August 4, 2010

The xkcd cartoon that got their attention.



Inside Higher Education says:
The xkcd cartoon was particularly apt in skewering three useless but nevertheless common features on a college’s home page, said Mark Greenfield, director of Web services at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an associate consultant at the major higher-ed consulting firm Noel-Levitz. Specifically: the statement of philosophy, the letter from the president or provost, and the campus news feed.

Having those up there might seem like a good idea to the administrative committees that tend to dictate website content, Greenfield said, but they are rarely useful to the website’s most strategically important kind of visitor: the prospective student. Prospective students are more interested in information about majors or financial aid than administrative rhetoric or photos or “pretty girls studying under trees” — a trope so recurrent that it became a running joke at last year’s HighEdWeb Association conference, Greenfield said. “[Prospective students] have been marketed to their entire lives, and they are not looking for that marketing hype,” he said. “They’re looking for authenticity.”

50 comments:

Scott M said...

Who's not interested in pretty girls studying under a tree? What are they wearing? Are they cuddle-studying? "Just-friends" spooning? Are they from the dorms or do they live off campus?

All of these questions are critical to whether or not someone decides to go study under THAT tree.

Scott said...

So true. Trying to get to, "What MSW programs do you have, what's the tuition, and how do I apply?" from just about any .edu site is hugely aggrevating.

The schools with library science curricula must have a few Knowledge Management experts among the faculty. Why don't schools use them?

Comrade X said...

In an ideal world, a university website is where you'd go to get knowledge at a low price, and affirmative action wouldn't be an issue because there's no need to gatekeep a virtual classroom.

The internet has been availble long enough to know that most universities have no intention of using this knowledge distribution device that way. It's a void that will be filled with or without the legacy universities.

Paddy O said...

"than... Pretty girls studying under a tree"

It's true! Everyone knows that when people go to a college website they want to see a picture of a group of students from each of the major races smiling together.

This is especially true if the school is something like "Midwest Grace Reformed College" and you know that they are showing the entire minority student population of the college in that one picture.

This way we know they "value" diversity, even if they don't actually have it.

AJ Lynch said...

Come on - everyone is interested in the photo especially after it's been photoshopped to depict the school's idealic and diverse student body!

wv = leriest [how did it know heh]

traditionalguy said...

I surrender. What does the modern University student seek and consider to be "Authentic"? Depressed girls dressed in worn out hobo clothes? A gay pride parade urging same sex marriages for all of those sadly oppressed by Breeder's beliefs? A binge drinking Bacchanalian weekend?

DADvocate said...

...most strategically important kind of visitor: the prospective student.

This cartoon hits the nail on the head. My youngest son is a high school senior this year who very likely will get a football scholarship. We've visited a couple of dozen schools over the past year.

Invariably, when we visit the home page of the school's website, we find it just as the cartoon shows. We're interested in academic offerings as he has his areas of interest picked up. Places to park. A campus map that is actually helpful. (One college we visited gave the address for the athletic department as 300 College Park. When we got there it turned out that every building on campus was 300 College Park.)

Some schools are better than others, but overall it's amazing how unhelpful the school's websites are and how difficult it is to find useful information.

Scott said...

Clicking around...

There is wisconsin.edu, but UW Madison is wisc.edu, which is ambiguous. Why not something like wiscmad.edu?

drexel.edu is well thought out. You don't have to scroll down to get to "For prospective students," and the page it links to is really useful (unlike UW Madison's).

Anne said...

Another example of how out of touch liberals are with the population. They are all about the touchy feely crapola, when all the real people want is information. Some of the people running these schools have their cranial receptacles wedged so tightly between their gluteal muscles they cannot even see what is really going on.

Class factotum said...

These websites brought to you by the same people who run the sign for the Culver's on 10 in Stevens Point.

I don't care what time you close. I want to know your flavor of the day. I am not going to turn around and cross the highway for, "Open until 10:30 p.m."

Scott said...

(My big project this quarter is a new online help system, so I'll be culling the comments for info on what you like and don't like about information websites.)

wv: catope (1) A trope about cats, (2) The act of relieving oneself from a catwalk.

knox said...

Well, to be fair, "useless features on the home page" and "useful information very hard to find" describes an awful lot of commercial websites. Maybe even most of them.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Some schools are better than others, but overall it's amazing how unhelpful the school's websites are and how difficult it is to find useful information."

I'm not in the mood to be too bitchy today, but this is different from our dumbed-down NewAge society-at-large, how? The average person knows more about Chelsea's wedding and the exploits of Snooki than anything that'll help them during the recession/depression, and even when the topics are Chelsea's wedding or the exploits of Snooki, they don't get much or know what to make of it. (I dare you: walk up to the average blue collar person on the street and ask them if they know who George Soros is, and why it may matter the Clinton wedding was held at his daughter's place, and see what you get beyond a blank stare.) Like I said, I don't feel like being too bitchy right now, but, considering what the placid demeanor of others gives us, i think there's something to be said for the excited approach:

Focuses the mind on what's important.

k*thy said...

Scott - prior to about 1971, UW-Madison was the University of Wisconsin. It's the flagship of the now, University of Wisconsin System (wisconsin.edu) - UW + Wisconsin State Universities. Hence, the wisc.edu, I suspect.

As for DeVry's site, isn't DeVry a for profit school? Which is fine, but I suspect serves a different master(s) than a public school. My opinion of the UW-Madison site is that too cumbersome and tries to be everything for everybody (prospective students, parents, staff gateway, alumni etc).

Paddy O said...

More helpfully (with Scott in mind), this post unhelpfully focuses on prospective students. Prospective students are not the only users of a school website.

Current students, alumni, faculty, journalists, etc. all will visit and use a school website. Each of them have very different goals. The trouble with most front pages is that they try to be a mix of goals, and make everyone frustrated.

The most important aspect a good school website could have is clearly labeled links that direct the particular visitor to a section of the site that has the most important information for their specific interests.

Also, devise very good search ability that gives the most relevant information and, with this, be very good about culling outdated links and information.

The front page should be used to give a clear statement of the mission of the school and then easily lead people to the exact aspect of that they are interested in.

c3 said...

There's a key element missing in this discussion: the parents. Are some of the items on the website deemed "useless" by prospective and actual students, important to the parents of said students?

Or put another way:

we'll market to little Johnny and Jackie when they start footing the bill

the jackal said...

They're not looking for authenticity, they're looking for utility. That's the point of the comment.

DADvocate said...

clear statement of the mission of the school

Only if it is a one liner. I earned two degrees from the same university. I have no idea what it's "mission" is. I just wanted a degree from a respectable university. Isn't that the mission of all universities? Or should be? Education.

DADvocate said...

he parents. Are some of the items on the website deemed "useless" by prospective and actual students, important to the parents of said students?

Read my comment. I'm a parent and have checked out numerous prospective colleges for my son this past year.

Paddy O said...

"Only if it is a one liner."

Absolutely.

"Isn't that the mission of all universities? Or should be? Education."

Yes. But what should I know about how a specific university interprets that mission?

"To enculturate diversity and broaden perspectives" is different than "train students in specific fields so they can get a good job after graduation".

MadisonMan said...

As others mention, this is so true.

The problem is administrators (who control what the website looks like) never use the website to find information. They tell someone else to find the information for them.

MadisonMan said...

There is wisconsin.edu, but UW Madison is wisc.edu, which is ambiguous. Why not something like wiscmad.edu?

That system website (wisconsin.edu) is pretty useless. It's immediately apparent that you've gone to the wrong place if you're looking for a UW school.

What it needs -- instead of a picture of Kevin Reilly, President, and a say-nothing mission statement -- is a map of Wisconsin that is clickable to all the state schools. Wouldn't that be sensible? Sure you can find such a map -- it's just three clicks away if you know how to get there.

MrBuddwing said...

A "cartoon"? Isn't this what is known as a "Venn diagram"?

(And I stunk at math - or whatever Venn diagrams are used for.)

Word verification: eappials.

Ann Althouse said...

"There is wisconsin.edu, but UW Madison is wisc.edu, which is ambiguous. Why not something like wiscmad.edu?"

Because the standard name for the Madison branch is University of Wisconsin. Only the other branches use the city like that. It's a matter of branding.

MikeR said...

This is a standard problem for any website: Executives want their stuff on the home page, and the design people can't always fend them off.

TosaGuy said...

"Diversity" at UW-Madison (scroll to the end)

Roger Sweeny said...

The most important aspect a good school website could have is clearly labeled links that direct the particular visitor to a section of the site that has the most important information for their specific interests.

Also, devise very good search ability that gives the most relevant information and, with this, be very good about culling outdated links and information.

Amen. This is true for just about any organization's website.

Mr. Buddwing, You are, of course, right. That is a Venn diagram, named after John Venn, an English philosopher who did pioneering work in symbolic logic and probability theory. He unleashed the eponymous diagrams on the academic world back in 1881.

xkcd describes itself as, "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language."

Each comic also has a wandover caption. This one reads, "People go to the website, because they can't wait for the next alumni magazine, right? What do you mean, you want a campus map? One of our students made one as a CS class project back in '01. You can click to zoom and everything!"

former law student said...

In the beginning, there was the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and then UWM. Eventually the teacher-training colleges like Stout State became UW-Stout, etc.

former law student said...

But I forgot: my biggest pet peeve is the difficulty of finding out where the faculty went to school. In the paper bulletin days it was easy to turn to the back of the book to find out.

David said...

" . . . they are not looking for that marketing hype,” he said. “They’re looking for authenticity.”

Actually they are looking for hype that seems authentic.

Authenticity--which must by definition be honest and without guile--would simply drive them away. They want to be lured, not driven away.

David said...

Are the pretty girls under the tree straight of gay? Or just LUGS?

howzerdo said...

Tuition Rates should be in the right side, judging by how often I am asked this question. For SUNY right now, the answer to that question is "we don't know." Even when we do, finding the table is tricky, though.

MadisonMan said...

For SUNY right now, the answer to that question is "we don't know." Even when we do, finding the table is tricky, though.

You could always put last year's tuition up on the website. And a nice graph showing how tuition has grown in the past ten years. And how fees have increased as well, and what the fees are used for. That would be useful information. (Says the parent of a high school senior)

Scott said...

Regarding university names: There is no "University of New Jersey" -- our big land grant university is called Rutgers. I sort of like that. It has the ring of an Ivy League college, which is nice, because anything bearing the name "New Jersey" can't get no respect, nohow. :)

former law student said...

our big land grant university is called Rutgers. I sort of like that. It has the ring of an Ivy League college, which is nice

New York State's big land grant university is called "Cornell." (A friend went to vet school there, back in the 70s) And it actually is an Ivy League college.

Scott said...

Yeah. Cornell is sort of weird, though. It's a hybrid private-public college that has programs it operates under contract with the State of New York, but it's not fully integrated with the SUNY system. It is in the Ivy League. And it is a land grant university, but it's not exactly what comes to mind when one uses the term.

Original Mike said...

The UW just redid the home page at wisc.edu. Now I can't find a damn thing.

What's the point? MicroSoft does the same thing. You eventually learn where everything is, and then they move it all around in the next version. Why? Are they really so delusional as to think the newer version is better (as opposed to just different)?

In fact, I think the the answer to my last question is "yes". They are that delusional.

Joe said...

clear statement of the mission of the school

"Our mission is to provide an atmosphere for partying and debauchery while loading you up with more debt that you can possibly imagine."

MadisonMan said...

You eventually learn where everything is, and then they move it all around in the next version. Why?

So that the web people can justify their employment, of course.

Radish said...

"but UW Madison is wisc.edu, which is ambiguous."

When the first domains were registered in 1985, there were about 1000 hosts, so it was pretty obvious to users that wisc.edu was U of Wisconsin, where the domain name system was invented.

Obviously they should have anticipated that 25 years later, people too dumb to figure out that "wisc" is short for "Wisconsin" would be using their system...but at the time, you had to be semi-literate to be admitted to college.

gus3 said...

"Our mission is to provide an atmosphere for partying and debauchery while loading you up with more debt that you can possibly imagine."

Ohio University!

WV: metic (adj., of or about change)

Mark said...

One of my pet peeves with any information that comes from a university is how in love they are with their org chart. Everything is organized by department or college, rather than letting you look for programs of study in some intelligent manner. Students don't care about the reporting structure unless they have a problem with a particular professor. They want to pick a major.

Jamie said...

I run my church's website. When I took it over, the full content of the homepage was:

1. Name of church (good, should have that).
2. GIANT picture of church.
3. GIANT "caption" next to giant picture, telling everybody to come to our church.
4. Sidebar menu with - no kidding - over two dozen links to different pages, including "Parish Life" (which was a bullet-point rundown of important events in the PAST life of the church), "Building of a [architectural term]" (a bunch of pictures of when our new building was being built), and "News" (which, if you happened to click through to it, turned out to be - finally! - the calendar). Nowhere was there, for instance) a word about Christian formation - Sunday school, etc. - though our mission statement says we exist as a parish in major part to teach people about Jesus.

I redid it to highlight the every-week schedule of services and events and the calendar. There is now a site-wide navigation bar with a reasonable number of main categories. And there's still a faction in the parish that wants the giant picture back...

Paul said...

This is so true. I attend a law school at a major public research university with 35,000+ students that is closely allied to tech industry companies and they still don't have an interactive campus map online.

I am, however, always interested in pretty girls whether or not they are studying and whether or not they are near trees.

Kevin said...

A bad commercial website costs money. It's very straightforward to quantify usability for a business site; Jakob Nielsen has made a career of it.

On the other hand, the various drones and committees that set up university websites are completely decoupled from the bottom line. As are most administrators and all professors.

Some would have that a feature, not a bug.

Mary Beth said...

Does the website sell anyone on attending a specific school? If not, how the information presented doesn't matter.

The alumni news and PR is there to provide fresh content to make the search engines happy. The pictures are there to make the people who pay for the site happy. The design is dull and formulaic to keep the visitors happy. I think that the assumption is that people who are looking at a lot of sites would rather have the templates similar, even if they are bad, than have to give a lot of thought to navigating each site.

former law student said...

OMG! Speaking of pretty girls studying under the tree, who can forget the University of Wisconsin's attempt -- back when Netscape was the latest web browser -- to make itself look more diverse, by photoshopping a black student into the cover of its admissions brochure?

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-september-25-2000/a-quick-word-of-advice---diallo-shabazz

Whoops, won't load. Try this for the picture:

http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/09/02/doctoring-diversity-race-and-photoshop/

Think Extraordinary said...

I don't feel like being too bitchy right now, but, considering what the placid demeanor of others gives us, i think there's something to be said for the excited approach:

Original Mike said...

"So that the web people can justify their employment, of course."

Employment to change it, and employment to help people find all the stuff they moved. It's a twofer.

Kev said...

When my school redid its website this past year, they actually included a link at the very bottom called "Where Do I Find It?". The link leads to a page that has links to all the things people actually look for on a website, organized alphabetically. It amazes me that schools didn't start doing that a long time ago.