Reigning in Rogue Sites

This post is something I wrote years ago at BigBad. One of our clients, Rhodes College, asked me to help them sort out their academic department and administrative subsites. I’m amazed to discover that, six years later, I am still getting this question from my higher ed clients. And even more amazed that my answer is still very much the same. I might not make the same recommendations today about bridge pages between the majors and minors list and academic departments–too hard to manage redundant content, too much effort when a CMS will do it for you, or maybe I would recommend dynamic bridge pages built out using the CMSs technology. It depends on the school and on the CMS package.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote many moons ago…the part that applies to any school. I’ve cut out my review of Rhodes’ subsites. They’ve sorted themselves out since my original draft of this was delivered.

Reigning in Rogue Sites

When designing corporate Web sites, designers occasionally have to organize unrelated products and services in a structure that can be understood easily by clients, customers, and partners. But higher education Web sites often include a large quantity of diverse information. In addition to the traditional admissions, financial aid, and academics content, colleges and universities have to organize departments, faculty, courses, student groups, and administrative offices which may be a part of an overall university, a particular college, or several colleges across a university. And this information must be accessible for many varied audiences: students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, employers, and the community.

More often than not, academic departments, faculty, and administrative offices have completely separate Web sites dedicated to explaining their requirements, course offerings, office hours, services, and processes. These separate sites can create identity and navigation challenges. They often look very different from each other and from the main school site. They are hard to find and once you find them, the content you are looking for is either hidden under links that are too vague or use language specific to the institution (i.e., words and phrases that are a complete mystery to someone outside the school) or the content is missing altogether.

The biggest challenge higher education Web site designers face is answering these three questions.

  1. Where do these sites “live” within the college or university site?
  2. Should these sites have a consistent architecture: links, navigation, and other tools?
  3. Should they be required to look like other departments and/or school visual design guidelines?

This document outlines several answers to each of these questions and the plusses and minuses of each approach. Because each school is unique, we will not provide strict recommendations. However, we will provide general guidelines for reigning in these rogue sites. For the purposes of distinguishing these sites from the main university or college sites, we refer to them as “subsites” in the remainder of this document.

Where do they live?

The first challenge when handling subsites is to determine where in the school’s Web site they live.

Why does it matter?
Every page or subsite within a college Web site must have a home. This is the primary place the content lives within the overall organizational structure. Understanding where the page or subsite lives allows both users and designers to understand when clicking a link will keep them in the same section vs. taking them to a different section of the site. (This is called cross linking.) Within-section links and cross links are often given a different visual treatment on a Web page. Cross links are placed in a separate “see also” area to distinguish them from the within-section navigation. Treating these links differently sets users’ expectations about where they will go and what they will find.

Also, assigning a home to each page or subsite is required frequently by content management systems. The content lives—and is managed—in a single dedicated section. This is a huge benefit for college Webmasters. Links to departments and offices can appear on multiple pages in the site but the content is managed in one place.

Okay…so where do they live?
Academic department subsites typically live under the “Academics” sections of most school sites. This is the best, most logical place for these subsites. Other labels for this section include “Majors and Minors” or “Programs and Departments”. Whatever words you choose, it’s good to include two views of the academic departments: one list of majors, minors, and programs and a second list of departments. Two views of academics accommodate both prospective students who want to know what they can major in and faculty who want to know what department they can work in.

Academic department subsites are not cross linked frequently to other areas of the site. However, they can—and should—be cross linked to each other to show the interrelationships between the departments, particularly at schools with interdisciplinary programs. For instance, the International Relations department should include cross links to History, Political Science, Economics, and Modern Foreign Languages.

One final note about accessing academic department subsites: consider using “bridge” pages between the list of majors and minors and the department subsites. A bridge page is a single page of content that acts as a transition between the Academics section and department subsites. These pages are especially useful for colleges wrestling with inconsistent department subsites. They create an opportunity to control the Web user’s experience and make the jump from the main school site to rogue subsites less jarring. Bridge pages give you a place to introduce each department and provide information that’s consistent across all departments. These pages can include a paragraph describing the department, a list of majors, minors, concentrations, and programs, affiliated research centers and institutes, the name of the department chairperson, and contact information for the department with a link to the subsite.

Student groups most often live under the “Campus Life” or “Student Life” sections of a Web site. These subsites can be cross linked to other Activities, Events, or Performances areas of the site. They can also be cross linked to academic departments. For example, cross link the Poetry Club to the English Department or Creative Writing program.

Faculty and courses can live either under their respective departments or in their own dedicated sections. At schools where faculty are highly involved with students, research, or curriculum development, it makes sense to devote a robust section to faculty. Alternatively, some schools utilize a faculty directory. Professors are listed alphabetically, by department, or by expertise. These listings are valuable to all audiences; the list by expertise is especially useful to members of the media looking for subject matter experts. (On the other hand, requiring journalists to go through media relations rather than contacting professors directly has its benefits too.) Other schools list faculty solely within the academic department subsites where they teach.

Each approach is useful, but they address different goals. Web visitors looking for a specific professor’s telephone number are task oriented. They will use a directory to find information quickly and easily. Visitors browsing majors and minors will read about faculty within the context of academic departments.

Whichever approach (or combination of approaches) you choose, your site should include (at a minimum) a complete list of faculty members, names, titles, department(s), phone numbers, email addresses, and short biographies. Students, faculty, parents, the media, and grant institutions also look for office hours, résumés, publications, research interests, and syllabi. Other details or personal Web pages should live in the department in which the professor teaches or the faculty section of the Web site and can be accessed from cross links in directory listings.

Course listings and descriptions often live within a third-party tool such as BannerWeb (or they did when I wrote this in 2005). Although typically stored in a password-protected location, these listings are extremely important to prospective students shopping for a school or program of study. Whenever possible, academic department subsites should include (at a minimum) lists of courses offered, descriptions, and instructors. Students also look for number of credits, syllabi and the semester, days, times, and location the course is offered.

Administrative offices and services subsites often live under an “Administration” or “Offices and Services” section of a college Web site. But some—like Admissions and Financial Aid—can live on their own. So the answer to the question of where these subsites live is, “it depends.” It depends on which subsites we’re talking about. The subsites that can stand on their own should stand on their own. However, those Administrative subsites should be listed in a directory of their own. A complete alphabetical directory listing of all campus offices and services is a valuable tool. It’s quick and easy to navigate and acts as a one-stop-shopping portal for easy references.

It’s important to note that the list of these offices should not always reflect the internal, organizational structure of the college. For instance, just because Alumni Relations and Development live under University Advancement, that doesn’t mean the offices should be listed this way on the site. Forcing users to look for the Alumni Network under Advancement can make Web visitors feel like they will be asked to give money before they can find out when the next reunion is happening. Presenting information logically rather than organizationally is important to create a positive user experience for all Web audiences; and it’s particularly important when addressing a key audience like alumni. It’s best to avoid confusion by listing the link to the Alumni Network subsite separately from the link to the Capital Campaign subsite.

And while you are going about the task of presenting these administrative subsites logically, be sure to choose your words carefully. The links to these sites should be meaningful and resonate with all audiences both inside and outside the college. Your Student Accounting Advisor might understand the difference between services offered by Student Accounts, the Finance Office, and the Bursar’s Office. But a list of these offices could be an obstacle for a parent looking for a place to pay a tuition bill online. Always keep your audiences in mind and don’t be afraid to list some services under multiple headings. For instance, there may not be an online bill payment office but that shouldn’t stop you from including a listing such as this:

Online Bill Payment: see Bursar’s Office

Finally, don’t forget to include links to these offices from other relevant areas of the site. For example, link to the Campus Safety office subsite from the Campus Visits and Student Life areas of the site.

Do they all have the same navigation?

We’ve provided some hints above to answer this question. Our reply to this one is, “sometimes.”

Why does it matter?
Whatever words you use to describe the things your visitors use to get around your site (links, navigation, tool bars, menus) they are—very simply—the way visitors get around your site. These tools provide the visual cues for Web browsers to understand where they are and where they can go. Your navigation system should use plain English words and allow users to anticipate what content they will find wherever they click. Navigation menus should intuitively answer the questions:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where can I go next?
  • How do I get back here?

Providing a consistent set of links across subsites promotes the usability of these sites. The same group of links in the same place labeled with the same words allows visitors to browse across these sites and always know where to click to find information “about us” or to “contact us”.

How does this work?
Just to be clear, we are not suggesting that the Career Services office, SGA, Spanish Club, and Ultimate Frisbee team subsites all have the same navigation or content. We do recommend that you work with these departments and organizations to understand the commonalities among the groups.

Academic department subsites have a shared goal of providing information to students. There is a core foundation of content that is common across the departments. All departments have majors, minors, or concentrations and academic requirements. They have courses and faculty. They have a history or mission or other information “about the department”. And they each have a department chairperson, administrator, or other contact person for undergraduate or graduate programs.

As we’ve mentioned, course listings should include the same basic information about each course: course name, number, description, instructor, number of credits, and (when possible) dates, times, and locations.

The same rules apply to faculty listings. Be as consistent as possible, including names, titles, department(s), biographies, and contact information. Full resumes, lists of publications, syllabi, and links to personal Web sites are also helpful.

Student clubs and organizations can get a bit trickier but here again we often find common themes based on shared audiences and goals. The performing arts groups, athletic clubs, and competition teams all have tryouts and performances. They all have a faculty or staff supervisor, meeting area, and contact information. Each of these subsites can share a base navigation menu to help users find their way. But just to reiterate, we would never advocate identical subsites for the Moot Court Team and the Glee Club. The variations in content are what make each group unique; they are the means for expressing the different personality of each organization. The puzzles on the Math department site and the photo galleries on the Photography Club subsites are what make each group distinctive. And these unique features are what attract a diverse group of students and faculty to your college. A shared set of navigation menu items is simply a way to improve the user friendliness of your rogue subsites and overall Web site.

Once again, the same rules apply to administrative offices and services. At a minimum, these subsites should explain what each office does, what services they provide, and who to contact. There is a subset of these offices which also have an application process. These sites should clearly explain that process and include links to forms and applications and deadlines.

What do they look like?

The answer to the question, Should these subsites look the same? is an emphatic, Yes. Subsites should look like the colleges and universities of which they are a part.

Why does it matter?
Basic elements of design (color, form, type, imagery) are part of the visual vocabulary people use to recognize brand and identity. For instance, a bright red tin can with a white swirl is as much a part of Coca-Cola as the bubbles in the soda. This swirl is such an important part of the Coca-Cola brand that it has been named (the “Dynamic Ribbon”) and trademarked. Any consumer knows this instinctively from decades of associations with red tin cans and Coke. And now Coca-Cola is the world’s most recognizable brand.

The design elements of the existing brand identity should be leveraged on the Web. A strong brand identity conveys the strength, reputation, and the feel of a school on the Web. Navigating from a department to an office to a club should feel consistent; it should feel like the same college or university. We create this consistent feeling with a consistent look. Without it, site visitors can feel lost.

Consistent branding has become even more important recently on the Web. Search engine technology has evolved and college Webmasters have responded, becoming savvier about tagging pages deep within the university site to show up in search engine results. As the search engine technology has improved, Web surfers have become heavily reliant on Yahoo! and Google, expecting them to serve up the exact page or pages they are looking for. As a result, more Web traffic will originate somewhere within the site, i.e., not on the homepage. Visitors that go directly from Google to the financial aid deadlines page or the political science graduation requirements page should know instantly that they are within the Financial Aid office or the Political Science department subsites of Acme University.

What does this mean?
These subsites can express their own individuality and personality—within reason. Any variations from the school’s brand identity should be done intentionally, knowingly, and with audience needs in mind. The visual design of each subsite should reflect elements of the overall college or university and use the same style and tone.

All of these rogue subsites should include the same page header (school logo and other branding elements) and footer (copyright, terms of use, and contact information). And the subsites should include the same primary navigation as the college or university site, depending on where the site lives. For instance, within the Acme University Web site, the English department subsite should be consistent with the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Accounting department subsite should be consistent with the School of Business.

Color palettes may be varied somewhat but they should stay within the school’s extended color palette, i.e., colors designated by the school’s visual identity guidelines. The same goes for typography. All type should appear within the family chosen by the school. This seemingly minor detail can go a long way to achieving consistency across these subsites and your college or university. The same rules apply to photography. Photography should utilize the same visual style and similar subject matter. For instance if your primary Web site relies on head shots of small groups of students, a subsite that relies on wide-angle shots of sweeping campus vistas will not feel like it’s part of the same school.

These subsites can convey their own personality within the content of their sites. This includes photography and other imagery. For instance, the Intramural Sports subsite should include information about try-outs and practice times and pictures of students playing games and supporting teams. In contrast, the Financial Aid office should include few photographs, focusing instead on conveying information about deadlines and processes in a clear precise manner. But both of these subsites—and all the others—should speak in the same warm, welcoming tone as the whole college or university.