5 (Arguable) Assertions About Academic Websites

Thoughts from an amateur.

August 3, 2016

I’ve worked on enough academic website projects to know how little I know about creating websites.

Having worked on a new or redesigned academic website is not the same as having web expertise.

There are a great number of us in higher ed who know just enough to be dangerous when it comes to our opinions on our department/center/division/school sites. We overestimate our own ability to understand design and navigation - and underestimate how much our biases, blindspots, and areas of pure ignorance drive our website thinking.

The smartest play for higher ed non-web professionals is to listen, and follow the advice, of the web design pros. There is no shame in soliciting and following direction and guidance. We know more than the web people about lots of other things - just not more than they do about web stuff.

So it is with these caveats stated that I offer the following 5 assertions about academic websites. My hope is that if you know more than I do (likely) that you will let all of us know where I’m getting things wrong.

#1 - Less Is More:

Academic websites - by which I mean department/center/institute/division/school/etc - are almost always too big. They have too much content. Too many pages. Too many links. Too much text.

There is a desire to represent the full work that is being done by the group on their website. Try not to indulge this desire.

A good academic website should have only content that is unique and necessary to the group that it connects with. The less content there is, the more attention that content will get. Less content means better content, as more attention can be paid in how the content is presented - and in keeping that limited content up-to-date and relevant.

Can you go through your academic website and cut out everything that absolutely does not have to be there?

#2 - Your Site Is Not the Place to Demonstrate Your Value:

We want our websites to reflect our work. We want our websites to reflect our value to the university and the larger academic community in which we work.

The inconvenient truth is that our websites will never fulfill that function. It is never what we say about ourselves that matters, it is what others say about us.

Leaving behind the idea that our academic websites can reflect our contributions enables us to use our websites to help out our stakeholders. Our websites can become about them, not us, and will be better for this switch in mindset.

#3 - People Coming To Your Site Care About Different Things Than You:

It is an truism in the academic web world that people go to your website mostly to get fast information. Contact info.  Maps.  Addresses. The names, pictures, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and pictures of the people who work in the unit. Forms, calendars, lists - and information about parking.

Everyone in academia seems to know this about why people go to websites - but almost nobody tends to use this knowledge as a guide in website design.  It is just too seductive to put more information - the content that we care about - on our websites.

We do so much - and we have so much to offer - shouldn’t our website reflect all the wonderful knowledge that we have to share and the services that we can provide? In a perfect world, the answer would be yes.  But keep in mind that if your website is a tool for people to reach you / find you / connect with you - that you will be able to do great things to help those people out once they can get in touch.

#4 - If People Can Find Content By Google - Then Don’t Put It On Your Site:

A general rule of thumb I have (and please tell me if I’m wrong) is that if the information is available somewhere else, then it should not be on your website. If the information is not on your site, but is a Google search away, then let folks find that information by Google.

If good and useful information is available on an existing webpage at your institution - then don’t repeat that information on your website. Only put that information that cannot be found somewhere else on your school’s (extensive) family of websites should be included in your website.

There are practical reasons for this rule of thumb.  First, we all find stuff by searching anyway.  Second, the worst outcome is when information gets stale and out-of-date.  It is bad when there is conflicting info on your site and someone else's at your school.  Better to avoid the problem altogether by not duplicating information.

Assertion #5 - Your Academic Website Is Never Done:

One reason to relax about our academic websites is to realize that our academic websites are never (ever) done. Hopefully, we will all be able to evolve our websites by looking at the data from our users. Our website analytics should drive how we update and change our pages - not our intuitions and assumed knowledge.

The challenge in evolving our websites is to stay disciplined. To avoid the temptation of adding more text, more pages, and more content.

Do the web professionals care to weigh in on these assertions?

Where did I get it right and where did I get it wrong?

What academic website assertions would you add to this list?

What advice / thoughts do you have about revising and creating academic websites?



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