My Little Corner of the Net

University Websites

Situational humor is funny because it is true. While it points out our flaws, the humor comes from the fact that there is often little, if anything we can do to change the situation. All we can do is laugh and move on.

In the IT world, one of the best sources for such humor is the web comic XKCD. It is brutally honest in the flaws of the industry, flaws that can only see change from the hand of slow-moving committees and out-of-touch upper management.

XKCD hit it out of the park again with their recent University Websites comic. Featuring a Venn diagram, the strip compares everything on the typical university homepage with everything that people want to see, with the only overlap being the full name of the university.

XKCD University Websites: Things on the front page of a university website vs. the things people go to the site looking for

As the webmaster of a university, this gave me a good laugh because it is true. Our site features a prominent Flash carousel highlighting news of campus events, alumni stories, and (months after hockey season ended) the fact that we made our debut in both the Division I NCAA tournament and the Frozen Four last season. Yet, if i want to find someone’s phone number I have to go to a URL I always get wrong (though I did add a redirect some time ago) and download a PDF.

The problem with universities, unlike businesses, is the fact that our sites have to serve many demographics. Businesses have a set of products or services they provide and their demographic is the consumers of those services. This is true in higher ed as well: we sell the service of educating people for well-paying jobs and as such it would seem our demographic would be students. But even among students we have very different needs: prospective students want to know about the courses they’ll take and how well the balance of fun versus boring-time-spent-in-class works in their favor, while current students want to know the date they can register for their next quarter classes and the location of a campus store selling ice cream at 11:00 at night.

It doesn’t end their, either. The university homepage needs to appeal to parents (who want to know how big of a second mortgage they’ll need to pay the tuition bills), alumni (who we want to give us money so that we can attract more students by decreasing the size of the aforementioned second mortgage), wealthy benefactors (who give us lots of money to really help decrease the size of the second mortgages in exchange for having their name plastered on the front of a building), and businesses (who will license our research to make exciting products and services that we can then brag about on our homepage, making us look good to those prospective students that are the consumers of our services.

Of course, the other issue is that everyone in the university community also wants their soapbox. Professors want to entice students to take their courses, clubs want students to partake in their activities, and researchers want the world to know how they are about to change everything. All of this does have a place as it all contributes to our mission of educating people to find well-paying jobs. Its just trying to manage it all that’s a problem.

Now if I could just figure out where I can get some ice cream later tonight.

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