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.
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: