“Redesign the (fill in the blank)’s website,” upper management directs you. “No problem,” you obligingly respond, “I’ll get right on it.” But then what? How do you undertake something seemingly innocuous, but in reality big, complex and fraught with politics?
You can find lots of advice and information on how to tackle redesign projects already. In fact, you can find information about redesign projects with a higher ed focus. More focused still, you can find information on an individual step, like defining goals, within a higher ed redesign process. But I want to discuss a topic I haven’t seen covered or even brought up: reconciling the goals of a redesign project, say of an academic department, with those of the larger university and the impact of any differences between the two.
A simple example will illustrate this issue. Here at the University of Denver, over a year has been spent redesigning each of the units within our Division of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS). The process is not yet complete since the division houses some two dozen separate schools, departments and institutes. Each unit’s redesign effort is handled like any new project would be with discovery, IA, design, code and testing phases. As you can imagine, this is a whopping amount of work, but mostly unneeded if you ask me. Why? Because the larger goals of the university should inform how each unit’s site looks, acts and works instead of treating each unit’s site as a custom job unrelated to its parent organization.
I’ve already posted about the decentralized nature of the higher ed world which I blame for this state of affairs. I’ve also written about how centralization would be beneficial. This post, then, is an extension of those ideas. Much of the time and effort invested in redesigning any part of a university’s website centers around defining goals and, based on those goals, architecting how the site will be structured, what content will be needed, what visual design would support it and what kind of functionality will need to be programmed. While I champion that kind of rational approach, I champion it in terms of the university’s overall website, not in terms of each individual unit within the larger university’s web presence.
The crux of the problem
The problem for higher ed, as I see it, is treating each unit as a standalone website. Instead, each unit’s goals should be delineated and informed by the university’s overall goals. With this approach, a two dozen website redesign project shrinks into a much more manageable task because the goals are already in place and therefore so are questions of information architecture, content needs, visual design and functionality. Yes, each department will have slight variations on the general themes, but the goals (and consequently, architecture, design and code) should be flexible enough to account for those lower level differences.
Let’s look at another example. When you approach the topic of faculty bio pages on a unit level basis, you’ll get all kinds of differing requests (which you might term requirements, needs and wants, or something similar in your defining goals stage). Some units will want individual pages, while others just want a single page with contact information. Some will want photos, some won’t. Some will want large photos, some small photos. Some will want to list out in HTML format their published papers, books and other such accomplishments while others would rather put that information into a downloadable resume or CV. And the list of differences goes on.
A better approach
If you take a more centralized approach to goal definition, then you’ll note that faculty information is important content to communicate through the website. Once that is established, then you can stipulate a global technique to manage it. You might come to the conclusion from internal input, visitor testing and your own expertise that faculty information should be presented through individual pages with both HTML formatted and downloadable versions (in both Word and PDF formats) of each person’s accomplishments. The bio page will have a single head shot of such and such dimensions placed to the left of text. Copy needs will include contact info, short backgrounder, and links to related classes and degree programs each person is associated with. You can also handle exceptions to the rule in a global fashion. For instance, if a new faculty member is hired, they can have a default photo in place of their actual photo until one is supplied.
If you extrapolate this approach to its logical conclusion, you see that the umbrella website’s goals eclipse any lower level unit’s goals. In my AHSS example, this approach would save months of time as goal defining meetings are streamlined because much of the work has already been done. Goal setting for a lower level unit consists of unique needs and how they will be handled. They do not consist of entertaining permanent exceptions to the rules already laid out. If a unit says we want each bio page to have a blog, multimedia, book excerpts and class assignments, then you’ll either need to rethink how faculty pages are presented for all units or, more likely, you’ll already have a way to handle blogs, multimedia, class assignments, etc. because those sorts of ideas were already brought up in the discussions of universal goals and then refined, in subsequent phases, in universal terms.