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Why your home page shouldn’t be redesigned by committee

What’s the first reaction most higher edders have when they hear, “Time for a web redesign”? Of course it’s often, “OK, who should be on the committee?” Consider this as an answer.

“No one.”

Homepage and web site redesigns need, more than anything, vision, leadership, and strategy. A committee of disparate interested parties can’t really provide that. Who’d be on the committee? Representatives from academic affairs, admission, facilities, students, administration, alumni, athletics, career services, internships, registrar…

cartoon of a dysfunctional committee

How many of these folks have each other’s best interests in mind? Or would they, instead, serve on this committee primarily to ensure representation of their own use cases? Consider, instead, a redesign project that’s spearheaded, actually led, by a single human being who’s accountable to all those audiences, as well as accountable to another important audience not generally available to your committee — prospectives (either students, faculty, or staff).*

Where this person sits — academic affairs, communications and marketing, anywhere — doesn’t matter. Can’t matter. The leader’s charge is to ensure that all audiences are represented appropriately, all design and content decisions are made for defensible reasons (professional experience and even personal preference are defensible when there’s no other reason to support a decision, as long as it helps to meet goals, fits well, and looks good).

There are plenty of other analogous models for this kind of work in higher ed — look at what happens to a school when a new president is installed. We staff, faculty, and even students wait with high hopes, anticipating her new vision, what his experience and expertise will bring to the table. What kind of leader will we have? If this leader wants to stick around, s/he needs to have expertise and bring vision while serving all constituents. No representative committee can do that. We devalue the professionalism of our experts if we think a committee can do this better than a professional web expert can.

You wouldn’t want ten of even the best farmers catering your wedding — you’re best off hiring a single fantastic caterer. You wouldn’t assemble the world’s ten top plumbers to do the interior design of your spa. Find the best web content expert you can to drive your web project, and make him personally responsible for the project.

Design by Committee : Who needs vision when you have meetings?

And this brings up an important point. The leader of the web project must be an expert in web content strategy. Not an IT expert. Not a visual design expert. If you don’t have an expert content strategist, hire one before you try to start this project. Your expert must have a clear understanding of the higher ed web paradigm, and a firm belief that the needs of current students, prospective students, alumni, and everyone else can all be served by making brilliant UI, UX, and IA decisions.** Your expert needs to know, believe, and evangelize the fact that no one ever wants to be on your web site. Sure, web surfing was a recreational hobby back in the early ’90s when the web was novel and there were about four dozen sites. Today, your visitors are seeking information, and want to find it in the fastest, most frictionless way possible. Your expert needs to know how to make this happen, while showcasing your school for the best possible recruitment, retention, yield, development, efficiency, and academic outcomes (listed in no particular order). Most college and university web sites have similar audiences, and as such, similar needs. We learn from our peers what works best, which makes our visitors’ experiences more valuable to them. Your expert should be tapped into this universe, and understand how to use it and customize it to your own school’s unique goals and priorities.

All too often, a committee is brought together in place of that expert, serving simply as a mechanism to distribute blame when people become unhappy (and looking at most higher ed web sites, you can see why there’s a lot of unhappiness). Being the leader of a web redesign project is not ponies and rainbows and happiness; frankly, it can really stink sometimes. When you’re that expert, some of the people you’re trying to serve will initially mistrust you, and will call into question your decisions, your understanding of their priorities, your expertise, or even your appropriateness for the job. But that’s OK — because it’s their job to evangelize their own goals and priorities. Listen to them. Ask a lot of questions. Rather than defending your position, ask them what they don’t like, and how you can work together to make this project work for them. Explain why it’s important to do particular things not because you decided, on a whim, that it would be a good idea, but because it serves the need of another audience or content provider, with minimal harm to others.

Being the leader of a web redesign project is thankless. Even when the site is rolled out to much pomp and circumstance, the critiques (valid or unfounded) still come, and they are a bummer. It’s important to remember, though, that it’s not personal. A good web redesign leader doesn’t have a dog in the race, doesn’t have any one constituent’s goals ahead of any other. A good leader has read all the research, has gone to the conferences, has read reports of the focus groups and analysts, has attended the webinars. A good leader is an expert who knows what she’s doing, is a great listener, asks a lot of questions, and has a well-fitting flameproof suit. The fortunate one also has a supportive governance structure that ensures balance and accountability, minimizing decision-making based on assumptions or whims — even the whims of the most powerful committee members on campus.


* You might think that current students or the office of admission would be a good representative for the prospective student, but that’s not always true. Current employees/HR staff don’t always meet the needs of prospective staff. Current faculty/the provost don’t always meet the needs of prospective faculty. There’s a difference between “what we want to tell you” and “what you want to know”. Someone needs to advocate for the latter at least as much as the former.

** User interface, user experience, and information architecture.

3 Comments

  1. Karine Joly wrote:

    Great post, fantastic follow-up to our convo on Twitter yesterday. I’ll include it in tomorrow’s newsletter.

    Thanks a lot!

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Aaron wrote:

    “Your expert needs to know, believe, and evangelize the fact that no one ever /wants/ to be on your web site.”

    That is, by far, the most valuable piece of information I’ve seen on this topic yet. The higher ed website is like a dentist’s office — you need it, it serves a very useful function, but you don’t go there to hang out or go exploring around.

    In and out, as painlessly as possible.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Chris wrote:

    Can you get a guest spot on the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog? People need to hear what you have to say :)

    Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

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