I’ve spent a lot of time in my meditation practice focusing on my breath. Or shall I say, “trying to” focus on my breath. It’s called “practice” because we need to remind ourselves to focus as the mind wanders off to something else that tries to capture our attention.
Mindfulness teachers instruct us to focus on the breath because it’s always available to us. As we become more deeply aware of our breath, we observe what happens in our bodies, noticing small movements that we normally ignore. Over time, this helps us to develop attention and awareness. But it takes practice: you can’t expect quick results.
I’m thinking about mindfulness this week because I’ve been talking with people from a lot of different institutions about their websites. Typically, this means that we’ll sit down together, take a look at their site, talk about how it’s managed and discuss their primary objectives for the site. Then we’ll click through it together.
This simple process, paying attention in the presence of someone else, helps them to see some of the smaller issues with their sites. It’s akin to what Zen practitioners call “beginner’s mind,” where you determine to experience something with an open, inquisitive attitude as you do when you experience something for the very first time.
A reminder, once again, of the fact that it takes focused attention — not to mention time — to develop an effective website in higher ed.
We’ve come a long way since the mid-1990s when I shifted the focus of my professional practice to the online world and especially college and university websites. Today, most institutions realize that their website is their single-most important marketing and communication tool — as well as an important platform for learning and business. By now, most institutions know that it’s essential that the website be well-designed and appropriately resourced.
As a result, the look and feel of college websites has improved greatly over the past 20 years, as has their functionality. Many institutions have paid attention to the overall experience visitors have on their sites, designing them to anticipate what people want when they peruse the site. (That’s one reason why experience mapping is an important first step for a web redesign initiative.)
But, in practice, there’s still a lot of work to do to improve and fine-tune college and university websites.
Just as developing a strong meditation practice requires constantly returning attention to the breath, developing an effective university website means obsessing about — and fixing — even minor annoyances, which can result in big improvements overall in visitor satisfaction with a website (and better results).
For example, this week I looked at the website of a small, selective institution in Pennsylvania. The site had a lot going for it: some striking images, effective copy and messaging that created the overall effect of an interesting and dynamic institution. But the main navigation for the site — the links to Admissions, Academics, and Campus Life, among others — were rendered in small white text that completely disappeared against an image with a light-colored background, making it very difficult for visitors to the site to find the links easily.
Another site I viewed buried the “Majors/Minors” link amid a list of other links on its main Academics page, including “Honors Programs” and “Academic Advising.” It’s not that these aren’t important, but many of the prospective students visiting the site will return to explore the Majors/Minors list multiple times while deciding whether to attend the college. Thus, it should be one of the most prominent links on the page.
You’ll understand why I don’t identify these institutions — I don’t want to embarrass smart, well-intentioned, hard-working — and over-burdened — staff members. And I’m not suggesting that absolute perfection is an attainable goal in the digital space. The larger point is that you can find examples like these on most higher ed websites, at large institutions and small ones, and even at those that are well-resourced for web development.
These can seem like trivial examples but talk to web developers and you’ll learn that small changes can improve results dramatically. For example, on the Johnson & Wales University website, we tested two different phrases for a link: “Unique to JWU” and “JWU Stories.” The latter resulted in significantly fewer click-throughs so we left the wording of the link alone.
Paying more attention to the small details on your website won’t help you reach enlightenment, but it can make your site more effective and even make your job more interesting. In my own meditation practice, I’ve learned that if I pay enough attention, no breath is ever the same. Each is unique and intrinsically fascinating.
Michael Stoner is a co-founder and president of mStoner, Inc., a digital marketing firm serving higher education.