Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: October 2, 2009

Higher education websites are mostly crap

By and large, higher education and university websites are crap. Why is that?

Universities have a broad range of audiences:

  • Students (people who are enrolled at the university).
  • Alumni (former students).
  • Faculty (professors who teach at the university).
  • Staff (workers who support the university).
  • Prospective students (people who might apply to the university).
  • Visitors (people who stop by the campus).
  • Parents (mothers & fathers of students).
  • Businesses (that might want to partner with the university).
  • (this list could go on forever).

Designing a website for everyone is not an easy task. Most universities take a portal approach, making their homepage and subpages a link farm for drilling down. Content and navigation is then prioritized and presented in topical and audience forms. Despite a wide range of colors and layouts, every institutional homepage shares similar content regions.

  • Audience-based navigation.
  • Topical navigation.
  • A large “feature” area (sometimes Flash, sometimes a rotating photo, you know what I’m referring to).
  • News.
  • Events.

Think of these elements as a basic recipe for pizza dough and sauce. Throw on cheese and toppings, and there you have hundreds of theme variations that account for practically every university website. Lots and lots of pizzas.

When you think about it, though, there are good pizza places out there (including a great local establishment not far from where you’re sitting right now). What makes them better? Maybe it’s the toppings. Or it could be some magical additive to the sauce. More likely, it’s the precise blend of all these things together. And maybe a little something extra.

Finding the perfect blend is not easy. You need to know what you’re doing, love doing it, and not be afraid to take risks. Maybe a basil-stuffed crust is delicious! But you won’t know unless you cook it and ask.

In the same way, it’s great to take risks when designing websites and application interfaces. Even a failure becomes a valuable learning experience.