A prospective student does a Google search for “English composition [university name]” and is brought to your English department’s site. While there, they find the program that intrigues them, and decide to jump off course to learn more about tuition and fees, housing, and dining services. Along they way they bounce through three additional department Web sites, but the prospective student feels like they’ve been to three completely different university sites. Each step along the way they have to figure out where the navigation and search bar have moved, how their content is organized, what lingo they use, and likely have a completely different experience on each site. Sound familiar?
Developing a university-wide Web design template that is flexible enough for all departments, programs and units to use is one behemoth of a challenge. In the case of large institutions where there are usually multiple Web offices throughout the institution, it’s even more challenging and unlikely to find. Small- to mid-size colleges/universities with a centralized Web and/or marketing unit can make this happen - but it takes quite a bit of work, commitment and patience.
Five steps to rein in the outliers
1) Create a strong template
Create a visually appealing, yet flexible enough template that is customizable for each unit. The flexibility needs to range from having a small to large menu of options, the ability to manage rapidly changing content areas, and be able to use customized photographs and images that best represent the unit.
2) Create a strong policy
Create a strong, clear, concise policy that is enforced, endorsed and supported my upper management. Make sure this policy is brief, yet contains information about why and how using the standard design template will benefit them and their audiences.
3) Blame the law
Many states, as well as the federal government, have policies and standards related to Web accessibility. Some are more complex and intricate than others. Regardless, the average faculty and staff member who is not a Web developer for a living will likely gloss over these laws, and not be able to produce sites that are in full compliance of them. Let them know you and/or your staff have become experts, or perhaps have even attended seminars to learn these laws inside and out. Encourage them to focus on the content and messages they want to deliver, and to let you (and your staff) handle the technicals.
4) Make the case
Don’t make it personal. When initially communicating with the department, don’t make it personal, don’t be defensive, but do expect resistance. Always phrase your statements in ways that remove yourself, as well as the other individual, from the equation. Using the standard template is in the best interest of all parties involved - it supports the university-wide branding initiative, the users of the site will have a much easier time hopping around from site to site when a common template is in use, their site will be in compliance with local and federal laws, etc.
Talk about the benefits of cohesiveness. Talk about their audiences. Talk about the strengths of the overall university brand that will help their department/program/unit.
Compliment things they’re doing well. Empathize with them. Become their partner. Get them excited about the variety of options the new template provides - being able to use the content management system for quicker updates, being able to easily post and update news whenever they want, the ability to quickly and easily add videos, photo galleries, etc. Whatever the benefits are of your template - make them known. Make sure if they’re doing “cool” things in their current site, they’ll be able to continue to do them in the new template.
5) Don’t pull rank.
We all know universities are filled with politics. Tread lightly, but don’t pull rank. Avoid involving “higher ups” and keep it at your level and below whenever possible. If you’ve truly tried everything you can at your level, only then should you take it up one level to your direct supervisor. Doing this may give you a fresh perspective and approach to try that you hadn’t thought of previously.
Vassar College is an internationally known institution with approximately 2,500 students, but they made a strategic decision to not impose an institutional layout. Their college’s site is one of the most well-known in the industry. They have a centralized Web office with five staff members. What do you think about this approach?
As I mentioned before - I know this is hard, if not virtually impossible, to do at many institutions. But, it has been done. Tell us who you are - I know you’re out there. Are there steps or tricks I’m missing? Can you share any secrets you keep up your sleeve?
Flickr photo by sibhusky2