The First Principle: It’s for the Visitors

Not once in more than a decade of involvement in every aspect of university web sites have I heard a decision-maker ask the most important question of all: “Is this good for our visitors?” This doesn’t surprise me one iota. What astonishes me is that some government watchdog group isn’t all over this yet.

After all, who’s paying for university web sites? Exactly. The money comes from state funding (taxes), tuition, student fees and, in the case of certain grant programs, federal funding (more taxes). Yet institutions are not only failing to advocate for their web visitors, they have no conception that such advocacy should exist.

By contrast, successful enterprises such as Amazon (or to keep it in the realm of education, Coursera) build their sites around the needs and wants of the people using it.

When I’m having a rough day at work I amuse myself by imagining what Amazon would look like if a university had built it. A 12-megabyte slider is on the home page, just above Our Mission Statement and A Message from Our CEO. The merchandise is organized under links with titles such as “First Assistant Vice President for High-Definition Televisions.” One-click purchasing is nonexistent.

The slider, by the way, doesn’t feature merchandise. It contains testimonials from smiling Amazon customers (“I never thought an ordinary person like me could ever buy my own garden gnome collection. Amazon showed me I can achieve anything!”).

You might be surprised to know that a list of officers and directors for Amazon is on its site and that Coursera posts its mission statement online. The people who built these sites understand that certain content, while necessary, is also peripheral. Peripheral information should never push aside the content that is central to the site’s purpose.

Putting the web visitors first is not an easy concept for universities to embrace. There are many reasons for this, but to pick two randomly:

  1. This function is not in anyone’s job description. It is, in the words of Douglas Adams, Somebody Else’s Problem.
  2. Administrators are slow to take on board anything they didn’t originate. (Or, as a president’s secretary once told me rather snottily, “We’re the university. We’re not interested in learning anything new.”)

But by doing so, universities could free up the web development process from the politics that surround it. Is there any web professional who doesn’t have a war story of two department heads locked in a power struggle over which direction to take with the web? Now apply the first principle –“is this good for the visitors?” — to the situation. Did the better direction become clear?

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