s in anthropology, not CS or CIS.) Management of colleges tends to be a matter of figuring out how to maximally enhance prestige through alignment of your vassals, who struggle over territory and resources while continually having to make accommodations for your increasing salary (not to mention that of the growing number of assistants you need, to illustrate your prestige). On the website, this translates to a struggle for front page and navigation resources.

    We have it better than most, actually, because our administrators are primarily driven by the opposing drivers of “soft enrollment” and “poor retention” (punctuated by occasional fire drills around compliance and accreditation), and while those are often in conflict they’re relatively simple things that you can actually measure. Emphasis on “can” — you have to be working for an organization that’s actually willing to measure them.

    • Paul Gilzow / July 5, 2016 at 11:35 am

      Re: Staffing leves : * claps *

      Here, here! It’s not unusual to see a single person responsible for 40+ sites. Think about that. That means that each site gets about 50 hours PER YEAR of attention. Job descriptions for a university “webmaster” run the gamut from programmer, to graphic designer, to social media manager to photographer AND videographer, etc. And offer about 2/3rds what the rest of the market will pay for even one of those job duties. Many universities *say* the web is a priority, but _very_ few actually *fund* the web like it’s a priority. The only area at a university that even comes close to funding it appropriately are in marketing, hence why you see most of the sites geared toward recruitment.

      The other thing to remember is that a University is made up of multiple schools, each with their own budgets, goals, priorities, etc. Unless the University centralizes everyone’s web presence, getting them all to make their sites coherent and similar is like herding cats. Want to know why the map stinks or is locked away in a pdf? Because the person in charge of the website doesn’t have access to the GIS data and the department that owns the GIS data doesn’t like to play nice with anyone else. The *only* thing the webmaster has is the pdf.

      Eric absolutely nails it when he mentioned the front page and navigation structure is more a reflection of the internal political struggles at the university than it is the lack of skills to build a relevant structure. Trust me, the person who manages the site doesn’t like it any more than you. But when the president/chancellor calls over and says “i want a link in the navigation” what are you supposed to do?

      • Emma / July 6, 2016 at 6:58 am

        Here, here! I work in web too and one of my biggest pet peeves is how much departments spend on print brochures and other print materials, but skimp on the websites. I’m one of those people managing 40+ websites, and a lot of my work is invisible because people don’t really understand what I do or how long it takes. (web content strategy and content management).

        Also, don’t treat websites like print brochures. You can’t “set it and forget it.”

        Ah, homepages… People want everything on the homepage and then complain because it doesn’t perform well. I wonder why? 😉

      • Mike Ferguson / July 6, 2016 at 10:17 am

        Thanks for bringing this to the forefront Paul.
        Everything talked about in this article is bang on.
        I have been in digital coms in higher ed for 12 years and have seen the rise and fall in the interest to have web resources. For years it has been been a contracted, seconded, side of desk add on to most positions and departments.

        Recently (In Central Canada), I have seen the rise of ‘creative teams’ who bring together various skill sets to tackle all digital content creation, management and engagement. But this was short lived (again) and the teams were diminished as absent positions were used to cut costs.

        To counter this trend some of us have banded together in a community with a clear objective to prove through accurate measurement the effectiveness of having strong digital coms resources. Our goal to prove that those that have dedicated resources have stronger, consistent branding and engagement with objectives inline with strategic goals.

        On another note, as political as it gets – creating your web architecture based on what is often a very confusing departmental structure creates a terrible UX. Let’s say the Writing Centre is under Liberal Arts(Academic) and Peer Tutoring is under Student Affairs (Service/Supports). As a student do I care who is managing what? No. As a student I just want some help getting better grades.
        But unfortunately politics get involved and we often see the marriage of our information separated and buried, thus becoming very ineffective.

    • Wolf_22 / August 24, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      Keep fighting the good fight, sir. You’re not alone in the war.

      Kindest Regards,

  2. Matt / July 5, 2016 at 11:41 am

    So, I think the problem is “purpose.” The .edu is the thing we had to have “you have to have a website” not a thing people had for a purpose. Thus, the purpose is dependent on the loudest people in the room. If they were admissions people, then the site is for prospective students (which, in this US, is the largest Universe of people who *could* see the site.

    What is the purpose? In your post, you write: “It’s possible that in trying to cater to so many audiences at once, the universities fail to please anyone.”

    It isn’t just possible, it is clear. That said, if the .edu focussed on faculty research, it would make the university a more attractive place to attend. So it isn’t that it needs to be one or the other – a site that talks about awesome faculty, or a site with a pretty chapel.

    Like everything, it can be both. But it must also be more purposeful. It should be articulated to the people who care what the purpose of the pages are. Who should care, and more importantly, why will they care?

    We’re mostly not there. We mostly fight over search and chapel shots. Instead of actually creating content people will care about.

  3. Annie-Claude Guiset / July 5, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    A very interesting approach, feeding our reflexion about the ‘ideal’ website of an international university! Thank you so much! Annie-Claude Guiset, Lille, France

  4. Emma / July 6, 2016 at 6:50 am

    YES! Bookmarking this for sure.

    But I think you missed one big point: things like content and structure are often dictated by middle aged academics who don’t know enough about digital and don’t trust their digital experts enough. I’ve heard things like “people really prefer PDFs” and “only 1/3-1/2 of our readers are using mobile devices, so we should continue to design for desk top only.”

    IMHO, PSE needs to focus more on its audiences rather than it’s administration and politics.

  5. Greg / July 6, 2016 at 8:58 am

    I completely agree with what everyone is saying in relation to this article. The main issue with websites, at least at the departmental level is staffing. Academic staff have been given web content responsibility on top of everything else they do even though they don’t have any skills in it. Then you have older academic faculty who feel like the web is not important or who have their own ideas about what the website should look like rather than rely on best practice research. Because of the workload issue, people tend to dump everything on their site rather than be strategic.

    I also agree with the article where it references that a priority is given to undergrads while graduate studies is ignored (this is a common theme even within our own web services office!).

    Ultimately though, it’s very difficult to change the culture and so you have to end up trying to please everyone and in the end please no one.

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