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Distributed maintenance is killing your higher ed web site

Printing press

The guy with the ink defines you

I’ve been at this higher ed web thing for a few years now (has it really been more than 15?), and have watched the landscape slowly change, from an awe-inducing grey screen peppered by a list of blue links (ah Netscape 1.0) to today’s jQuery libraries that continually answer “sure, you can do that” when faced even the toughest interface challenges, to the 4G(ish) mobile holy grail.

In that time, the most important shift has been from a focus on the technology to a focus on the message. The person with the printing press has the power — but we learned years ago that person is usually not the right one to compose your university’s message. Imagine the press operator with ink-stained hands running the newspaper printing press. Should he be the guy who’s also writing the articles in that paper? Taking the pictures, cropping them, and color-correcting them? Doing layout, proofreading, and design? Writing your marketing copy and crunching your analytics? Shooting and producing your video? Building your user experience?

Even more importantly, should the person who runs the press be the one who develops your brand and your message? The person who curates the marketing strategy that drives your content?

This is the puddle that the higher ed web has been muddling through for the past ten years. People with the global message — folks in communications, marketing, admission, enrollment — have been wresting the press from IT departments (who themselves had to become content experts years ago…wasn’t that an unnatural thing), but most haven’t been able to build a resource infrastructure to support the high-pressure hydrant of content that the school’s hundreds of content editors want to publish. Sure, one or two folks in public affairs can manage the home page, create templates, support content management systems, and do training on best practices. But shouldn’t there also be central oversight of the message? The user’s experience? What should be published, where, when, and how? Are technologists and departmental web content editors really thinking about recruitment, retention, yield, and reputation?

Here’s a simple example: One department lists all of its courses by the term they’re offered. Another lists them in numeric order. Still another organizes them by instructor, or by program requirement. And the prospective student’s mind boggles when moving from department to department, relearning each time how a department chooses to handle course listings.

This is exhausting for and disrespectful to our users.

Our users expect better. Our users deserve better. When they think of our schools, they necessarily think of them as a single entity. They don’t think of us as a rag-tag conglomeration of stuck-together entities — they think of us as a school. A place. An entity with a voice and a personality. And we need to present ourselves to them that way whenever we can.

Care and feeding is a real job

The problem of tech people wrangling the message has now become the problem of the message people wrangling technology, and the struggle remains. But the more insidious problem is when neither technologists nor messaging experts are responsible for maintaining content — which is the way so many higher ed web sites are managed.

“Add a link to that on the web site” the (dean | professor | administrator) says. And the (student | administrative assistant | professor of something or other who’s volunteered to help | departmental computing coordinator) who has the FTP or CMS username and password for the web site does so. No matter if it looks horrible, doesn’t make sense in context, eclipses the overall message of the site…that’s what someone with the password decided, and since they can publish it, they do publish it.

When does it come down? How good is the photo? Are there spelling or grammar errors? Have you created a page full of text that no one will read? Have you created a page full of links that boggles even the most organized mind? Did you notify anyone else, so they can link to it? Does it work? Does it improve or worsen the site as a whole? Most of the time, this isn’t considered — as long as you get it up on the web site, you’ve achieved your goal.

I think we need to raise the bar on our goals. Just “put it on the web” isn’t enough.

The password gives the power

Distributed responsibility for web content is killing our sites. It’s killing our message. When we need to be moving towards user-centric services, a unified and service-oriented voice, and a goal to meet high user expectations with a marriage of sophisticated technology and user-centric content, instead we’re pushing the web down the org chart as far as it can go, treating web content publishing as though it were a trade, rather than a profession. We should have a centralized cadre of web communication professionals responsible for oversight of every web site — not just its creation, but its lifecycle, as well. Imagine if we distributed payroll across departments. Or admission and enrollment services. You get the idea.

Michael Powers, director of Web Services at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, summed it up brilliantly in a recent comment on Mark Greenfield’s blog:

Many, even senior managers, still see the web as primarily an IT issue. The creation of web content gets pushed down to junior faculty and from there to administrative assistants and from there to students. All are well-meaning but lack the skills, experience, and perspective to actually create effective websites and web content.

That is, the creation of websites isn’t seen as a professional endeavor. “So you’re a webmaster? That’s nice. My teenage son has a website.”

It’s frustrating. Would it be ok if, instead of having a central health center for our students, we allowed each department to train a couple of grad students to provide health care?

We love our visitors

Those of us responsible for web publishing love our visitors. We really do. We live to give them both the information they come looking for, and the stuff they didn’t even know they wanted to know. We want them to have a good experience. We have invested our professional careers in understanding information architecture, user experience, marketing, branding, writing for the web — all the skills that make our profession unique. Can good web sites be created and maintained by people who don’t have deep and broad education and experience in web development? I don’t think they can. I might have a neighborhood teenager mow my lawn, but I’m certainly not going to rely on her for landscape architecture, soil analysis, scheduled fertilizing, seasonal grub control, weed suppression, and wintering over my prized rosebushes. She needs guidance and oversight. She’s not well-suited to the real task that needs doing.

When you leave your school’s web content in the hands of people who don’t have professional experience, you’re shortchanging your school, and your visitors. If your departmental web site has 20 navigation links (“There’s no way we could possibly get along with fewer, we have so much content!”), if you’re adding links to your site without thought of what impact that change will have on your users’ experiences, you may not realize that you’re actually jeopardizing the very fundamental perception of your institution. And of course, all of the decisions made about your site should fall into line with the university’s goals for web experience, branding, and messaging.

The quality of your web site should reflect the quality of your school. Instruction must be provided by qualified instructors — even TAs need oversight. Health care should be provided by qualified health-care professionals. And every shred of your web content should be strategic, professional, and awesome.


  1. I’d like to hear your thoughts on two obstacles to this concept.

    First, this would require a much larger web content team than exists at most Universities, how would you get funding for the additional people?

    Second, how would you handle prioritizing work? One of the reasons our content is distributed is because each area has it’s own priorities and isn’t willing to wait for the central University team to get to their need.

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  2. Kerri wrote:

    @James – to your first question, it should come from the departments. The resources are already there to do what they’re already doing. If web work is, say, 10% of someone’s job, take that 10% and put it into a central pot instead. If you have 200 web developers on a campus, that can add up to real money.

    Second, which ties into the first, the staff would be assigned certain sections of campus. Some models exist where, for example, the web team is a half dozen people, and each is assigned various departments or units, based on any number of variables (e.g. the gal with the humanities degree works with most of the humanities departments, etc.).

    That way, the departments have an individual to rely on when they need updates, and the person making the updates has both the department *and* the university’s interests in mind when making them. One model I’ve heard of is: Wendy the Web Dev works with this set of departments on Monday, this set on Tuesday, etc., fast updates are handled 11-12 every day, and of course emergencies are taken care of as quickly as possible by whomever’s available. And with such a staff, someone’s always available or on call.

    It works the same way with a lot of schools and their marketing budgets. It doesn’t make sense for each department to have someone who can make posters and invitations, when there’s a central office that understands all the branding elements and brand voice, has templates, relationships with printers, etc.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any single right answer, and of course the scale and the school environment have as much to do with the success of such a project as anything else.

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Carole Mah wrote:

    @James, your question about funding is important because it exposes the root of the problem, which is that funding a larger professional web content team will not happen until the website itself becomes a true priority for top decision-makers. The problem is that at many organizations (not just in higher education, but in any other organization, e.g. non-profits), top decision-makers do not see the website as central to the messaging of their organization. Instead, they still see paper-based snail mail messaging and old-style “press releases” as the central organs of communication with donors, members, and the public. The website is a secondary concern, an adjunct at best, or as Kerri has said, even a trash can.

    However, once top decision-makers come to take for granted that the website is not only the primary means of communication, but also the life blood of an organization, once they realize that the future of an organization may depend largely on how well that communication takes place, then they will prioritize funding and professionalization of the endeavors of user-centered web design and development. In fact, there are probably ways that funds previously used for old-style communications could be reappropriated for this more modern enterprise. An example from the non-profit world: I get a lot of expensive, slick brochures via snail mail that I do not want from non-profits eager for me to become a donor. I would be more likely to respond to a well-crafted email, Facebook, or other campaign. They could better spend their money on those enterprises rather than wasting large amounts of money sending me reams of paper that I will simply pitch into the recylcing bin.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  4. Carole Mah wrote:

    Kerri, in light of James’ second question about prioritization of work — it’s not just as he says, that a given department’s priorities take too long for a centralized web dev. team to address, but also that a centralized web development and management structure sensitive to the the needs of overall messaging and overall user experience will inevitably clash with more specific messaging needs at lower levels of a university. This is just the “many audiences” argument we’re familiar with from information architecture. Balancing the needs of disparate audiences is difficult (and discussed at length elsewhere such as in the article to which you referred earlier, esp. in the comments).

    Centralized messaging is important to overcome some of the understandable defensive, protective “silo” behavior of individual groups and departments within an organization as large as a university, but just recognizing that there needs to be coordination at all is not a place many institutions have yet reached.

    Thus, institutions probably need to address prioritization in the context of coordination and the need for an overall message. Your example of parcelling out web developers’ time from a centralized location / team to the departments in a hub/spoke way makes sense for some institutions where the paramount need is to maintain a cohesive web team with a centralized, controlled message. As you say, distributed maintenance without any oversight at all can really be a bad thing.

    But other institutions might prefer to give more freedom to departments’ own concerns by issuing guidelines and periodic reviews to make sure that departments are not leading users too far astray from the desired institutional strategy and level of professionalism and usability. That level of trust would probably require an almost “embedded journalist” type of approach where perhaps a given developer’s salary would be paid entirely by a given department, and the developer would even work physically inside that department full-time, but perhaps would first have spent a year or two working centrally, while still having been hired on with an eye toward that department (as you say, perhaps their undergraduate degree would align with that department’s focus, while their graduate work may have been in information, communications, and/or computer science discipline).

    Or perhaps a less pie-in-the-sky hybrid of these two approaches could be a central web team offering training to people from inside departments. This training would be both in using a CMS and in understanding how to achieve effective user-centered design, and then entrusting the departments to subsequently manage their own content. Part of the enforcement of good messaging and design could of course be technical, as a well-designed CMS can programmatically enforce many of those things.

    I’ve seen people here in the public media sphere start to achieve some fairly remarkable consistency in things like metadata tagging, messaging, and data sharing simply through promulgating good training and coordination of projects. As you know, there are often thin funds for this sort of thing in public media, but a smart allocation of resources is primarily smart mangement, documentation, coordination and propogation of institutional knowledge in such a way as to overcome rapid job turnover at disparate, very loosely-connected institutions whose missions may not always align.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. links for 2011-03-15 « innovations in higher education on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 11:05 pm

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