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Sunday, March 11, 2007

How Can I Help You? 

It's a little surprising that universities, of all places, should have such poorly designed websites. Everyone complains about how hard they are to navigate. The reason is the first page usually has too few things to click on, as if they've tried to subsume everything under six headings or something, so that you can have this lovely public image marred by only six links.

But most universities are complex organizations with perhaps a hundred departments in addition to the dozens of non-academic units and the normal business part. They may also have affiliates and branches. The library alone is likely to be several distinct libraries, and the interesting thing here is that half the people who visit the site are probably there to check out the library's catalogue, which is to say, once they reach the main site of University of X., they want to search the catalogue right away, type in a title and see if it's there. Or they want more information about a project that they've heard about. It's sad, but they're probably not curious about the university's mission or what the president thinks about anything. They're just selfishly looking for information.

I think that a university website would be more useful if it were just a directory of all the stuff that's there. You could have your soft-focus picture if you want. But let people get to the heart of the matter right away. Near the top you could have a link to “about the University of X”, taking you to a page about the mission and what the president thinks, or some pictures of typical “students”, but the main page would present the user with a fairly complete, ordered listing of all the departments. Sometimes text is nothing to be afraid of. It doesn't have to be a big turnoff. For people who can read, it is quick and to the point.

People who work at the University of X. never look at the website. They have a battered old copy of the university directory near the phone.

People may object: “But it's not exciting and attractive! We need to draw people in, fire their imaginations, engage them, excite them, just like Steven Spielberg with his DreamWorks™!” I am quite sensitive to this, but I would argue: “No. Now go away.” I guess that takes care of that argument. Most people don't visit a university's website because they are bored and want to be amused. They are looking for something, or they want to rummage, and it's best to stay out of their way.



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Watching TV is a good way to tear yourself away from the computer.