The web presence

These days, most people who have an interest in a university or college, in whatever context, first encounter it on the internet. A university’s home page on the web is, usually, its main opportunity to make a good first impression.

Today I needed to access all Ireland’s university websites to find two pieces of information; one of these would be very relevant to potential student applicants, the other to a potential philanthropist. I have to say most Irish universities do not come out of this well. Typically their home pages are far too busy and contain too much information under too many headings. The main function of the home page, in my view, is to act as a map that will direct a visitor to where they want to go, and that will do so in a reasonably attractive way. Typically this task is best performed if the page gives maybe nine or ten different options, which can then move the visitor closer to the information they need in a user-friendly way. In fact, Irish universities typically provide around 35-40 clicking choices on the home page, often in confusing separate sections on the page, and often offered in very small print with densely written sub-texts. One university gives the visitor 45 choices. Three universities also do not manage to contain all the links and clicks on a single screen, so that the visitor has to scroll down to see all of it, which on a home page is an absolute no-no.

The one Irish university website that pretty much gets it right is NUI Galway, which has a clean, uncluttered and user-friendly home page, with a reasonable and manageable set of links. The next best is my own former bailiwick, DCU. The others are all in varying degrees a nightmare for the first time visitor.

Apart from Galway’s rather excellent effort, a good model of how to do it is the website of US university MIT.

One hint I would give to university web designers is to keep breathless news announcements to a minimum. Visitors to a website are not really likely to be there in order to enjoy the latest propaganda messages. A well designed news site linked from the home page, and kept up to date, is a much better bet.

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10 Comments on “The web presence”

  1. Michael Says:

    This venn diagram illustrates the problem nicely

  2. Vincent Says:

    All very well, but what you encountered on the mast doesn’t translate beyond it at either MIT or NUI,G.

    • Well, I was able to find the two things I needed in less than 60 seconds on the NUIG site. In the worst case (and I won’t say which university that was) it took me nearly 20 minutes.

      • Vincent Says:

        Granted they are better than most. But I see no reason why they cannot continue the design in the same clean uncluttered way throughout.

  3. Cormac Says:

    Another hint is this: what are most visitors most likely to be looking for? Webpages for many institutions seem oblivious to this question, treating all categories of query as equally likely.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    Usually when I need to visit a university web site it is to look at a particular department. Going first to the home page is often tiresome but google “McGill psychology department”, say, and it gets you there very quickly, usually.
    One can’t help wondering why web designers don’t do a better job: its not a new problem at this stage and there are plenty of models around so why not just copy something thats good?
    Perhaps its because the client doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want or who they are trying to reach.
    And at the risk of causing outrage, I think UL’s web site looks pretty good, simple and effective, and I would rank it no.2 after Galway. I can’t say I liked DCU’s although it is not the worst – that is a distinction I would award to UCC.

  5. copernicus Says:

    As some one who has taught good web design and its importance to business, the best webiste is the one where navigation becomes simple and the information is easily accessible.

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