A fundamental tenet of information architecture is the belief that if your site isn’t easy to navigate, doesn’t have great content or simply falls flat compared to a competitor, people will abandon it. While I subscribe to this belief, it does have exceptions and higher ed sites are one of those exceptions. Why? Because higher ed sites have a captive audience.
What I mean is that any student who is interested in a given school will not drop it for consideration simply because its website doesn’t navigate well or has grainy photos or doesn’t offer RSS subscriptions. Individally, these things don’t matter compared to the high profile decision of what school to attend for the next X number of years. Instead, cost, location, admission requirements, program selection, athletic opportunities, scholarships, etc. are the kinds of information that students will use to narrow their school choice. Once those choices have been narrowed, you’ll essentially have a captive audience. As such, those visitors will put up with a poor overall experience.
This doesn’t mean you have a license to make a mess of your school’s site, however. But you also shouldn’t feel rushed to introduce blogging just because the site feels outdated by not offering it. Today’s potential students expect a lot from websites, but falling short on those expectations does not necessarily equate to lower enrollment numbers. MySpace, Facebook and many other popular websites with potential students are, from an IA perspective, usability nightmares. But clearly this doesn’t hamper their success. For these sites, the benefits outweigh the costs. The same holds true for higher ed sites. Fight the good fight and strive for perfection, but don’t lose perspective of the bigger picture. Your audience is there and will continue to be there because of the relatively few options at their disposal. Make your decisions with that understanding. Instead of tackling what can be a daunting project — social networking, for instance — break it down into smaller pieces and chip away at it. First get the fundamentals right, then build on it. Don’t abuse the captive audience advantage, leverage it.