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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters


Back to Reality

The trip to eduWeb last week was well worth it.  I noticed several new trends and picked up some ideas that we can incorporate into our web presence.  I’ll post some of those observations once I have a chance to review my notes and organize my thoughts.

While catching up from the trip on Friday I kept running across the cartoon that somebody posted about what should be on a university website.

cartoon depicting topics of what is on a university website vs. what should be

I must have seen this cartoon on at least a dozen blogs, mail lists, personal emails, and Facebook posts.  When it started making the rounds of the local uweb listserv I figured I had to reply.  I know it was sent tongue-in-cheek, but it does bring up an important point that we (ironically those of us in the IT world more-so than others) tend to forget.

My thoughts are best summed up by a comment Brian Niles left on the highedwebtech blog. For better or worse, the main website at any university is now mostly about marketing the university to the outside world – particularly prospective students and their parents.  [Pardon me while I don my flame-retardant suit.]  Online resources for the campus community really belong on a campus intranet, in our case the Howdy portal, various divisional websites, and our departmental intranets.

Of course nothing is ever absolute and we should expect there to always be overlap.  Most of the elements on the right side of the image are already on our campus website, and I believe I can say that all of them were already being incorporated into the new version we’re creating.  That being said, when choosing the content for the site we do approach it largely with an external audience in mind, and this trend will likely grow more pronounced over time.

The main university website is no longer the primary method of conveying online information to all audiences.  As the internet has evolved it has gotten more sophisticated and allowed us to tailor the content to particular groups.  That doesn’t mean the on-campus audience gets left behind, it just means that we need to present their content separately from what we give to the public.

It also means that we need to take as much care in crafting the websites aimed at our on-campus audience as we do those aimed at the public.  I have no doubt this cartoon was drawn by somebody working on a campus and was frustrated at not getting the information he was looking for.   The problem, though, was that he was looking in the wrong place, and we as web managers didn’t have a complete university web presence aimed at filling his needs.

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Monday, August 2nd, 2010 3 Comments

Hospitality: beyond SEO, beyond usability

For too long, webmasters have thought of search engine optimization as if it were nothing more than a form of advertising, and usability as if it were nothing more than accessibility. SEO became a set of clever techniques to get visitors to your site, and usability became a set of rules that might be reluctantly followed.

Now things are changing. The old SEO techniques aren’t working as well or as long. To get high rankings for many competitive keywords, the most important “technique” seems to be, “Have pages that people want to link to.” As far as usability, it turns out that pages that are hard for the disabled to use are probably hard for everybody else to use. Not only are they not accessible, they’re not very usable.

These problems with websites – people can’t find us, people can’t use us – can easily get masked. Most webmasters reason to themselves, “We have visitors, we must be doing something right.” But it’s difficult to know how many more visitors you would have had – how much longer they would have stayed, and how much more they would have recommended your site to others – if you had done things differently. If your site pleases you and your boss, you may hear no complaints. But your potential visitors are not you or your boss. They haven’t even visited yet. You may not know much about your potential visitors at all.

Both findability and usability have a bad name in some circles. People see web pages where the keywords limit the writers, and where usability rules limit the designers. We need to go beyond that. Content that isn’t interesting or natural, or design that isn’t attractive or even bearable – that’s not usable. That’s not optimized. Not if visitors can’t stand to use it. As Stephen P. Anderson notes, researchers have found that attractive things work better.

Instead of findability or usability, let’s try another word – hospitality. Our visitors are truly our guests. Our websites need to say, “Howdy! Glad you’re here. Can I get you anything? Are you finding everything you need?”

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Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 Search, Usability 2 Comments

Budget Usability Testing

Is web usability testing possible for less than $50, in less than 2 hours a week? That’s what Chas Grundy of the University of Notre Dame said in his eduweb conference session. So while John and Erick are at HighEdWeb, I’ll finish up with my own conference notes.

Usability testing can be as simple as sitting 3-5 users down in front of your website, and watching what they do. With screen capture software and/or a webcam, you can even record them.

Chas offered several suggestions and encouragements on web usability testing.

  1. Focus on the big issues. Begin today.
  2. Decide what to learn, how to learn, who from, when to test. Most users are similar. If high school students can’t find your “Contact Us” button, neither can rich elderly potential donors.
  3. Explain to the users that there are no right/wrong answers. In fact, they’re not being tested at all – the web developers are.
  4. Test early, test often. Don’t wait until the site is set in stone.
  5. You can test using paper prototypes and mockups, even before your site is finished.
  6. Test competitors’ websites too, to see if alternatives work better than what you’re doing.
  7. When you test, give users tasks. Don’t leave it open-ended.
  8. Encourage your users talk out loud over the tasks, but don’t offer any direction yourself.
  9. If you ask about something, people will create opinions where they had none before.
  10. What web users say is not always what they do. Ignore speculation.
  11. Fix the obvious, do special testing on the hard parts, then retest.
  12. Design once, increment forever.
  13. Remember: everything we do could be wrong. We don’t know until we’ve tested it.

Chas suggested several usability testing software tools…

…and several websites on usability and usability testing:

  • – The online home of Web usability consultant Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think.
  • – For usability research, many turn to Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s website. For graphic design beauty, they usually look elsewhere.
  • – A one-stop source from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services on how to make websites more usable, useful, and accessible.

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Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 Usability 1 Comment

eduWEB: Higher Style for Higher Education Websites

Design and usability: that was the focus of the eduWeb conference session led by Stewart Foss, a former college webmaster and founder of edustyle, a showcase for the best higher education web designs.

Here are some of the thoughts I came away with: › Continue reading

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Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 CSS, HTML No Comments

Skeptical visitors to your website

The search for information scent doesn’t end when a visitor clicks on the search result and lands on your website. Next, visitors look for answers to two questions: Do I really want to be on this site? If so, which part of this site can help me the most? They’ve come, but they need to be convinced to stay.

In her article “Top Three Basics Many Websites Miss,” Shannon Kavanaugh stresses the importance of including “a clear tag line or company description that summarizes the website or your organization’s purpose” on your home page. That reassures your visitor, “Yes, I’m in the right place. This site is for people like me.” This is no time for vagueness. Is your site designed for students, staff, faculty, researchers, businesses, consumers, or someone else? A page may be useless, boring or even frightening to one group because it successfully targets another group. Be so precise in your tag line/description that visitors know instantly if they are on the wrong site.

But a tag line or description is simply an initial promise of what your site is about. You have to keep reassuring your visitors that you can deliver on that promise. Kavanaugh points out that your website needs to contain the kind of information that people usually expect to see on this type of site. A professor’s home page is supposed to link to his or her department or college, or visitors will wonder if what institution stands behind it, if any. Don’t count on other sites linking to your registration page if nobody can actually register on it – if it simply links to the real form elsewhere. Visitors may wander away if your page lacks contact information (the number one reason people visit websites) or locations or dates or descriptions or whatever they expected to see. Search engine spiders may not be geniuses, but they’re learning how to look for these same things. Pleasing human visitors pleases them.

The hunt for information scent continues beyond the landing page and throughout your site. Clear, descriptive link names are the gateways to your other pages: they are what tell visitors which links are worth clicking on. Truly, a link is an advertisement for the page it links to, for better or worse. If someone is looking for research results, they want to see and follow links such as “Papers” or “Reports” or “Research Conclusions” rather than “More” or “About” or “Departments”.

Don’t be troubled that your visitors are skeptical a few seconds when they arrive for. They don’t yet know how good your site is for them. It’s your job, of course, to prove that.

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Thursday, July 16th, 2009 Search No Comments