Historically, cartoons are not a significant driver of communications and marketing strategy in higher education.
But one cartoon -- by Randall Munroe, whose popular Web comic is known as xkcd -- has resonated so strongly in higher ed circles that it has some marketing officials taking a hard look at what experts still believe to be their strongest marketing asset: the institutional website’s home page.
The cartoon  shows a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles -- one labeled “Things On The Front Page Of a University Website,” and the other labeled “Things People Go To The Site Looking For.”
The first circle contains: campus slide shows, alumni in the news, promotions for campus events, press releases, a statement of the school’s philosophy, a letter from the president, and a virtual tour. The second circle contains a list of faculty phone numbers, application forms, the campus address, the academic calendar, the campus police phone number, department/course listings, parking information, and a usable campus map.
The only piece of information common to both circles is, “full name of school.”
The punch line — that university website designers have no idea what their visitors actually want front and center — has hit close enough to home to create a lot of buzz elsewhere on the Web. According to the link-tracking site Bit.ly, the cartoon had been shared nearly 8,000 times, been “liked” nearly 7,500 times, and garnered more than 5,500 comments on Facebook as of Tuesday evening.
Campus techies have also taken note. At Terra State Community College, which is in the process of redesigning its website, Web content administrator Grant Cummings has brought copies of the cartoon to every meeting he has attended since seeing it. “They need to make T-shirts!” he wrote Tuesday in a discussion forum for Web administrators.
The comic, published Friday, had made it to the desks of other experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed by Tuesday. “The cartoon is right on target,” wrote Martin Ringle, CIO of Reed College, in an e-mail. “College website design typically focuses on what an institution wants to say, not necessarily what prospective students (and others) want to know.”
Trimming the Fat
The xkcd cartoon was particularly apt in skewering three useless but nevertheless common features on a college’s home page, said Mark Greenfield, director of Web services in enrollment and planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an associate consultant at the major higher-ed consulting firm Noel-Levitz. Specifically: the statement of philosophy, the letter from the president or provost, and the campus news feed.
Having those up there might seem like a good idea to the administrative committees that tend to dictate website content, Greenfield said, but they are rarely useful to the website’s most strategically important kind of visitor: the prospective student. Prospective students are more interested in information about majors or financial aid than administrative rhetoric or photos or “pretty girls studying under trees” — a trope so recurrent that it became a running joke at last year’s HighEdWeb Association conference, Greenfield said. “[Prospective students] have been marketed to their entire lives, and they are not looking for that marketing hype,” he said. “They’re looking for authenticity.”
More to the point, they are looking to complete specific tasks, said Bob Johnson, president of the higher ed marketing firm Bob Johnson Consulting. The aesthetic of a site is not as important as where students can easily locate the information they came to the site to find, Johnson says — information on courses and departments if they are prospective students, information on transfer requests if they are graduates, and so on. That is why the confusing links and pages and ineffective search tools consistently show up as top frustrations in his firm’s usability surveys.
“You should be able to get to this stuff in one click,” Johnson said. “None of this three-clicks stuff.”
Dylan Wilbanks, a Web producer for the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, agrees. “A university website is a tool for finding answers,” Wilbanks wrote in a blog post . “If along the way you find out something new about the institution you didn’t know before, that’s gravy.”
One institution that Johnson thinks has got it right is DeVry University, a for-profit institution. DeVry’s home page  has six boxes — one for each college — front-and-center on its home page; a visitor need only scroll over one of the boxes to see all the majors that college offers. “That’s very rare on a college or university website,” he says, “that you can actually see the programs being offered without leaving the home page.”
Too Much Top
So what accounts for this apparent disconnect between what some colleges choose to include on their home pages and what visitors actually want to find there?
For one thing, the strategy of finding out what users want and letting that drive layout decisions is actually somewhat rare, says Johnson. “Most people don’t do that,” he says, adding that focus groups are often used only for tweaking the site after the fact, not to inform the initial blueprint.
Greenfield also said prioritizing user needs based on research is not currently conventional wisdom. “I think it’s growing,” he said, “but I think people who really practice the principles of user-centered design are still a minority.”
Granted, website developers have to keep in mind the needs of several different types of visitor, Greenfield says; while prospective students are still considered the most strategic demographic, good design involves balancing what prospective students want with the needs of current students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni. And it can be hard to secure money to buy extensive research on what all those different groups want.
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But even then, some colleges' home pages are saturated with features that do not so much reflect guesses at what visitors need, but what various campus interests want. Greenfield said “home page politics” -- different departments and personalities jockeying for position -- have a strong influence on what an institution’s site ends up looking like. After all, he said, if a president says he wants a letter and a mission statement out front, what Web administrator is going to say no?
The result, said Johnson, can be an unappealingly busy website jam-packed with a lot of links included for the wrong reasons. When universities first built websites, he said, the home page would include maybe six or eight links on a toolbar; a modern site is more likely to have 15 or 20, and Johnson says he has counted as many as 32 — not because visitors want or need them, but because of “internal bragging rights.”
This may say more about the priorities of an institution than its stakeholders might like. “Personally, I think an institution’s website is a reflection of the organization,” says Terry Calhoun, director of media relations at the Society for College and University Planning. “It’d be interesting to rate them and try to guess who ‘controls’ each one.”
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