Playing 30 Questions on the Virtual Campus: Results

This post, in which I get crotchety about faculty micromeddling, originally appeared Jul 7, 2014, on another blog of mine. In it you’ll find the origin story of the 30 Questions.

I developed the idea behind the 30 Questions exercise several years ago after a faculty member took it upon herself to become the university’s marketing department. She discovered the World Wide Web at 9 a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning. By 2 p.m. she was issuing directives as to the design and features of the university’s web site.

How does a web developer begin to explain to a single-minded faculty member with zero web background the number and enormity of ways in which they’re completely wrong?

Every time somebody sent me a university web site they wanted me to copy, I applied some of the questions and other tools to find out if it outperformed ours. The tests provided data to move my objections from “this is a bad idea, I know what I’m doing” to “here’s why this is a bad idea.” It was pigeon chess, but my boss at least respected facts.

(The situation illustrates how university administrators are less than excellent at business management. In this case they failed to establish a marketing initiative headed by qualified people. They failed to keep faculty from interfering in operations that were none of their business. They failed to give web staff the tools and support requested to take the university web sites to the next level.)

I had most of the 30 Questions in hand by the time another university asked me and several others to work on redesign recommendations. I gathered up the questions I had already created and rounded out the list with a few others.

The Findings

The exercise took me more than five hours. I clocked times ranging from just under six seconds (events for a week from today) to giving up after three-and-a-half minutes (information on where to take the SAT). Here are a few things I found:

  • For eight of the questions I had to resort to the search engine because I couldn’t find anything in the navigation.
  • The site’s search feature defaulted to the university’s people search instead of its web search. As a result, the majority of searches turned up no results.
  • On a people search, though, it did pretty well. I found the biology professor in 26 seconds, and it would have taken less than 10 if I had gone straight to the search engine instead of reaching it via a Faculty & Staff link.
  • Because of the way the site incorporated the search form, the back button from the search results page was disabled. Visitors had no way to return easily to the home page.
  • The home page and main navigation contained no link to the course-management system, and I never found this link (a few others did). The situation was complicated by the university’s using at least three different course-management systems (a situation expected to change in the next few years).
  • The link to university email was equally difficult to find, and the situation was equally complex. The campus had at least three email systems for students and four for employees. Again, this will change in the next few years.
  • It took nearly a full minute to find scholarship application information. Where you look for it depends on the school. This information was on separate school sites, and there was no central resource.
  • It took a full nine clicks to return to the home page after looking at the history courses in the course catalog. It took more to figure out how to get there. I lost count.
  • I found the parking guidelines in less than two minutes, but it wasn’t clear who should use which lots. The map was too small to read.
  • Thank goodness for 911 because the number for campus security took nearly 41 seconds to find — and then the page contained several phone numbers with no explanation what they were for.
  • The dining hall menus took a minute to find. The menus were posted as PDF files, but only when classes were in session. Nutrition information was unavailable.
  • If you wanted to know the typical cost per semester hour for graduate courses, you were out of luck. There was a Net Price Calculator, but it took 10 to 15 minutes to use and required the visitor to have documents about their income and so forth on hand before starting.
  • It took a minute and change to find the student newspaper, but the site was dead. A new set of students had come in and moved the paper to Tumblr without telling anyone.
  • Accessing student job information required a login.
  • The list of student organizations had no descriptions or contact information. This information was on a campus CollegiateLink site, but the site was incomplete and the main web site didn’t link to it.
  • The campus apparently didn’t offer continuing education courses.
  • At least five questions took me to an A-Z list of offices to reach my destination. That list wasn’t in the main navigation; you had to fumble your way to it via the “About the Campus” link.
  • Sections of the site of no use to students but taking up prime navigation space included Make a Gift, Our Vision, Office of the Chancellor, Civic Involvement, The Global Campus, Faculty Achievement and Office of Sponsored Research.
  • The main navigation had no link to the home page, and the logo wasn’t linked.

My colleagues reported similar results. We varied as to times and routes we took to reach information but not as to the obstacles we encountered.

The findings of my volunteers from Facebook overlapped with ours. Their times were longer — one dogged individual spent more than eight minutes looking for transcript information before throwing in the towel — and they were more likely to give up without finding what they were looking for. I received notes on navigation schemes that took my volunteers in circles or landed them in places other than what the link name suggested.

To his considerable credit, the administrator who received these findings took action where he could. The search engine is working better with the search defaulting to web instead of people and with the back button no longer disabled. The logo now links to the site’s home page.

Many of the other issues defy resolution because the content in question is on the web site of another campus, school or department. There’s no continuity in site management, and the disconnect is Somebody Else’s Problem.

Adapting the 30 Questions

I created this exercise for university or campus home pages, but an enterprising colleague used it to assess his school’s web site and found it equally revealing there.

Web professionals can modify the 30 Questions for special institutions such as medical, business or law schools by adding questions about content common to those fields. My only advice is to take care not to skew the questions toward peripheral content (Our Vision). Work from the first principle: it’s for the visitors. Base your questions on their needs and wants.

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