CASE Awards of Excellence 2010: Winners, Comments, Judges’ Report for Category 11, Websites
The best professional development event I attend every year is the judging for the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards for websites, which I’ve led since the 1990s. At this year’s judging, held in early April at George School, we judged Category 11: Websites and Category 12: Best Use of Social Media. [There are comments and a downloadable Judge’s Report from the social media category here.]
What this means is locking oneself in a room for two days with more than a dozen smart, informed, opinionated people; looking at more than two hundred websites and social media sites; and arguing about which sites are good enough to get a award. It’s incredibly stimulating—and sometimes frustrating—to have strongly held opinions strongly challenged. No one knows where we’ll end up when we compile the final list of award winners.
For the record, as you scan the lists below, there are several sites that would never appear on my own list. And it’s safe to say that each of the other judges this year, as in years past, would say the same thing. But we all stand by the final list of award winners.
This year, the judges represented American and Canadian schools, colleges, and universities, both public and private. The panel included people with experience in design, web strategy, web content development, admissions, fundraising, student recruitment, social media, web technology, and marketing. Several of the judges work for institutions that have won national CASE Awards of Excellence for their websites. Two representatives from CASE attended the judging.
Results: Category 11
There were 54 complete institutional sites entered in Category 11A [Complete Institutional Websites] and 106 sites entered in Category 11B [Individual Sub-Websites]. Here are the winners:
Category 11b: Individual Sub-websites
Gold:: King’s College London, Online Prospectus; University of Michigan, University Housing
Silver: University of Toronto, U of T Magazine
Bronze:: Boston University, 2009 Annual Report; Columbia College Chicago, This is Columbia’s Moment Media Production Center; Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 3-D Web site; University of Iowa, Annual Report
Honorable Mention: University of Missouri-Columbia, Illumination
Observations and Trends
Each year, we begin this judging with a discussion of what makes an award-winning institutional website. Here were some of the important elements we identified this year:
- a sound strategy;
- sound information architecture, navigability, usability and search;
- valid, accurate, timely, and relevant content, effectively deployed across the site, including both text and images;
- the quality of resources-
content assets, staff, and budgets-and how they were used on the site;
- a clear identity that is appropriate to the organization;
- an appropriate level of innovation—in other words, we want designers to push the envelope but we still expect information to be findable, content to be readable (or viewable), and the site to be well-designed. Cutting edge for the sake of being cutting edge didn’t persuade the judges to award anything.
- standardization of interface across the site;
- accessibility of the code; appropriate use of technology and adherence to standards (We awarded extra points for sites that had considered how they would display on a mobile device.);
- metrics; evaluation plans; results;
- and, new this year, a connection to the ecosystem of the web, which is particularly significant as the social web assumes a greater importance.
We asked ourselves repeatedly what each site does that’s unusual or innovative. Though we are tasked with judging the sites that are entered in this category and, to some extent, we must compare them with each other, we can’t ignore other sites we’ve seen. For example, we considered it legitimate to reject a site that was a collection of student blogs designed to recruit students. While it was well-designed, there was nothing about it that distinguished it from many similar sites nor did it do anything different than Ball State University’s student blog site has been doing for five years.
We were underwhelmed at what we saw this year. Sites entered for an award were missing basic elements like a sense of where an institution was located. And there were a lot of bland sites.
Some trends we noticed this year:
- People are trying to break out of the mold of what a traditional site looks like and are trying some radically different things that don’t seem to work or are very hard to understand from a user’s point of view. If they’ve tested these innovations and found that they are working, they haven’t shared any usability testing results or data that backs up the success of their risk taking.
- Perhaps because of a desire to be “different,” many sites had identity issues and did not provide us with a strong sense of what the institution was, what it stood for, or how it was truly differentiated from its competitors—and, therefore, why anyone would want to go there. The winners all did this well.
- It’s still hard to find calls to action on many websites. One judge recounted the difficulty of finding information about how to apply, much less an “apply now” button on a website he viewed.
- We saw many attempts to connect a website to the larger web through Facebook and Twitter badges and other devices, but often saw “share this” buttons in unexpected places where they appear to have been added as a afterthought, not baked into the design of the site.
- While .edu websites are much better organized and easier to navigate than they used to be, we still saw sites with “layers and layers of navigation all over the place,” which made them very confusing to navigate. This is particularly challenging on sites that don’t have a clear design hierarchy for pages or where choices are clearly dictated by internal politics rather than a sense of what a visitor to the site might want to do.
- On many sites, the space is just not well used. For example, pages about curriculum choices carried a big header and large images. What value does that have to a visitor to these pages? And related to this, while a big, splashy something may be suitable for a first-time visitor, what happens when repeated visitors tire of it and just want to reach the information they’re seeking?
- While we did see good content on some sites, some of it was buried on the site and hard to find. And some was good, but overused—like a site that featured profiles of six people that showed up everywhere. Another point that is often overlooked is that images, too, need to be refreshed and updated, especially when they depict events that happened some time ago.
- Some of the special-purpose sites, especially annual reports and some of the magazines, were totally devoid of interactivity and even links. I can’t stress too much how important the written submission for this category is—and how crucial it is to provide data about how effective the site is.
A last word about how important the written submissions for this category are. Comments in the submissions that outlined how much testing had been done or how successful the sites were convinced us to give awards to several sites that we might otherwise have passed over.
Likewise, some sites might have fared better if they had demonstrated that the unorthodox choices made by their designers were supported by usability testing rather than whim. One of the judges remarked: “It’s not just about the numbers, even if you have them. It’s about providing context for your content and trying to serve your customers. Posting content is no longer enough—you have to think about providing a service and include a task-based perspective; that’s where analytics shine.”
In terms of context, we paid a lot of attention to the organizational work and cross-campus cooperation that went into building the backbone of some of these sites.
Finally, knowing that sites were created in-house or with in-house solutions was also a plus.
Here’s a copy of the complete judge’s report for this category, with more details about the judging and comments about each of the award winners.