A web of confusion

As I have noted previously, these days the main ‘shop window’ in which a university presents its programmes, facilities and services to a wider world is its worldwide web homepage. Anyone wanting to make contact with it is likely to look there first, and therefore it is very important that the institution presents itself well. A few weeks ago I had a look at the Irish university websites, and on the whole I did not think they were well designed. Yesterday I investigated the home pages of 14 British universities. I am inclined to conclude that, like their Irish counterparts, they mostly don’t get it right.

Here are some of the key problems.

First, what almost all (except one, to which I return in a moment) get terribly wrong is the sheer busy-ness of the page. Generally it is full of small print and densely formatted text, with a vast array of links that are not usually organised in a user-friendly way. It is my view that a homepage should not give more than nine or ten clickable links, and that these should be presented in a visually accessible way. In fact, most have dozens. For example, this university gives you 57 links on the homepage, not organised into any coherent groups. This world famous university has 62, though admittedly the links are clustered in a somewhat more logical way. The one that gets it absolutely right is the University of Warwick, with only nine links on the homepage.

Secondly, almost no university seems to be able to resist the idea that it should publish self-congratulatory news stories on the homepage. Of course this is simply a form of PR, but not a useful one. It is not an effective way of publishing press releases (journalists don’t scour university websites looking for these), while those who go to a university website will almost always find them a distraction. They serve absolutely no purpose, except in very rare cases of stories that people may genuinely want to have brought to their attention.

Thirdly, most of the websites were very hard to navigate. I asked a friend to look at each of them and try to get as much information as possible about undergraduate examinations, including exam dates, initially without using the ‘search’ function. In the case of three of them he was unable to get any information at all by following links. Interestingly, in one of these even the search function didn’t help, while in the other two it brought so many results that it took him ages to work out which of them was of use to him. Seven of the 14 universities seemed to publish no information about examination dates (or if they did he couldn’t find it). In the case of only one university did the hunt for exam information turn out to be easy and logical.

Finally, the design of most websites goes against the most obvious principle: keep it simple. Don’t cover the page with writing and images, and don’t make the following of links too complex. On the homepage, keep individual items apart from each other with plenty of white space, and only include information that will clearly be helpful to those accessing the page. Of the 14 websites I looked at, five even put so much on the page that it forces the user to scroll down to find key information, an absolute no-no in the design of internet home pages.

It seems to me that all this is another sign that many universities don’t have a proper understanding of the key objectives of PR, and in particular that they don’t really appreciate the potential and pitfalls of websites. Mostly they have not properly considered what they want these sites to do for them, and therefore they don’t knowhow they should design them to achieve their purposes. Universities deal with very complex areas of knowledge, but when it comes to the internet they should, above all, keep it simple.

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23 Comments on “A web of confusion”

  1. wendymr Says:

    I agree that most institutions’ websites need improvement, but I disagree that Warwick has it right. It’s not only intending students who visit university websites, and when I go to websites – as I also did when I was still in the field – I was often looking for members of staff. There is no link to academic departments, or to faculty, on Warwick’s front page, and I have to think to click on that ‘quick links’ hyperlink at the bottom, and then catch the pop-up list and select departments to get to where I want to be. I imagine I’m far from the only user who might be trying to find a particular staff member, or look up the faculty of a particular department, and IMO that information should be easy to find.

  2. Jeffrey Says:

    While I was researching institutions for PhD applications, I found British universities particularly guilty of your first point about link overload. American universities tend to have a cleaner front page, but are equally unnavigable after that first click.

    My alma mater, Slave Owning Founding Father University, would probably earn a B+ for the clarity of its homepage based on your metrics, but an A+++ for its commitment to *advertising* the diversity of its student body.

    For a real laugh, try to find tuition rates or fees from any university site.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    You might be aware already that in August last year the Times Higher run a story on this http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=413004

  4. Fred Says:

    I agree with wendymr. Warwick’s page is simple but when I searched for a department or for staff information then it becomes a real nightmare. The same quite applies to Edinburgh from what I remember where you can find departments but not info of which staff belongs to what specific department.

    I think that generally students (and staff searching other unis) are interesed in specific faculties or departments and research students to staff, so I have find too many examples where it is very difficult to find this info.

    By the way Oxford’s page is busy but at least you can find what you want…

  5. conorjh Says:

    The Warwick website commits the greatest sin of all, it isn’t immediately obvious how to get to a list of departments; website perform a PR function, they also need to be useful to other users!

    • As I’ve already said to Wendy, I don’t agree with that. It’s very quick and intuitive to get to the list of departments, two clicks get you there.

      • conorjh Says:

        But it is the most frequent use for a significant cohort of users and an important group as far as the function of the university is concerned and no it isn’t intuitive, I have to decide whether to go for Quick Links or About or even Research and even under Quick links I need to wonder if “Departments and Services” refers to Service Departments or Academic Departments.

        They should have an “Academics” button with the other big buttons, still two clicks, but no thought needed.

        • wendymr Says:

          I agree also. Yes, it’s not immediately clear whether ‘Departments and Services’ is the correct link, nor is ‘Quick Links’ intuitive. And it still took me about half a dozen clicks to find the friend I was looking for who works at Warwick, and I know exactly what department/group she is in.

          A Faculty link should be shown on the front page of every website – too many don’t do that. Don’t universities think their teaching and research staff are worth highlighting?

  6. David W Says:

    You should bear in mind though that this university not only has a Homepage for the general public, but also a Local Homepage for those on the College network, or accessing the College website with a College username and password.

    The Local Homepage has a link to a Student Homepage, in a section of that page entitled ‘For Students’. And, in the left column of that page there is a link headed ‘Examinations’, pointing the way to examination timetables, old exam papers etc. (which are not publicly accessible, for policy reasons).

    A member of the general public (who is unlikely to have good reason to consult this information) would not see all this. So it may not be a particularly appropriate test to give a ‘friend’ the task of gleaning information about exam dates etc. from the public homepage.

  7. Dan Says:

    It really depends who your are. I would searching for depts and staff members, or looking at other people’s courses for comparisons. A student would be looking for, well let’s be honest I don’t know, term dates, submission guidelines…? Websites have this big problem – they try to cater for very different needs. I agree with Ferdinand generally, I rarely look at those news items, but they do create an atmosphere of activity and achievements. Are they really there just to give you a general sense of success and busy-ness?

  8. cormac Says:

    I find the Warwick site dreadful! What is the core activity of a university? Academia. Yet those proud schools and departments are lumped under ‘quick links’. Not exactly putting the academy first, is it?

    By contrast, have a look at the website of the world’s no.1 university at http://www.harvard.edu/
    Also, simple, also clear – but look at the very first link, pride of place in top LH corner. That’s bacause Harvard realises its reputation rests on its faculties and its academics. They are the academy and they should be shown upfront..

    • Hm, Cormac, I think it’s what’s called putting the students first! After all,m staff are hardly likely to be puzzled as to where to find that information.

      • anna notaro Says:

        ‘staff hardly likely to be puzzled’ that could not be further from the truth, you won’t believe the state of puzzlement some are in 🙂

      • Conor Says:

        Well without getting into a more abstract discussion about how the website represents the University, it is certainly true that websites are best when they are convenient for there users to use and a large group of people who use university website use them to find departments. There are, for example, potential collaborators, people who you met at a conference but can’t quite remember your name, seminar series organizers and research students or postdocs hoping someone in a University they fancy is doing something cognate to their interests.

        The larger point though is that PR is the wrong lens to use to look at websites, usefulness is: the ease and speed with which they direct users to the information they want.

  9. cormac Says:

    I think we should be careful about second-guessing what will impress students. For example, pictures of grinning undergraduates would not have impressed me, as a school leaver. The first thing I would have wanted to know is what sort of science faculty the place had, how many prizes, what sort of research do they do, what mix of subjects are available to undergraduates etc…then I would have compared that to the options in the humanities faculty..

    • Well, we don’t have to second guess that too much, as there has been quite a lot of market research done on that. One of the things we know as a result is that students are *totally* uninterested in the organisational set-up – i.e. they never want to know about the departments, schools or Faculties. They want their information to be programme-based.

  10. Dan Says:

    Cormac, if that’s what you sought, then I think you were fairly precocious – I suspect most first year students seek reassurance in this new scary university world. But thereafter what would undegrads want, postgrads, staff, other academics, prospective and existing admin staff? Indeed, there well be few institutional websites that have such an incredibly diverse target audience. That said, I think the Warwick website is attempting to portray the university as something that it is not (ie it is a university for grown up people, not a place for people with the attention span of a newt)

  11. cormac Says:

    Re *totally* uninterested in the organisational set-up, Ferdinand; I’m sure that’s right, but I’m not sure basic information on faculties comes under ‘organisation’.
    It seems likely that a prospective music student will want to know if the music department has an emphasis on composition or performance(big difference here), and a budding scientist will will want to know if there a common first year in science, or is one railroaded into one science from day one? These are the questions my cohort asked as students.
    For example, Harvard have found the combining of Science and Arts into one faculty a big draw to students…and are not slow to highlight the FAS on their frontpage

  12. oldbag Says:

    cormac is right, who wants to spend ages thinking about what comes under where anymore – the networked brain is at play here. web 2 interactivity required and fast 🙂

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