Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home Page Elements - Installment 3

Every year I take a look at a number of newly designed university home pages and break down their component elements. Last year's analysis is in this post.

This year, I took 15 university or college home pages that had been redesigned within the past year (as posted on and had received more positive than negative votes.

Most Common Page Elements

The most notable changes here are the continued climb of events/calendars, and the decline of top banners.

Element Sites 2006 Sites 2007 Sites 2008
Photos 100% 100% 100%
Primary Navigation 100% 100% 100%
Search Box 100% 94% 100%
News 85% 83% 93%
Events 30% 67% 87%
Secondary Navigation 70% 78% 73%
Feature/Spotlight 55% 78% 73%
Top Banner 90% 78% 60%
Quick Links 45% 22% 33%

Page Element Placement

Once again, no huge changes. Some of the overlays look a bit different since I was using a bigger monitor this year to capture the screenshots. Other than that, a few trends, but no major shifts.
  • Logos and brands continue to congregate more toward the upper lefthand corner
  • Primary navigation is pretty consistently below the brand, either vertically or horizontally
  • News is trending a bit more toward the center, and events a bit more further to the right
2006 is on the left, 2007 in the middle, and 2008 on the right.

Top Banner

Search Box

Primary Navigation

Secondary Navigation

Main Photo

Other Photos

Feature Item



Quick Links

Friday, July 25, 2008

Twitter, Twitter, where art thou Twitter?

This is in response to this post by Kyle James.

I love Twitter and use it and follow a bunch people, but I'm not sure what to make of Twitter in the sense of how "important" it is.

Is it the next email? (by which I mean life/work transforming killer app, not something that has been horribly abused by spammers) Doubtful. Email, for those of us that remember when email became part of our lives, really changed the way we worked and kept in touch with people we knew.

Twitter is not that revolutionary, though it has allowed be to befriend and converse with people I've never met and know little about (other than what I've picked up via Twitter).

Ten years from now, what will we be saying about Twitter? I think that's one way to think about the potential importance of Twitter.

Email is so useful, that despite it's flaws, it will still be here in ten years. Twitter? I doubt it, particularly if it can't address it's stability and downtime issues. Something better will come along and replace it.

Will Twitter ever reach the critical mass that email has? Doubtful again. How many people can you follow in Twitter before so much scrolls by that you never see? If more and more people use it, the streaming nature of Twitter will work against it.

Email lets you deal with it at your own pace. Emails don't go anywhere. Technically, neither do tweets, but the nature of tweets is in the now. Two day old tweets are... not interesting. Two day old emails may be interesting, depending on what they are.

What, fundamentally, is the purpose of Twitter? You tell me:
  1. Vital communication tool
  2. Way to keep in touch with friends
  3. Way to feel connected to a virtual community
  4. Instant vanity publishing
  5. Strange combination of communication and instant gratification
  6. Way to waste time by watching other people's lives
  7. All of the above

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Part 1 - Humboldt State University

Part 1 in series analyzing the good and bad things about a variety of university home pages.

As I've mentioned before, we at CSU, Chico are just beginning the process of 'redeveloping' our top level pages (I hate the word 'redesign' because it doesn't convey the entire scope of the process - which encompasses a lot more than a new graphic design).

As part of that process, it's vital to understand what works and what doesn't on other university Web sites.

I'm starting with Humboldt State's Web site because it does so many things so well.


Consistency is a big issue with any university Web site, due in large part to the inherent autonomy that university's grant their colleges and departments. At many schools, each department has complete control over the design and organization of their site, and they may even maintain their own Web servers. Lacking central control and branding authority, university sites tend to devolve into a mishmash of designs.

Humboldt State's site is no different, but they've managed to at least create a top tier of pages that present a basic design and organizational consistency.Even though the main navigation moves around a bit, all pages have a similar simple layout and design that clearly communicates that you are on the Humboldt site.

Navigational Grouping

The worst kind of navigation is the kitchen sink kind, where everything is just randomly dropped into a long list, with no grouping of similar items or any thought to organization.

Humboldt has clearly thought out their navigation with the goal of keeping it simple and clean, without overwhelming users with too many choices.

There are four navigational regions on home page:
  1. Alphabetical Index
  2. "Main" navigation
    1. Admissions
    2. Majors & Programs
    3. About Humboldt
    4. Living Here
    5. Athletics
  3. Audience-oriented navigation
    1. Future Students
    2. Current Students
    3. Parents & Families
    4. Faculty & Staff
    5. Alumni & Friends
  4. "Recruiting" navigation
    1. Explore
    2. Inquire
    3. Visit
    4. Apply
Each navigational area is clearly defined by its position on the page, the white space around it and even by using different fonts and font sizes for each region.


One of the things I think that Humboldt's home page does best is communicate a clear message to users, particularly prospective students. This is done through the photos and stories on the home page.

As I've discussed in previous posts (here and here), home page photos should communicate something specific that is different or special about your school, and ideally, they should have a context (like a story). Humboldt's site excels at this.

You can see all of their home page photos and stories on this page. Of the 14 photo/stories:
  • 4 relate to outdoor activities
  • 3 relate to environmental issues
  • 3 relate to social activism
  • 2 relate to art
Those are clearly the main selling points of Humboldt State and it's region, and the message is clear: if you're interested in the environment, outdoor activities, social activism or art, Humboldt is the place for you.

Audience Prioritization

40% of the entire home page is dedicated to the photos and the links designed to grab the attention of prospective students. If you include the main navigation (which is aimed primarily at prospective students) and the News and Events sections (which might be of interest to prospective students), 64% of the home page is directed toward prospective students.

Is this good or bad? I guess it depends on how you define the goals of your home page, but recruiting new students has to be one of your top priorities.

Dedicated Temporary Content Region

One issue CSU, Chico's site has is dealing with temporary content or links that need some prominence. Though we have a space for announcements, we don't have a place to highlight special news or events. Humboldt dealt with this issue by dedicating the lower right-hand corner of the home page to eye-catching graphical announcements that change periodically.

The Bad and the Ugly

I don't have a lot of complaints about the Humboldt site. Most of my criticisms are minor nit picks like moving the navigation on interior pages, occasional pages with excessive chattery text (example), moving the search box to the bottom of interior pages, etc.

Final Score

I love handing out grades. I makes me feel like I know what I'm talking about.

1-10 scale

Design 9
Usability 9
Branding 8
Messaging 9
Organization 8
Navigation 9

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lou Rosenfeld on the Redesign Process

Great presentation by Lou Rosenfeld (of O'Reilly's Information Architecture fame) on the university Web site Redesign process, titled "Redesign Must Die".

Just a couple of nuggets:
  • "Every time you redesign, God kills a kitten."
  • "Ban the word 'Redesign' at your next meeting."
He even uses one of my Tales from Redesignland cartoons!

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Redesign Process - Step 0

Rumor has it that our university is about to begin the process of redesigning our home page. That's the 'future endeavour' that the title of this blog refers to... and it's about to begin! The first meeting of the new "web content committee" (bad name, I know) is scheduled for this Friday.

Praise the Lord! But...

But, as we all know, if the process gets off on the wrong foot, it will very difficult to correct things and snatch success out of the jaws of failure.

Here's just one example of how we could get off on the wrong foot: "I've never liked the gold stripe on the home page. Whatever we do, we should get rid of that."

If that's the way things start, success will be very difficult to achieve. Why? Because arguing about design details that are based solely on personal opinions leads nowhere and can accomplish nothing positive.

The truth is that "design" (i.e., graphic design) is actually a very small part of the redesign process (no offense to graphic designers).

The real work of redesign isn't as simple as blurting out your uneducated opinions on color and layout.

The real work of redesign is more about realigning your site to better meet your users' needs and your university's goals, messaging, branding and strategic priorities than it is about flash animations and pretty pictures.

Build the House Before you Hang the Drapes

Think of the Web site redesign process like building a house. You can't hang the drapes before you build the walls, and you can't build the walls until you have a floor plan, and you can't draw a floor plan until you know the needs of the family that will live there.

Likewise, you can't choose the design elements before you've built a wireframe of the site, and you can't build a wireframe until you've developed an information architecture for the site, and you can't develop an information architecture until you understand the needs of your users and the goals your organization has for the site.

So step one cannot be a discussion of your opinions of the existing site or what you think should be in the new site. It should be all about asking questions. Here's just a few:
  • Who are our users?
  • What do they want on the site?
  • What do they do on the current site?
  • What do they like about the current site?
  • What do they hate?
  • What problems do they have with the current site?
  • What/who are we competing against?
  • What are they doing?
  • What do our users like about other sites?
  • What are our goals for the site?
  • What do we want our home page to accomplish and for whom?
  • What is our brand and how will that be applied to the site?
  • What is the message we want to communicate on our home page?
  • Do we even have the proper stakeholders involved in the process?
Notice that your opinion doesn't appear in any of these questions. That's because at this phase, it isn't about you (sorry!). It's about beginning the process of aligning your institution's goals to your users' needs.

Once you start to ask these questions, you'll realize that you need to gather some actual data and talk to some people in order to get answers to these questions.

That will be the topic of my next post.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chico's New Online Photo Catalog - Likes and Dislikes

In my other life, I'm a professional photographer, with several Web sites (here and here). So when our department decided to put our internal photo catalog online, I was volunteered (er...recruited) to do the development for it.

I have a lot of experience with stock photography sites (since my work is carried by several - excluding royalty free and microstock, may Allah strike them dead in His infinite mercy), so I know what I like and dislike in online photo sites.

Now, I didn't shoot any of these photos; that's not my job on campus, but we do have a staff photographer who does official campus photography for everything from faculty portraits to events, receptions, general publications and the University Catalog.

The backend of the catalog uses Portfolio 8.5 server. For my personal business, I use iView Media Pro, but Portfolio is pretty similar overall. Both have pros and cons, and I'll refrain from Portfolio bashing.

Initially, we had a lot of problems with hardware, permissions and networking, but once we resolved all that, I was able to begin work on the Web front end. We went with the built in NetPublish tool which uses a JavaScript-based API. I've decided that I like it.

Even though it's still in serious beta mode with lots of missing pieces and content (particularly payment and policies), you can look at it here:

What I Like

It seems a bit weird to review a site that I developed, since mostly I pick at other people's sites. It also seems like tooting my own horn a bit to say, "Look at this site I did! I think it's really cool!!"

But I actually do like this site. I just wish I had time to redo my business sites to match.

OK, so here's what I like...

Number of Results per Page
You can change the number of results that you view per page. Though the default is 16, I like to view as many photos as I can on a single page. Oh, and it remembers your preference from search to search, but only for the current session (Portfolio limitation).

Dynamic Page Width
I hate static width layouts of image thumbnails. I have a 1600 pixel wide monitor at home and two 1280 pixel monitors side-by-side at work, so why can't I use all that space to look at thumbnails? With this site you can. I just organized the thumbnails in divs so that they automatically wrap to match your browser window's width. Cool!

Pop Up Image Previews
We used OverLib to pop up image previews when you roll over each thumbnail. An awesome way to quickly browse through photos. I used the Portfolio NetPublish API to add some pertinent info to the pop up. No more having to go to a separate page to see larger versions of each photo. Super cool!!

Popup Image Information
Our graphic designer was particularly worried that people will want images that aren't big enough to be reproduced well at the size they want in the medium they want. We went around a bit on the best way to do this. I ended up adding an OverLib popup that calculates the dimensions that each photo can be used at different resolutions. It's simple and clear, but doesn't take up space on the page.

Bigger Previews
If you want to see an image even bigger, and view even more detailed info (such as EXIF data, exposure data, etc., if available) on the image, you can click on it and go to a detail page. Nice to have.

Thumbnail Pop Ups on Check Out Page
I hate stock sites that don't let you see what you're buying on the check out page. I also hate stock sites that show a huge list of thumbnails on the check out page - it just makes the page too long when you have to scroll and scroll to see your total cost at the bottom. So I used OverLib to make pop up thumbnails.


OK, it isn't perfect. Here's a partial list of what still needs work.
  • We still have problems with vertically-oriented RAW images not being rotated correctly (that's a Portfolio limitation)
  • We still have a lot of missing previews (they have to be rebuilt manually)
  • The left nav menu is static, so there are a lot of categories listed that currently have no photos in them.
  • OverLib does a weird flickering thing sometimes that drives me nuts
  • We still have a lot of crappy images cluttering up the catalog
  • We need better keywording (we're working on that)
  • We're still fine tuning the advanced search (Portfolio's search is limited and not very smart)
You might not like that there's no automatic download, but we really can't allow that since there are a lot of photos of staff and faculty that shouldn't be freely available. And anyway, the idea here is to try to bring in a little money from departments on campus for the use of photos that we took.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Accessible Instructional Multimedia: Live blog from CATS 2008

AIMs are online multimedia resources that demo to faculty the use of accessible technologies in teaching.

AIMs enable faculty to understand the ways that emerging technologies can be used to support student success.

Project supported by EnACT to help faculty and staff to develop accessibility training resources to help faculty learn about incorporating accessibility into their course materials... or at least I think that what's this is about... actually, not all of them are about accessibility, but most are.

AIM projects are added to MERLOT repository. Most appear to be videos.

Total of 40 projects planned from eight CSUs... 6 from Chico... wOOt!

6 completed to date, 13 under development.

Next round of projects... applications due in April

Topics wanted:
  • Universal design for learning
  • Assistive technology
  • Distance Learning
  • Technologies designed to address particular Instructional challenges
  • Case studies on deploying accessible course materials
  • Other topics
Then it all devolved into one guy asking a bunch of questions...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Pop Up Menus

We had a recent discussion about using pop ups menus on our sites.

Should the top level menu items be links to a 'main' page or should they just be text to hover over to show the pop up menu? What about menus with combinations of simple links and pop up sub-menus? If there is a link to a 'main' page, what should be on that page?

Sounded like a job for ResearchMan!

Here are my informal results...

General Sites

For the most part, hover menus are not that popular. I looked at about 90 sites (Amazon, eBay, CNN, etc., etc.) and only about 20% used hover menus. That's not to say that they are a bad thing; they just aren't as common as we might think.

Menu Item is Link with Main Page

MSNBC uses hover menus that list major news categories. The first item in the menu is "[Category] Front Page". Clicking on the hover text takes you to the category front page. Time uses similar functioning drop down menus. Clicking on the menu item takes you to the main page for the news category.

A number of other sites follow a similar model, though these do not have the main page listed at the top of the pop up list.

Menu Item is Link with Visual Aid uses a visual aid (an arrow) to indicate which menu items are pop ups. There are actually a couple of sites that do this.

Menu Item is not Link

A few sites use a model where menu items with pop ups are not themselves links, but menu items without pop ups are links.

Higher Education

Pop up menus are about as common on university home pages as they are on commercial sites.

Menu Item is Link with Main Page

Of the 40 or so university sites I reviewed, this was the only kind of pop up that I found.

The contents of the 'main page' under a link varied, from 'Welcome' pages filled with happy talk, to links to other sites, to pages of links that essentially repeated the contents of the submenus. On some sites, all of these were present on different links. Some sites included single links as well as pop ups in the same menu, without distinguishing between them (e.g., FSU and Syracuse).


It seems pretty clear that the clear majority of sites make the top level menu items links to some sort of main page. I think it almost approaches a 'standard' practice. I do like the idea of visually distinguishing between simple links and links that have pop up sub-menus.

The destination of the top level link varies. With news sites, it typically goes to something like the "US News" or "Sports" front page. With shopping sites, it might be to the "Electronics" main page.

For university sites, it's a bit less clear, and the destination of the link should probably be determined on a case-by-case basis. Ideally, it would link to a page with relevant information, but there are cases where there might not be much information to put under the main category (this might be particularly true with smaller departmental sites).

So, it might end up linking to a page that just repeats the list of items in the sub-menus. This is sub-optimal, however, and every effort should be made to make the 'main' page contentful (new word!) and relevant. One thing is clear, though... as Steve Krug says in Don't Make me Think, "happy talk must die"! No one reads "Welcome" pages or "Message from the Dean" pages. eliminate them! A list of links is more useful.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pimping Your Campus

Yesterday, I asked our provost how budget cuts would affect recruitment and recruitment strategies (see this post).

As Provosts are wont, she gave a very long and detailed answer that appeared to be mostly in a foreign language. However, I did catch a few key phrases.

One thing in particular stuck with me. She said that they've done research that shows that we have much higher conversion rates (is that the term you recruitment folks use?) if they can just get the people to visit the campus. She said that a lot of people come, see the campus and want to immediately enroll.

And it's true. Chico state has a beautiful campus located at the edge of a lively small town downtown area. Chico, our Provost said, is seen as an appealing destination, particularly once people see it.

That made me think that that is one the main messages our Web site should be communicating. At every turn, it should be saying, "This is a beautiful place. This is a great place to live."

bottom line: we need to pimp our campus (as in more effectively advertise it's beauty and desirability).

As you may know, in my other life, I'm a professional photographer, and I enjoy shooting our campus. A while back I was playing with an idea for a small photo book showcasing the campus as a beautiful natural environment through the seasons. I uploaded a mock up to the Web... and pretty much left it there.

As it is, I don't think this is much of a tool for promoting our campus, but I do think that it could be turned into something that could be very effective in at least communicating to people that this is a special, beautiful place, and you should come visit.

I'd be happy to hear your impressions and thoughts.

Y'all come visit, y'hear!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Page Titles - Best Practices

Title tags are vital from both usability and SEO perspectives. We use the following format for page title tags: Page Title - Department Name - University Name.

I just finished writing up these standards for our own Web site and realized that they are practices that all universities could benefit from.

Although technically optional, title tags are one of the most vital pieces of information that you can put on your Web pages.

Why? There are several reasons:
  1. The Title tag is what appears at the top of your browser window, in the title bar and identifies the page users are viewing (see image, below).
  2. The Title tag is what appears in the tabs in the browser window, and identifies the content of each tab (see image, below).
  3. The Title tag is what appears in the user's Bookmarks or Favorites when they bookmark your page.
  4. Search engines like Google place a lot of weight on Title tags when ranking search results.
Browser Title Bar:

Browser Tabs:

As a result of the importance of the Title tag, we at Chico State have developed a set of best practices to use when assigning Title tags to your page.

Page Title Standards

Use the following format for page title tags: Page Title - Department Name - University Name


Faculty and Staff - Geography and Planning Department - CSU, Chico
Academic Services - Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs - CSU, Chico
Current Students - College of Business - CSU, Chico


You want to include your department name and the university's name in all Title tags so that users searching for "geography faculty chico" will find your page. If you don't include your department name or the university name, you dramatically reduce the odds that your page will turn up in the search results.

Also, the order in which the elements appear is also important. Since browser tabs can only show the beginning of the page title, you want to have the most specific information (the current page's title) first, followed by the department and then the university. Pages titled like "CSU, Chico - Department Name - Page Title" will all appear as "CSU, Chico" in the browser tabs (see images, below).

Wrong: University Name - Department Name - Page Title

All the pages below are different, but you can't tell which is which by the page title, since they all start with "California State University, Chico".

Browser Tabs

Right: Page Title - Department Name - University Name

Page titles with the specific page's title first:

Browser Tabs


Home Page Titles

Home page titles should just be the department name and the university name: Department Name - University Name.


Office of the President - CSU, Chico
Geography and Planning Department - CSU, Chico

Do not use "Home" or "Welcome" in your home page title. Nobody searches for "home" or "welcome" and they take up valuable space in the browser tabs (see images, below).

Wrong: Welcome/Home - University Name - Department Name

All these home pages are different, but we can't tell which is which.

Browser Tabs

Right: Department Name - University Name

These home pages all use just the department name and the university name.

Browser Tabs


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Analyzing the Future - Part 5 - Page Structure

An examination of the organization of page content from a semantic perspective. Sounds scary, but it's mostly about clean, simple, accessible, and well organized HTML on your home page.

In previous posts in this series, I've looked at home page content from a number of different perspectives (navigation, page dimensions, page elements). This time, I wanted to look at the structure of content from a more semantic perspective.

HTML coders (the good ones, anyway) are obsessed with good semantic code; nice hierarchical structures, valid XHMTL, etc. But you can have a well-formed, semantically perfect page that is an incomprehensible, poorly organized and impossible to use site.

The goal is to have good semantics and good organization. If you do that, the odds are that you'll also have good accessibility as well.


As usual for this series, I victimized my usual 18 standard sites.

For this analysis, I turned off all CSS and and replaced all images with ALT text using the Web Developer Toolbar in Firefox. This provided me with a semantic view of each page, stripped of the fancy graphics and colors designed to fool me into wanting to attend their school.

I ended up looking at pages like this:

Why would I look at pages like this? A couple of reasons. First, to be able to see the real organization of information on the page, and second (and more importantly) because disabled users using screen readers and users on cell phones often access your pages just like this.


I saw a lot of variations in page organization, and a variety of good and bad practices.

Only two sites used table-based layouts. Yea!

Eight sites had some sort of "Skip to..." navigation at the top of the page, though NC State kind of went overboard with six different "Skip to..." links at the top of the page. "Skip to Content" was the most popular, with "Skip to Navigation" a close second.

A couple of sites put all their links at the bottom of the page. This might have been deliberate in order to focus on the content, but home pages tend to be portal pages, so navigation should be prominent and easily accessible.

Search boxes tended to be toward the top of the page, but not always. I think for disabled users, search boxes must be very difficult to find on most Web pages.

Semantically, sites were all over the map. Some sites, like UT Knoxville and Loyola Marymount, followed valid heading organization. Other sites, used a mix of only H4 and H5 tags, all H3 tags, etc., etc. Some used no headings at all.

There were also a few pages (e.g., University of St. Thomas) appeared to be all links and little content.

Recommendations and Best Practices

Based on my examination of the 18 home pages, I came up with a list of best practices to look for:
  • Complete separation of content and presentation (via CSS-based design)
    • This includes CSS-based layout instead of table-based layouts
  • Semantic HTML
    • Based on properly ordered and nested heading tags (H1, H2, etc.)
  • Presence of descriptive ALT tags for all non-content free images
    • Images that are just pretty pictures can have empty ALT tags
  • Presence of navigational shortcuts at the top of each page
    • e.g., "Skip to Content" links
  • Reasonable mix of content and navigation
    • Who wants a page that's nothing but links? It makes your home page look like a link farm.
  • Prominent placement of search box
    • Typically very near the top of the page, or the placement of a navigational shortcut to the search box at the top
  • Prominent placement of the name of the institution
    • This should be your H1 tag (ya think?)
What would the "perfect" page look like? Well, the actual content would depend on your site, but you can see a sample bare-bones page here, or look at the layout below.

Sample Page:

Hypothetical State University


News & Announcements

News Item 1

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nullam suscipit, tortor quis sollicitudin porttitor, diam metus aliquam ante, ut sodales felis purus ac quam. Mauris ut erat in ipsum laoreet lacinia. More...

News Item 2

Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Donec varius tempus urna. Phasellus porta blandit lacus. Nunc nec arcu et metus sodales ullamcorper. Mauris vitae leo id sapien sagittis lacinia. More...

More News...

Events Calendar

February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day Massacre - Have a bang at the SMC Cartage Garage!

February 20, 2008

Integer mattis dolor vel felis. Aliquam viverra nunc eget leo. Pellentesque interdum urna non purus.

More Events...

Hypothetical State University
123 Main St.
Anytown, USA 12345
Copyright © 2008 HSU

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What is the Purpose of a University Web Site?

Yesterday our CIO was going over the new Web governance structure being implemented at our campus. According to him, one of the missions of this new Web governance structure is to "determine the purpose of the university's Web site."* It seems like a reasonable question.

Now, I've taken a small poke at that issue in a previous post, but I got afraid and ran away from it because it seemed big and scary.

But it's a real issue... or is it?

If you put it in the terms of, "does our university Web site have a purpose?", you better hope the answer is "hell yes!" instead of "not that I'm aware of", but trying to define that purpose is not so easy.

Of course, you're all saying, "the Web site doesn't have a single purpose." And let's face it; it's not even one Web site; it's many Web sites, under the control of many different people, and serving many different audiences and needs.

As a result, I'm not personally convinced that we can come up with a "definitive" answer to this question. I believe that we have to take a more molecular view of the site. That is, I think that we can say, "OK, we need to do this. And we need to have that. And there has to be this component", without having to have a complete "big picture" view.

Not that I don't believe in the "big picture" approach, or even agree with it; I do. I just feel that the Web as an environment, as a tool, and as a platform is too complex and evolving too rapidly for definitive, big picture answers.

Of course, that doesn't change the political reality that the CIO expects the Web governance suckas (er... committee members) to determine the purpose of the university's Web site.

Personally, I plan to be sick that year.

I'm sure some of you have encountered this issue. How have you approached it? Dealt with it? Defused it? Succumbed to it?

*(for the sake of simplicity, I'm assuming here that he was referring to the campus's public Web site,, and not all the other Web-based applications, such as the portal or the LMS).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Beautiful Nightmare

Wherein I worry that lowly end users of our content management system will turn our beautiful new Web site into an unnavigatable mess.

After years of beating around the bush, we're finally going to be getting an enterprise Web content management system (WCMS) for Chico State. We're getting Hannon Hill Cascade Server, but that's not the point of this post.

I've fought very hard for an enterprise WCMS over the past several years, but the closer we've gotten to getting one, the more misgivings I have.

I know that's heresy, but as an admittedly elitist web developer I'm wary of turning the unwashed masses loose on Web sites without adult supervision.

I'm not worried about them putting pink text on green backgrounds - we can control that with pre-made templates.

What I'm worried about is having people with no experience with or (concept of) organizing information creating and attempting to organize departmental Web sites. After all, we're talking about people whose desktops look like this:

(image stolen from this site)

We have spent years thinking about WCMS's. We've spent months reviewing products, trying to select the best one for our needs. We're going to spend more months developing the best and most beautiful templates for people to use. And we're going to hire people to manage this great piece of software and manage a smooth rollout of the technology to campus.

And then we're going to turn over virtually the entire CSU, Chico Web presence to (let's be honest) a bunch of department secretaries and let them turn it into a Web version of their computer desktop.

This isn't making sense to me.

Why bother to invest all this time, money and effort on the back end, if the people who will actually, hands on, implement and manage major pieces of the campus have no idea of what they're doing?

OK, so we'll offer - no, require - training in information architecture, organizational skills, writing for the web, etc. for everyone who will use the WCMS.


How am I going to sell that? That isn't sexy. The software is sexy (if you're into that sort of stuff, which personally I'm not). New designs are sexy. Training isn't sexy. Information architecture isn't sexy.

The very stakeholders that need to sign off the standards and requirements for the WCMS barely know what information architecture is, so they're not going to get it. If they don't get it, they won't require anyone else to get it.

End result... We end up with a beautifully designed new site, run by a sophisticated piece of content management software, but where the content is an impenetrable mishmash of confusing, redundant, mislabeled links and huge rambling pages of run-on content. Even better, there'll be no consistency across subsites with regard to terminology, labeling, organizational schemes or writing style.

For the user, our Web site will be a beautiful nightmare.

We have to prevent this. I'm open to ideas.