How To Turn Around A Problematic Site

There’s no shortage of criticism about the University of Denver website. As its web designer, I get grief about it from colleagues, students, parents and friends. Even I think its pretty bad, but the challenge to improve it is enticing. When I accepted my job a year ago, I didn’t fully appreciate how ingrained the status quo was in terms of the existing website. I figured I could ride into town, inject my outsider’s perspective and years of experience and get things turned around. Well, as you might imagine, I was naive. It’s been difficult, time consuming and just plain draining to steer the website toward a new course — one that, to me, is a slam dunk generally speaking. That said, I wanted to outline the steps I saw that needed to be accomplished when I joined the team in order to turn criticism into praise. It’s a short list and could use more detail, but here are the major milestones.

  1. Approach site decisions with visitors in mind instead of the institution. A simple, but powerful stance. This single approach to web building will do wonders for you. For me, it called into question how higher ed sites work — how they reflect the institution’s org chart through their navigation and global structure. You know what I mean, its all of those individual sites for your academic departments, administrative units, colleges, schools, etc. that are loosely associated with one another. Each time you visit one, the design changes, functionality changes, navigation changes, etc. If this is the case with your university, I’d guess you suffer from inefficiency issues brought upon by teh need to maintain all of those standalone sites. You MUST put your visitors at the center of your decision making in order to sidestep all of this additional work. How? Read on…
  2. Build sites around audience groups. Higher ed web teams tend to be small compared to the size of the sites they manage. This creates bottlenecks longer than necessary turnaround times. Organizing around your school’s org chart creates this problem. If you can accomplish step one and put visitors at the top of your priority list, then think of your site in terms of the much smaller number of audience groups your visitors fall into. You’ll go from dozens upon dozens of org chart oriented  mini sites to only a handful of audience specific sites. All the discovery, research, architecture, design, content, code and testing work you currently do for all those standalone sites will be (almost) vanish when you only have to deal with a few sites tailored to each audience group. For us, we’ve currently defined a total of six audiences. That’s a much smaller and easier number of sites for our staff to handle and it allows for efficiencies of scale.
  3. Fulfill each audience’s basic needs. Before you venture off into social networking and introducing blogs, wikis, tags and other such tools, take care of the basics first. Your first task is to provide the most needed, relevant information for each audience built upon an information architecture foundation that’s flexible enough to accommodate future growth. Once you accomplish that, then add in all the other “cool” stuff. For example, your research may uncover that prospective students want to know the following: does your school offer the program they are interested in learning and does it have information on applying, cost and the social scene. Once you know that, make sure that information is readily available. This is really simple, but we don’t do a good job of it at DU yet. Our research tells us that prospective students (specifically undergraduates) don’t know nor think in terms of academic departments, schools and colleges. So, in our new site (to launch in January 2009), we won’t force prospects to navigate through a series of hierarchies based on the university’s org chart. Instead, they’ll navigate by subject matter, a concept they’re already familiar with from high school.
  4. Extend the visitor experience. Once basic needs are met and proven to work through testing, then introduce social networking and other tools. With your visitors in mind (as always), ensure that the new functionality supports their wishes and needs and doesn’t become a distraction. You want to continually judge decisions about visitor experience in terms of your customers, not what the chancellor thinks is cool or what your competition is doing. Those are irrelevant issues (and yes, I realize there are politics involved, but still). It’s not about the chancellor or third parties. It’s about always meeting and eclipsing the expectations of your visitors.
  5. Become more sophisticated. Step 3 will take a good amount of time, but along the way, you’ll begin to find that audience specific sites have their limit. I’ll write more on this topic, but suffice it to say for now that in the long term, defining mutually exclusive audience groups is limiting. Categorization is porous as people go in and out of various audience groups. I work at DU, for example, but I’m also a student and will be an alumni after graduation. How should I be treated? Prospective students become current students once they accept an offer. Does that mean their experience of the site should be turned on a dime as the transition occurs? These are important questions and demand a more sophisticated approach. I’ll write about that in the future. In the short term, however, building sites around audiences is beneficial to everyone involved even with the issues I’ve just pointed out. Audience specific sites will allow your team to rally around a central concept, give it direction and provide upper management and decision makers outside your team a point of reference. Armed with this game plan (all tailored to your specific circumstances as research uncovers, of course), decision makers will be hard pressed to create hurdles and obstacles because the strategy will be based on facts, not on people’s subjective opinions.

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