University Web Developers

University Web Developers

Hi all,

My name is Stephanie Martinez and I recently became a web designer for the higher education publisher, University Business Magazine.

Next month I will be presenting a session at our EduComm Conference called "Does this website work?" As our conference is only partially devoted to web design/development, the session will need to be general. Our audience is made up of a diverse group of higher ed professionals.

I wonder if I might ask this group to provide some feedback in regard to the unique challenges you face as web designers in the higher education market.

Prior to my current position, as a web designer for small businesses, I have faced challenges in regard to (and not limited to): requirements documentation, setting expectations, receiving promised content on schedule, scope creep, resistance to the investment of testing users, etc.

I would imagine that many of you have faced similar challenges but due to the complexity of a higher ed website serving many different user groups, I want to make sure I "get it right" when presenting to this audience. I have not designed a site for a higher education institution therefore any and all comments/feedback/ideas would be greatly appreciated. The presentation will touch upon project planning, information architecture, usability, accessibility and content development (much to cover in a short period of time, I know).

Thank you!
Stephanie

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Hi Stephanie,

Having also come from a business environment into the .edu field, I've found it to be not all that different. Slower moving, but not much different.

At the end of the day, you have to identify / solve the human problems, rather than the problems the staff thinks they have (or wants to have).

The biggest "challenge" anyone has is learning to ask the right questions to find the right problems to solve.

I know that's not quite the answer that you're looking for, but it kinda is anyway.
It is definitely the answer I am looking for-it's all about managing the process and understanding what is important to the visitor. Thank you!
I have been a web developer at a community college for ten years and I also work as a SIG consultant and travel to other colleges to assist in their web development. I could probably write a book on this but off the top of my head here are a few unique issues with an education site:

1) Accessibility - Your site needs to be 508 accessible.

2) Ferpa - Your web content cannot violate ferpa regulations. This is one of those shaky issues with college social networking sites and liability.

3) Shared Governance - You need the key players from the college to participate in the process even though they are not web designers.

4) Ongoing Maintenance & Training- It's not enough to have a beautiful site, you need a sophisticated plan for who owns the content and who will maintain it as well as ongoing training. You may run into union issues if maintaining a site is not part of their job description.

6) Managing Expectations - Working at a community college we are always in awe of what universities are able to do on the web. Our administration may go to a ivy league website and ask why we aren't doing that. The truth of the matter is we don't have the resources and no one wants to spend the money.

7) Consistency of Design - Clicking around a college website you may notice a variety of web page designs and even logo designs. Ideally you would want all your sites to have a consistent look and feel and be branded with the college template. I don't know of one college/university who has been able to accomplish this 100% The challenge is actually picking and choosing which battles you want to fight.

8) Faculty/Staff vs Students - You will always find that the faculty/staff believe they know what the students would like to see on the website. The site, which is meant for students, ends up being developed in a vacuum without student input. You end up with navigation that may fit the college org structure but it not intuitive to the student.

9) Policies & Procedures - You need to have outlined policies and procedures on what's acceptable especially since you may have dozens if not hundreds of people contributing to different aspects of the site.

10) Scope Creep - You mentioned this before but I think it's worse in higher ed because the process for launching the site requires shared governance. You need to have the key players sign off on each phase of the project. It's easier when working for or as a consultant because you can charge extra for scope creep and then that helps them prioritize their changes. If you work for the college then there's an expectation that you will do whatever is required and they don't value the time associated with that change.

11) Content Management Systems - Ideally these will free up your webmasters by empowering users to make their own changes within specified template areas. It sounds like a perfect world but you will find that training users absorbs almost as much time as doing it for them. I still think a CMS is crucial for a college site but note that you will do a lot of hand holding.
You have validated my thoughts and then some. Not working in education web development, I was not aware of FERPA , I will make sure to be square on my understanding there. I have faced many of these same challenges both in corporate design and small business design. The success of any project is so dependent on managing expectations and I know right away when we have missed anything in that regard.

Thank you so much for your detailed reply.
I'll quickly list a few of the big ones:

1. University website hierarchies being patterned after the org chart, instead of user's expectations. It's a problem everywhere

2. Design/Branding conflicts between departments/colleges/units. "We want to be unique" etc..

3. "other duties as assigned" you're a web developer but end up being tech support.
Thank you Drew. Did not think about the possibility of the hierarchy being patterned after the org chart. Have you ever done a card sort to see what people come up with? I never have but am very interested to try this.

I understand the desire to brand segments differently and the challenge there.

I've been tech support too...not too long ago, a small business client of mine asked me to come in and look at their pc because their email was not downloading to outlook. It is tough to draw the line with small businesses at times as they look at you as their own "internet guru".
I just completed a card sort with some of our Freshman students and high school seniors. It turned out to be really informational, and brought out some patterns in the grouping of certain pages that I never would have though of, but make complete sense.
I second what Jasmine said. All of those things are important. Another for us has been balancing the view that the website is strictly a marketing tool for perspective students and the view that we have multiple audiences and need multiple views. Talk about a headache!

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