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:
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:
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.
Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?