Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Future of the University Web Site

Focusing the university home page to act as a portal to audience-specific "sub-sites", instead of a catch all everything-to-everyone page.

Users' expectations of Web sites has evolved rapidly over the past few years - and continues to evolve. The concept that a "single" Web site can meet the needs of the wide variety of audiences that come to a university Web site is no longer valid. Users expect a tailored experience, designed specifically to meet their needs, address their concerns, and to fit their mental model of the site. No one "all purpose" university Web site can hope to do this - except to do it poorly.

In fact, a university's Web site is not a single site, but instead a collection of a wide variety of sites, each serving specific audiences and specific needs, and each providing a different facet of what the University is. Accounting Operations, the College of Business, and University Housing are each part of the university and the university's Web presence, but each serves a different purpose, addresses a different audience, and meets a different need.

The top level pages in the university Web site (including, of course, the home page) are no different, and should no longer be viewed as a monolithic set of "one size fits all" pages attempting to meet the needs of all users. Instead, the focus should be to provide audience-focused experiences, custom-designed to meet the needs of the main user groups that are likely to visit a university's site. These include the usual suspects of prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, alumni, family, and community members, as well as other groups.

There is no reason that we cannot provide a tailored experience for each of these groups, at least at the top level of pages within the site. And there is every reason why we should this level of experience if the university is to compete for students in the coming years.

How do we do this? By providing a home page designed to allow users to quickly self-identify and self-select themselves. Once a user identifies themselves (by clicking on "Prospective Students" or by clicking on the "Admissions" link, for example), they are taken to a sub-site specifically designed to meet their needs. Of course, it's impossible to fully guess the needs of all users, but prospective students have a very similar set of needs when visiting a university site that can be met by designing a section of the university's Web site to focus specifically on prospective students and de-emphasizes content and links irrelevant to those users.

And I'm not talking about the "clearinghouse" pages that so many universities use where each of the audience pages is simply a list of links. That's the short, easy, thoughtless and bad way out. By doing that, you're not providing each audience with a custom-designed experience; you're telling them that their experience isn't important enough for you to waste time trying to design it. "Here's a bunch of links. Knock yourself out," is about all you're saying.

Users' expectations of the level of experience they should have has increased dramatically over the past few years, and to attract those users to our campus, and to retain them, we have no choice but to meet their expectations.

In the end, we will end up with not one university site at the top level, but a series of sub-sites, each designed for a specific audience with specific common needs and perceptions.

Who is doing this? I'm sure there are a large number of universities (other than Chico State) doing this out there, but I'm just going to list the few I can find that are really investing the effort:


Dimitri Glazkov said...

My postbacks don't work, so here's a manual reply-ping:

Martine Lafleur said...

Our new site in development is doing exactly that. The different audiences are the main focus of the home page and once they click, they get to a micro site designed with their information needs that are gathered through user tests.

We are also trying to contectualized the content as much as we or the cms can to contectualize and reuse information(press releases, events, etc...) based on audiences and also based for other sections of the website (programs, research,etc...)

I have to say, that sometimes I feel that we are entering a "fourth" dimension but I am sure that the payback will be worthwhile.

Martine Lafleur
Director, electronic communications
HEC Montréal