We are told in the mythical Introduction to Web Development 101 that the first thing we should do when building a new website is to establish who the audience is, and then build the site with them in mind. In practice this very often doesn’t happen. Even when we pay lip service to being audience-centric and go through the motions of identifying an audience, we very often then go forth and build the site just like any other.
Just how important this can be struck me earlier this week when one of my colleagues sent out an email saying “Sexiest website i’ve seen in a while” with a link to the Apple Macbook. My first reaction was “these animations are annoying.” Then as I continued to look it turned into frustration over how difficult it was to find actual information about the product, which in turn led to “why don’t they do this like Dell where all of the product information is in one easy to read chart”? On the face of it, both companies sell computers so it might seem logical that their websites wouldn’t be terribly different, right?
Upon further reflection, the answer is clear. Dell and Apple users are quite different. What appeals to one doesn’t resonate with the other. Both companies understand what their customers are looking for and have built their websites very differently, but with their respective audiences in mind.
We in higher ed can learn from this example. Instead of getting into the routine of doing every site in an institutional template — or the opposite, making every site with a splashy graphical experience — we should target the site design to the audience we are trying to reach. For some, a dazzling experience would be the preferred approach. A perfect example would be the Reveille site that we just launched. On the other hand, a site built for a targeted set of academics might need to tone down the design and focus on quick and efficient delivery of content. We can do both. In fact, we should do both. This type of flexibility might take some of us out of our comfort zone, but if we take our cue from two industry leaders that is exactly how we will most effectively share our content.
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