The Constant Failure of Departmental / Unit Website Redesign Projects

Why you should never get involved in a website redesign project if you can help it.

January 30, 2018

Let me guess. Your school, department, division, unit, center, or organization (wherever you work in higher ed) is:

a.  is planning to redesign the website.


b.  is in the middle of redesigning the website.

Some people say that the only constant in higher education is change. I say that the only constant in higher education is website redesign.

I’m not even talking about the top level institutional website. The site that you get if you Google the name of your college and university.

What I’m thinking of is all the pages that live underneath that top-level domain. The pages for every organization, unit, department, or division within the university.

Each of these internal university web pages has a history. At some point, someone thought that this content or that information was critical to put on the web.  With no limits of space, internal university sites metastasized into pages and pages of static content.

Every few years, each department or division or unit attempts a project to clean away the old digital junk.

There will be calls to simplify. To conform the content of the internal web pages based on the needs of those going to the pages, rather than the desires of the organization to digitally represent their work.

These calls to simplify internal university web pages almost always fail.

It is simply too hard for a unit, department, center, or institute to give up the content.

There is the idea that the text and links and web documents may prove useful to someone. So why get rid of it?

In the short-term, the downsides of overly complicated internal university web pages are manageable. Text intensive static higher ed web pages are norm, rather than the exception.

The pain comes during the inevitable website redesign.

Who gets decide which content to cut?

How does the person in charge of the departmental / unit / organization website redesign convince everyone else that less is more?

How does the poor person charged with “fixing” the mess of the website convince her colleagues that writing for the web means being very careful about what is on the page?

Making the case that web content should be driven by user needs - based on data - rather than the desires of the people in the unit is a fast path collegial unpopularity.

The challenges of departmental / unit (internal university) website redesign projects are made worse by the pressures endured by every university web team.

Where every website, including internal sites, should be designed and maintained by web professionals - few actually are. There is simply too much web work to be done by the few people on campus with expertise on website design and content.

Democratizing university website authoring is how most schools have overcome scarcities in campus web talent. The result, predictably, has been lots of bad university web pages.

Are you involved in a website redesign project?

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Joshua Kim

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