Websites are a shop window. 

A digital portal into all that we do and who we are. Designed to showcase our best side. Simple navigation and structured web content make it easy for users to navigate through to their desired location.

Unless of course, we are talking about a university website. 

Where all digital rigour and website etiquette are forgotten. In amongst the abyss of internal politics and the disconnect for why we even have a site. 

It becomes a constant battle between the Marketing Department and everyone else. Forget Google Analytics. Forget the 5-click rule and everything that we teach. Forget logic.

It’s all about WHO owns that page and where THEY think it should go. 

This approach is the death of the user experience. We end up with a website replicating our internal structures. Which makes no sense to anyone outside of the institution, or anyone working for it.

Yet, the irony continues. As those who complain about the state of the website, are the same people who are actively involved in its ‘maintenance.’

Because everyone needs to able to edit and publish content. Right? 

How did we end up like this?

For those who work outside the sector, heck, for those who work in it, you may wonder how the f*ck does a university website end up in a state of disarray and chaos?!

In my experience, it comes down to these three reasons:

No clear purpose

No vision or shared purpose. The site is just seen as a repository. No thought or consideration is given. We lose sight of what the website is meant to, or worse, it’s never been communicated. The focus is on who owns the content, or you can pull in the most senior ranking member of staff to make ‘The Decision’.

Outdated features

Frustration with the lack of functionality and the features not fulfilling the needs of departments. Encouraging rogue behaviour on the site, or worse, encouraging them to make their own website. With distorted logos. Grainy imagery and copy that would make you puke. 

The horrors.

Lack of governance

“Who owns the website?” 

It’s a trick question. The answer is the Marketing Dept. But this is wrong. Confused? We all are. 

It’s because the website is not seen as a single entity. It’s devolved ownership. Organised by single pages and paragraphs. Owned by their respective creators. Anyone can build a webpage. And don’t even get me started about trying to host a video on a page that another department paid for. Teeth have been lost.

Workflows, structure, editors, sign-off, if any of these are lacking, the website takes the hit.

How do we fix it?  

University websites are complicated beasts. There are two main audiences for them – internal and external. Guess which one takes priority? This is where it needs to change.

Lip service is given to the external audiences. The problem is departments often forget they too are targeting the same audiences the other 101 departments are also talking to.

Prospective students, current students, parents, guardians, schools, media, researchers, staff, governors, policymakers, businesses, charities, etc.

95% of the audiences are outside of the sector and institution. And that’s a lot of people.

We have to step outside our world and step into the shoes of those who don’t understand how universities work. Not knowing who does what. And those who see a university as one, single entity.

Basically, everyone and anyone who doesn’t work in Higher Education.

If we’re going to have a serious conversation about enhancing the user experience online, then we need to seriously consider the following:

1.Stop structuring your webpages to replicate how you work internally. It doesn’t make sense to us. It won’t make sense to those in the outside world.

2. What are we trying to achieve? You may want to read an essay, 99% of people don’t. They skim-read your pages and look for the CTA. Make it clear. Give them a reason to get in touch. Think about a funnel. Keep it simple.

3. If you work for the same university, you’re part of the same team. Liaise with the people who look after your site. Ask for their advice. Ask for the statistics to your content and use their expertise to help shape your pages and the best way to achieve your goals. This may result in content being adapted to meet your audience needs.

4. Stop copying other university websites. Because, guess what? They’re copying other universities too. They’ve copied yours. And the end result is a maze of confusion and despair. Just because it works for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. 

If you want a streamlined user experience, use any other business to influence your content and structure. Preferably one similar to what you offer. Work in conferences? Look at private venue websites, or exhibition sites on how they present themselves online.

5. Marketing Departments. Stop dictating. Start consulting.

You know what works. You have the data. Start sharing and working with departments to build their presence on the site. Just because you own it, doesn’t mean it’s your way or no way. You’ll find it will make your work far easier in the long run.

The website is not for internal audiences. We don’t need to showcase our shop window to ourselves. We know what we do. The purpose of the website is to tell everyone else. 

Remember, the website isn’t for you. It’s for them. 

Share your thoughts

What do you think about your university website? Do you work in a university marketing department and need to vent? Are there any other principles you think I’ve missed?  Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @CJPanteny

See you next time! 

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