Redesign or Redevelopment? Be Clear What Your Site Needs Before You Start Work
Last week, Karine Joly from CollegeWebEditor asked us to identify the top five mistakes that college and university staff make when redesigning their websites. I’m not going to steal Joly’s idea or share my top thoughts (I identified more than five mistakes!)—until after her article appears in University Business Magazine in December 2006. But I will share with you my thoughts about the top mistake I think internal staff make when approaching their own websites, as well as their institution’s web presence.
It is: thinking of your project as a redesign project when it’s really about redeveloping your site. So what’s the difference?
In our lexicon, “redesign” involves creating a new look and feel for a website. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do—make your website look better, fresher, more au courant. Rethink the background color, adjust your logo, add some new images, and you’re all set.
But far (far!) more often, institutions need to rethink fundamental aspects of their web presence. This is “redevelopment.” And it’s hard to do.
In my view, an institution’s web presence—
its Internet presence-as a collection of individual websites, like admissions, student affairs, the physics department, and many others. Some people enter your web presence through the front door, but many don’t. So looking at your web presence as a whole is a necessary first step before looking at the individual pieces.
These pieces should be related to each other, and related to the whole. Visitors need to be able to get around within your web presence. They need to find what they came to find: a faculty member, the application, an academic department website. And to do that, they need navigation and a lot of other visual cues. They need to be reassured that they’re at the same institution when they move from department site to department site. They may need services of one kind or another (i.e. apply or give). So within the best web presence, individual websites should connect to each other and to the whole.
What makes you different?
Take it to the next level by thinking about what visitors learn about your institution when they visit websites within your domain. Can they quickly (it’s the web, so they’re scanning) learn what makes you better than your competitors? Can they learn about the distinctions of faculty when they visit a department website? This is a complicated thing to do, and you don’t do it without thinking about the whole-and the sum of the parts.
In this scenario, you don’t think of presentation-
look and feel-as a first-order issue. Instead, you have to start by asking the question of what your visitors need, and then explore how your site is serving their needs. This is about them-not about your institution. To do this well, you have to look at some pretty messy stuff, like how staff could be better organized to create a better web presence for visitors. This involves clear thinking about institutional culture and politics and, to make a difference, you need to look at how your overall web presence, as well as individual websites within it, are managed.
In most of the redevelopment projects we do, we address significant issues of how information is organized on the web; how content that is relevant to visitors is developed and managed; and how technology is deployed to make content mananagement more efficient and to help create a better experience for visitors to the site. Only at this point do we address look and feel.
Most often, this is what a site needs. Why? Because most college and university web presences exhibit organic sprawl, reflecting the way they were built. But this is no longer good enough. Today, a university or college web presence needs to be visitor-centric, ensuring that visitors can find what they need and accomplish the tasks that are important to them, while allowing them to move freely across the websites that make up the institution’s web presence. This only happens if a team undertaking a project understands that their role is not just to make a website look nice, but to make an institution’s web presence welcoming to visitors.