University web sites – can they be usable?

September 4, 2017

Over the years we have undertaken usability testing on several University websites. I have blogged before about why so many University sites are so unusable, and concluded that the problems are primarily organisational not technical. Our recent experience seems to confirm that this is still the case.

We have recently been working with another University and the work involved reviewing a number of university sites. While it is true that some of these are certainly more usable than they were 10 years ago, the fundamental problem with virtually all these sites remains: that is the tension between the University, the separate faculties, and the lecturers.

Typically the University, the faculties and the lecturers all have, in effect, separate websites. They often have a different design, different navigation and the content is produced by different people. Sometimes a unified design has been forced on these three sites, but pretty much always the University content is produced by the central web team, the faculty content is produced by the faculty, and the staff content by the individual lecturers.

Our research shows that, as a result, users get confused – very confused! They typically bounce around these three ‘sites’, they can’t find what they want and the content often does not address their goals.

So why is this? One of the principal problems is that the three ‘sites’ seem to have different strategic aims:

  • The main aim of the University is usually to attract high quality students
  • The faculties want to promote themselves as centres of excellence (but to whom is often not clear)
  • The lecturers want to tell their academic peers about what they are researching

This means there is no common view on the users and their goals. They each provide navigation and write content for the audiences they wish to talk to. So an individual user – say a potential PhD student looking to find out if the University offers a course that allows them to research a specific subject – end up on all three of these sites: the navigation and content is not aimed at them or their goals. They have a bad user experience and typically end up contacting the supervisor directly. The same is true of a business looking to see if the University can help with some research, or an alumnus looking to donate money to their alma mater.

So is there a solution? Well yes – in principle. All the stakeholders have to agree on the primary target users and the top tasks the site should support – and structure the content around these. The site needs a coherent strategic aim – not 3 competing ones! However, the fact that many University sites are still as unusable as there were 10 years ago does not bode well. Unless they address these organisational issues the usability of their websites is unlikely to get significantly better any time soon…