Late last night someone sent me a link to today’s XKCD cartoon, saying “This reminds me of you…”:

XKCD: University Website

XKCD #773: University Website

By this morning, it was all over Twitter and spawning all sorts of it’s-true-no-it’s-not commentary from the higher ed world. Most of the negative commentary seems to be around the importance of the university website as promotional piece. Meanwhile, the user-centered design folks are mostly pointing and screaming “THIS.”

As for me, I agree with both sentiments — the home page is about promotion, but it’s also about focusing on your users and their needs. But, in addition, I am reminded of something I’ve been saying around here for years:

The web is a tool, not a toy.

One of the sentiments I hear from higher-ups on university campuses is that they see the web as this “thing” they must “have” like the latest electronic gizmo. It’s a sentiment I heard in the late 1990s quite a bit from people — that having a website made you Cooler Than Everyone Else.

The frightening thing, of course, is that people are still saying that in 2010. It doesn’t make you cooler than anyone else to have one; it’s de rigueur now, so NOT having one makes you LESS Cooler Than Everyone Else.

Around 2002 or so, I noticed a change in what they were saying. They talked now about putting information on the web, filling their sites with a mishmash of information. I dubbed this the “web as bulletin board” approach. This was an improvement over the “web as toy” attitude, but there was no strategy involved, and often you ended up with university home pages that were slumgullions of random chunks of information that had no purpose other than to, well, make you look Cooler Than Everyone Else. Here’s a big box about a research grant we got! Here’s a huge thing on some random academic center whose professor demanded we put it on the front page. Oh, you want to find out about our academic programs? Click on this itty-bitty link down in the bottom right.

University websites, for the most part, have been a combination of these two things ever since then. Take the now-famous Brown University website, filled with its sliding boxes. Perhaps, from an information architecture standpoint, it’s pretty good (and I think it probably is), but what did everyone talk about? The sliding boxes. This is the Web As Toy, and I personally think it distracts more than enlightens.

Then there’s the new University of Washington home page. If you head for the bottom of the page, you run into what’s been dubbed the “Obama footer,” so called because it was the same link-heavy footer style used on the Obama campaign site. The problem, of course, is that you have a lot of useful links all clustered in these long lists that make them hard to read and unusable. (Scott Thomas, the Obama ’08 design director, explained at An Event Apart 2009 why they had the link-heavy footer — everyone wanted their stuff on the home page, so they just stuffed them all in the footer out of the way of the news and marketing messages so they wouldn’t interfere. Win-win, yes, but it doesn’t seem like a viable long term strategy, and in fact the big footer was not a design element of any Obama-derived website that followed.)

I don’t think the web is a Toy, and I don’t think it’s a Bulletin Board. I think it’s a tool. It’s a device for getting needed information to the users looking for it.

An example: Someone at our undergraduate advising office told me a story a couple of years ago. For a long time, the advisers were constantly going through burnout due to the endless crush of students begging them for help. They decided to do something radical: They rounded up all the frequently asked questions of students — everything from what classes to take to how to declare a major — and put a list of answers on their website. Students were then advised to check the website first to see if the information they needed was already there.

Something strange happened in the Advising Center. The students kept coming, but the questions were now harder, things that required time and effort to solve. The advisers, though, found they now had time to do the legwork to solve the hard questions and take the time to help walk students through crises, because they weren’t spending the day on the phone answering the questions the website answered. Students were happier, and the burnout started to fade as the advisers saw what their work meant to these crisis students.

To me, that’s using the web as a tool — they identified their audience, identified their questions, answered them, then made themselves more available to deal with the stuff the web didn’t or couldn’t answer. It’s not just the “user-centered design” we wave around like the new banner we must rally around, but it’s also a user-centered organization that uses the web to help make their users’ lives easier.

Now, there is one issue with this — what information needs to be in front of the audience. Audiences want to find faculty phone numbers. Audiences also want to find out about your school. Both pieces of information need to be available to them. I am not opposed to the home page as marketing tool. Used correctly, it can be a great device for promoting the institution.

But it must come with findability. The information the people are there to look for needs to be obvious. It needs to be findable.

Think of it this way — retail stores fill the fronts of stores with aspirational products as well as cheap, high margin tchotchkes. My local Target is loaded with items they’re promoting that I’m not looking for, all with the idea that perhaps I’ll think hey, this is only $1, or hey, I really do need a 5 burner gas grill with sear burner and at a low price to go with the socks and underwear I actually was here to buy.

But imagine if Target was only about all this stuff they were trying to promote. Imagine if it was such that you couldn’t actually find the socks and underwear for all the big displays of grills and the videos of people using electric toothbrushes and the aisles and aisles of cheap junk. What would happen? They’d stop selling socks and underwear and everything else people came to find because people would go to Fred Meyer or Wal-Mart where the socks and underwear were findable.

And that, to me, is the truth of the XKCD cartoon. A university website is a tool for finding answers. If along the way you find out something new about the institution you didn’t know before, that’s gravy. But if your audience is prospective students, and they just want to know if you offer their degree and how to apply, and you’re shoving videos and mission statements in their face rather than giving them a route to the application form they want to fill out, you will lose.

Noel-Levitz’ recently released E-Expectations survey found 1 in 4 prospective undergraduates took a school off their potential applicant list because of a poor experience with that school’s website. We can say all we want about how nice multimedia presentations and marketing materials help draw students in, but if you don’t give the students what they want, they will leave.

The web is a tool. It is not a toy. Content may be king, but the user is God. And they demand — and deserve — usability and findability. Let content strategy and user-centered design lead the way, not the hither and thither of provosts and presidents and professors and their pontifications.