Review: The eduStyle Guide to Usable Higher-Ed Homepage Design

Over Twitter, Cody Foss requested reviewers for a book about higher ed homepage design titled The eduStyle Guide to Usable Higher-Ed Homepage Design by Stewart Foss, Cody Foss and Andy Foss. I’m all over those kinds of requests and wrote back. Mere minutes later, I had downloaded the PDF and added the review to my long list of to-dos. I didn’t think I’d get to it sooner, but alas, the clouds parted, the gods looked down with smiles and I decimated my to-do list in order to get to it. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

I’ll structure my review on the 2-2 style popular in the MBA program I’m in- two compliments, two criticisms. First up, two compliments.

It’s useful today—As a notoriously slow reader, I can happily state that this one is quick and easy. It’s less a narrative and more a bulleted list with lots of screengrabs. If you want expert opinion, support for your own work or just plain good advice, this is the book for you. Best of all, because it’s in such an easy to digest form, you can apply the insights the same day you read them. And, of course, it’s targeted to the higher ed space- a piece of the online world that normally doesn’t get center stage attention. That means everything you read, EVERYTHING, is practical and applicable.

Best of the best—I suppose it goes without saying, but I’ll state it anyway because it’s important. The book highlights some of the preeminent higher education sites out there. There’s no doubt that higher education suffers from poor management, poor focus, and poor ______ (you fill in the blank). Having a single place to examine the best of the best is both informative, but inspiring too. And as higher edu workers, inspiration can make the exceptionally hard days we all encounter easier to take. For that, I thank the authors.

Next up, two criticisms.

Universal takeaways—Like many sites, truly good cross pollination of content necessitates good metadata (data about data). It’s hard to do well, but when it is, a site can seem to read your mind as a visitor. It’ll anticipate what and where you want to go next. This book tries to do so by offering multiple ways- by school name, by student population, by type (public vs. private) and by region- to access all the reviews. Each school’s page also gives you a “comparable institutions” sidebar where you can cross reference any school with others in as close an apples to apples comparison as is possible. It’s an admirable approach and works, but it seems to come at a cost. I wish it had a single page or section devoted to high level takeaways- a quick reference of universal do’s and dont’s, if you will.

More background—This might be an unfair criticism, but I’ll put it out there anyway. As a usabilty/design centric book, it’s not about in-depth case studies. However, each school mentioned (there are 20), does come with an “about” page that highlights information like what CMS powers the site, who the members of the team are, what technologies are used, etc. I kept wishing the authors would elaborate or, at least, standardize what behind-the-scenes information was presented. As someone who has built websites for 10+ years, the back story can be some of the best takeaways to learn.

My final thought is, as is the custom for us web workers, a call to action. Buy the book. It’s a nice companion to the eduStyle site and highlights some of the best higher ed sites out there today. As such, we can all learn a few things from it. If my review doesn’t quite convince you to buy, you can always get a sample taste and decide for yourself. For me, it’s a winner.

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  1. First, I commend the fact that an attempt has been made to put this information into one place for all to read. Higher Education is very much a niche market with specific patterns around both usability as well as the target demographics therein.

    I have visited EDUStyle on a number of occasions and was aware of the upcoming release of the book, but now having seen the sample chapter, I am a bit concerned about the book itself. Simply put, what am I going to see in this book that I am not going to see by reading the comments and feedback provided from the EDUStyle community on the site itself? What is new that is not contained on the site? Is there an introduction of some expertise or other information that is not presently available to the public that justifies a price tag of 40$?

  2. I agree that the site has a lot of the same information. In fact, the authors state that they derived their conclusions from having seen some 2,700+ sites at over the years. But to answer your question Chris, a casual site visitor would need to dedicate a lot of time surfing all the various websites in order to form an opinion of what works and what doesn’t. That research would have to go beyond the 20 good sites mentioned in the book to also learn what not to do from the bad ones.

    As I state in one of my criticisms, the book would certainly benefit from a quick reference page stating the best takeaways gleaned from all the examples. You might call that “best practices.” If we’re honest, we can certainly find best practice advice in many books and blogs out there. However, the benefit of this book is the focus on higher ed. The best practices are tailored to our niche which is valuable in and of itself.

    I suppose you could argue that good websites are good websites, regardless of the industry. I would agree with that statement with one caveat. Unlike in other businesses, where the web is clearly valued and seen as a powerful tool for wealth creation, higher ed doesn’t always see it that way. Much of the time, they manage to bungle their web properties through weak control, too much politics, lack of leadership and a host of other reasons. How to solve those issues is my second criticism. It’s one thing to know what the best practices are, but another to get them implemented.

    All that aside, the book is useful. I think you’ll gain insight by critically analyzing 20 of the best higher ed sites in one single serving.

  3. @Chris We had a few goals for the book. One was as a learning tool. We understand everyone is different so they’ll take away varying amounts of information from the book.

    A secondary goal was to have the book as an advocacy tool. We’re hoping people will use it to help convince their team/managers/administration of implementing new ideas on their websites. It’s often useful to have a third party supporting your ideas.

    @Mike We actually contacted every school involved to get more information about the site, their process and their particular history. Some schools were happy to participate, others didn’t respond at all after repeated attempts. That’s why some of the intros seem a bit uneven. We’re planning to release these surveys shortly as a bonus to everyone who purchased the book.

  4. @Cody The bonus section would be a great addition. It’s always comforting to know that others are in the same boat as you in terms of team size, political hurdles, resource challenges, etc. Speaking of resource challenges, maybe that’s why some schools didn’t get back in touch with you?

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