3 idioms reveal the truth about university websites

I’ve worked on Australian university websites for the past 18 years, in internal roles and as a consultant. I’ve met some great people and seen the potential to do great work. But I’ve also the same problems again and again. Three simple idioms capture them well.

1. Too many cooks spoil the broth

One of the most persistent problems on university websites is the ‘too many cooks’ syndrome. Its symptoms include the following.

A disorderly collection of sub-sites rather than a single coordinated web presence

Years ago while doing some usability testing with current students, I asked them to use the website to find out when they could go on holidays. They couldn’t find the information by navigating to it. The site was a collection of organisational sub-sites, and users needed to know who owned the information to know which site to use. And they couldn’t identify it in search results because it was labelled as a ‘University secretariat’ page and as one student said, “that’s not for me, that’s for secretaries”. Sadly, sub-sites are still more common than not. And in some universities, every organisational unit seems to have one.

Another memorable example was a university with two ‘wellbeing’ sub-sites. The owners of each claimed they needed separate sites because they had different target audiences – staff in one case, students in the other. A quick look at their content showed otherwise. But politics rather than common sense won the day.

Lack of consistency in navigation, look and feel, behaviour or content style

I’ve witnessed many instances of senior university staff refusing to adopt the university’s web guidelines. Instead, they hire an external web designer to create something for them. No one stops them—probably because no one can. I recently heard a project manager say “the deans have gone feral again”. She was desperately trying to coordinate a university-wide approach to information architecture, and failing.

Duplication of content

All kinds of content—from course information to services—gets duplicated on university websites. It’s often because everyone is intent on building their own site rather than contributing content to a single site. Or they don’t like the way it has been done on the ‘central’ site. And while everyone seems intent on publishing, most fail to manage what they’ve produced. Commonly, departments don’t have any idea how much content they have online, and almost always fail to remove content that is out of date. I’ve recently read two university project briefs that admitted their sites had over 1 million web pages!

2. Putting lipstick on a pig

Most of the problems I’ve described above are so entrenched that even with the best of intentions, redesigns usually end up being merely cosmetic—visually and structurally.

A central web team, in marketing or IT, creates a layer of content for external audiences over the top of the chaos that exists below. This layer is nicely re-branded with the new look and feel, but within a few links users are dumped back into a land of siloed, inconsistent, duplicated content. In a recent consulting role I found sub-sites that were using a design that had been superseded 13 years and three redesigns earlier.

3. Airing your dirty laundry in public

There’s a strange notion in universities—which might partially be explained by the notion of ‘academic freedom’—that unless it’s highly sensitive, content should be open for everyone to see. Consequently, external users may have to wade through content that has no relevance to them. Perhaps worse, they sometimes click on links that demand what they don’t have: a staff or student login.

Occasionally, I’ve benefitted from this approach. When working on university web projects for clients, I’ve had no problems finding out what’s going on among their competitors. I’ve been able to access minutes of meetings, draft policies and plans, and project presentations on a number of university websites.

Early attempts at creating intranets in some universities have resulted in just that–intranets, plural. And they’re often attached, and the entrance to them visible from the organisational unit’s public web presence.

In the corporate world, as in government, the boundaries between internal and external content are clearly understood and applied. While a keen sense of competition or risk might account for this, there are many benefits to  universities in creating a properly structured intranet. For starters, they could keeping their external web presence lean and focused on external audience needs and tasks.