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Website design must equal website strategy

Recent studies on the use of university websites by prospective students are causing us as website administrators to rethink our websites, the goals we have for them, and the process we go through in posting them.  All of us tend to have a 2-4 year cycle that we go through, after which we judge our website “old” and therefore due for a redesign.  Too often this redesign means just updating the templates and maybe <gasp> retooling the site navigation just a little.  Not a lot though, we all know we have to have those same generic audience-based links at the top of the page.  Unfortunately, while we might spend a year or more on this process, in the past little attention was usually paid to content.  In all too many cases the new template was simply buckled onto the old content, without even a basic sweep being done for stale links.

This changed somewhat as the web became a more important tool that more people were using.  The shift from getting information in paper catalogs to getting it on the web is long past.  Most of us have recognized this and placed a renewed emphasis on making sure we have the most up to date content (“stale, incorrect, content is worse than no content!”) and have even thought deeply about making sure all the content a prospective student, who most web offices will now tell you is their primary audience, might want to know is front-loaded and easy to find.

But is our design process actually producing something that this group actually cares about? Did anybody even ask how our primary audience might be using the site?

One recent university site redesign puts thing in a slightly new light:

Aha moment?
I had a big one during the planning phase. We held some focus groups with students where were trying to understand what they want and need most from their university web site. I learned that students don’t primarily view web sites as a place to get information, but rather as a destination to get things done. Their expectations of what they should be able to do on a university web site are extremely high. It goes beyond their desire for it to look good and be consistent in its navigation.     [emphasis mine]

http://www.mstonerblog.com/index.php/blog/comments/524/proust_questionnaire_nancy_prater_ball_state_university/

This observation has been more and more often repeated in the conferences I have attended.  Design, navigation, and usefull information are important, but they are not enough.  Incoming students are looking for a seamless experience where they can go online, get the information they need — say for qualifying for a scholarship — and then be able to apply that information all in one trip. This means websites can no longer be simple information silos; they must instead exist in a truly interconnected web of online resources.

This type of cohesion is difficult in small schools where there is a unified control over the web presence.  How will we manage with the size and decentralization that we experience here at Texas A&M?  Cooperation, I think, must be the key.  More thoughts on how that might be accomplished in later posts.

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Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 Future Projects, www.tamu.edu 3 Comments

TechRepublic Top 10 Developer Skills Article

Justin James has written many good articles about development, and has done it again with a recent article titled 10 skills developers will need in the next five years. His list includes some big languages (.NET/Java/PHP), Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), web services, agile methodologies, and mobile development to name a few.

I think the article is spot on with what I’ve been seeing in the industry, and in our shop, we are looking at (or using) many of these technologies already. I like to think that helps reassert our position as a leader in application/web development at A&M. The ones we area actively using are .NET, PHP, agile development practices, web services (REST/SOAP), a bug tracking system (JIRA), and a source control system (Subversion). Soon we will be playing with some RIA and mobile development technologies, something I’m particularly looking forward to.

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Friday, April 10th, 2009 Programming No Comments

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