The online playground of Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast:web design, university web development, animals, books, and other slices of life.

Why most University web sites suck*: Part 1.

Most University web sites are mediocre at best. (Try going to the site of your alma mater and browsing to find information about your favorite prof. If you can find a straightforward path to get there, you are lucky.) How can this be, with the bevvy of experts in computer science, business, marketing, psychology, sociology, and visual design that a University affords?

Part 1: Defining the goals and audience

Any successful web design project should start with defining the site’s purpose and intended audience. Without a clear understanding of these points, it’s difficult to make good design decisions.

So, what do we want to accomplish with our University web site? That’s easy: everything.

OK, I guess we can narrow it down a bit more than that: recruit students, reinforce our brand, process applications, collect tuition payments, collect donations, provide course catalogs, provide class schedules, handle course registration, collect and report students’ grades, showcase University success stories, provide news and event information, track payroll and budgets, provide resources for the community, provide online instruction, provide specific information from 50+ departments, provide a community for the parents of students, allow access the the Library’s holdings, provide necessary information to prospective and current students, aid in scholarly research, house policies and regulations … You get the picture.

This is largely because the goal of a University in general is diffuse— there is nothing as clear-cut as “we sell these products”. Universities (at least state universities) are not even trying to make a profit. The goal is to deliver knowledge, of any and all forms, to the public. The web seems like an ideal medium to do that quickly, effectively, and most importantly inexpensively.

Well, then, maybe we can at least define the target audience of the University web site.

Sure. There’s prospective students, parents of prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, current faculty, prospective faculty, current staff, prospective staff, administrators, local community, media, colleagues of the current faculty, and anyone wanting to gain knowledge in one of the areas of expertise of the faculty.

How do we serve the needs of so many different users with one web site?

Intranet and Extranet

One way to accomplish this would be to not serve everyone with the same site. A logical split would be to have an outward facing site that prospectives, media, and the general public would use, and an intranet (or inward-facing site, since it would need to be accessible from anywhere) that on-campus stakeholders would use. That way the target audience for each site would at least be divided in half. Many campuses that can afford it have portal sites for for on-campus members with single sign-on to the various web services available on campus. However, most campuses either can’t afford to implement a portal system or haven’t overcome the technical barriers to doing so.

However, no one said there had to be a portal in the technical sense. At work, I am looking into the costs and benefits of splitting the web site by hand— having the main university home page become the launch pad for an outward-facing site, and creating a new inward facing home page that would be the portal for on-campus users.

The main barrier to this, besides the fact that I work with a web team of three (me, myself and I), is institutional inertia. Try getting 10,000 people who use the site every day to change their browser home page, as well as that of all the computer lab machines, etc. Many, many people on campus don’t know how to do this by themselves, and don’t know how to find certain information and services if they don’t start from the campus home page. The thought of moving such a big chunk of cheese fills me with concern for my life.

For more on institutional inertia, stay tuned for Part 2 of this article.

Audience-Based Navigation

Many university sites tackle the problem of having too many potential audiences by employing audience-based navigation. Users are asked to identify the group to which they belong. Typical groups include:

  • Current Students
  • Future (or Prospective) Students
  • Faculty & staff
  • Parents
  • Alumni & Friends
  • Visitors
  • Local Community

While this alleviates the problem somewhat, it is not a robust solution. Users do not fall neatly into categories based on audience. What if I’m a faculty member, but I’m looking for the student newspaper? Do I click on “Faculty & Staff” or “Current Students”? Ideally, the page should be accessible from both places. But this means double the maintenance if the newspaper URL changes, and puts us back in the position of having to anticipate everything each audience might possibly need and making sure there is a logical path to it.

So, audience-based navigation is often mixed with task-based and/or org-chart based navigation (Admissions, Academics, etc). This solves some problems, but creates others. Is the list of departments under “Academics” or “Faculty & Staff”? Does “Admissions” repeat the same information as “Prospective Students”? And just where is the student newspaper?

Search and Site Index

This may be the best way to solve the problem. A robust search and site index should be able to direct users to what they need. Many universities are instituting an A-Z index of departments, services and web sites. Just keeping up with this can be a full-time job in and of itself if it is not automated, and it often is not. Sure, it’s generated from a database and some information is updated automatically. But new sites pop up at the university on a daily basis, due to the decentralized model of web development that most universities have. These are not tied to any sort of technology that would get them automatically listed in the index. Many of them are ephemeral in nature — event sites, for example — and may be over before the person maintaining the index even knows about them.

There is more to come about the decentralization of the university web site in Part 3.

So, search it is. This is probably the most reliable way to find what you’re looking for. Most universities have decent search engines, since Google provides it for free to us if we don’t have the resources to develop our own. However, for many users, search is the last resort. They use it when all other avenues have failed and they are already frustrated. We really need to try to get them what they need without relying on it.

So, what is the answer? I don’t know. University web developers are struggling with this on a daily basis. Hopefully one of us will come up with an innovative solution and get the administrators to let them implement it.

In the meantime, I’m open to ideas. Please let me know if you have any.

Note: The title of this series came from emails I receive periodically from students. To paraphrase, they say:

Your website sucks!!! I can’t find anything I need! I have to use search to find anything and Google can do that for me. The webmaster needs to do some more research.



Paul Nozicka writes

May 10 at 02:03 AM #

Good’s some additional related info.


Mark Garrigan writes

Aug 28 at 05:21 PM #

Thanks for the articles it is going to help a great deal when we submit our redevelopment proposal to my school.

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Karen Shimizu writes

Aug 30 at 10:06 PM #

Hi Andrea,

I found your site listed on CSS Beauty, and jumped at the fraction of your header text that wasn’t eclipsed in the thumbnail there. (“University Web Manage-”—be still my heart! ). 


I work for the Department of English at Miami University of Ohio. It’s been really gratifying to read through your “Margarita on the Rocks”  postings.


MU suffers from website balkanization, to which I have, I confess, gleefully contributed. Their recommended site template is ugly as sin, and produces pages that are not CSS- XHTML- or 508-compliant.


But that’s not why I’m writing.


Your site is a pleasure to read—it’s pretty, I love your color scheme, and many of your links & such on CSS are extremely helpful. I’m still a flegeling web-master/mistress/thingy,  and it’s nice to finally find a place where the special dilemma of web-design for universities & departments is explored. (And the Humboldt site is inspiring—a far cry from the sites of universities I initially looked to for ‘coping strategies’).


keep up the good work/the good fight ;).






Andrea writes

Aug 31 at 05:02 AM #

Mark:  Glad the articles are helpful.  Your list of objectives for you redesign looks good.. Good luck!

Karen:  Thanks so much!  What a nice comment.  I read this at work and it made my day. :) 


Hopefully more of us university-types will start writing about our particular issues—in some ways they are the same ones that every web designer faces, but in others they are unique to academia.


Anyway, welcome!


Mark writes

Aug 31 at 10:48 PM #

Andrea.. thanks again for the articles…  I actually haven’t read all the way through part 3 yet so excuse this if you’ve covered it…...

How do you tread through all the layers of politics and stubborn people at universites that think their website works.  When everyone who actually tries to use the site thinks it is terrible.


Mark Garrigan writes

Aug 31 at 10:58 PM #

Oh… yes… i should have read further… you’ve covered this… once i read more i’ll have more to say…. thanks


Chris J. Davis writes

Feb 25 at 06:53 PM #

And the peanut gallery roars its approval.

I am dealing with that same problem now.  These things are compounded by the fact that:
$campus_entity = (”’obviously most important’; WHERE $campus_entity IS ‘everyone on campus’”);

We are solving it by rolling our own Theme based CMS system and giving control of content to those individuals on campus who actually care about the content.

We decide the first level structure, guaranteeing two clicks to info; we are also going to leverage tagging as a second category system.

Allow end users to tag each piece of info with what they thought it should be, and then expose this somewhere on the site.

Just some thoughts for you.

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