Thursday, August 20, 2009

Function vs. Hierarchy within Higher Education Web Sites

The University of Cambridge is an institute of...Image via Wikipedia
With nearly 14 years experience in developing web sites for higher education, I have watched the changes in technology open doors for new and exciting things. Although, due to bureaucracy, many of those opportunities took longer to implement. In most cases, it was not due to a lack of technical prowess, but rather the ability to gain mass support from the campus. Major decision makers play a huge role in adopting change. If those individuals are not on board, then often little else changes until they are.

In this article, I would like to introduce a few issues I see with North Carolina Central University's web site and then follow up with a recommendation. While the subject may be higher education, I believe the problems and solutions are relevant to other types of organizations as well.

Common Problems

Poor Navigation
As it stands today, we get tons of complaints about finding information on NCCU.edu. To many, the solution is that everything belongs on the front page. Unfortunately, the front page has limited space. How can we deliver value and relevant content to customers with space constraints?

Different Looks for Different Departments
Each year, a number of departments seek to freshen their site's design. Over a period of time, the university's site looks like a virtual Frankenstein where each unit looks and acts totally different than the next. As users move between pages, they have to adapt to a new navigation and design. Not that I dislike other designs, but the university spends valuable resources trying to bring attention to only one department versus using resources to better promote the entire university.

Putting Everything We Own Online

Another issue the university runs into is overloading the web site with too much information that fails to bring value. Not that a manual or catalog is without value, but is it necessary to save every document from 1996 when the current information is all that is needed?

Recommendation
Times are changing and so should we. The way higher education web sites were built back in 1995 are not great examples of how they should be built today. Forget about what another school is doing for a moment and look at your customers. What do you see? What are they coming to your site for?

If you quietly thought or openly stated something about users seeking online services. Then you and I are on the same page. For years, I have watched web users come to expect more from our web site. In higher education, students should be able to register, pay bills, select roommates, find a tutor, and ultimately solve problems online. Instead, we still ask customers to call, email, or physically visit a department when, in many cases, this is not necessary.

No More Silo Mentality
When people talk about a new design or placing a link on the front page, I believe they are looking for more attention. From a departmental point of view, highlighting MY stuff is important and getting attention means more visits to my page. As the Web Service Manager, I totally understand the strategy. Unfortunately, I do not believe that a new design or front page link is always the answer. Instead, I think we need to look at a few other things: a) Centralize similar information and b) Focus on function vs. hierarchy.

Centralize Similar Information
The first thing departments should do is centralize similar content with information from other areas. Centralizing means bringing similar services together in a common place. If we take for example our current situation with jobs or employment opportunities, we find that a user needs to know which department is offering jobs and then where to find the department on the site. In order to do that, you have to know who the department reports to and the the location of that office online. Truthfully, that asks far too much of users.

Focus on Function vs. Hierarchy
This collaboration between different departments means that we now focus on function versus its place in the organization. To continue with our employment example, I would seek to pull all of the jobs, internships, co-ops, community service opportunities from across campus and centralize it under a meaningful name of employment. This means users only have to know what they want to do not who is in charge of the service.

There are benefits in adopting this method. One perk is a decrease in the number of pages we are required to maintain. We could potentially remove dozens of pages in order to deliver just one, users would not have search so hard to find information, and the campus would finally work together to meet customer needs. Because online services are interrelated, when one department does well, we all do well. As Derek Brinson would say, "All boats rise."

Additional Thought
The problem most universities have at this point, including us, is communicating this message to stakeholders. There are those departments that base their identity on the existence of a web page. I foresee resistance when you talk about taking away pages in order to group them together based on function. Additionally, Web Services needs to have the authority to make these types of changes without going through congress. We do not tell nurses, educators, or administrators how to do their jobs, so why do we allow others to dictate how we do ours?

One suggestion I received to overcome this challenge is to organize a Web Advisory Committee. This committee, which consists of high level decision makers, would meet regularly to discuss web priorities and serve as the enforcers of policy across campus. For Web Services, we get to develop a relationship with decision makers and provide guidance on the current web issues. Over time, these decision makers become advocates and help to support future goals. If you have no advisory group, consider adopting one.

I am curious to find how you currently handle these issues at your organization? Feel free to leave your response in the comments below.

Until next time...

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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