Rule #1: University Org Charts Aren’t Roadmaps for Web Architecture

Apr 30 2008

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my two years as a university web developer is this:

Websites built to mirror the org chart, will result in confusing user experience for the average site visitor.  In particular, the prospective student.

Every administrative unit feels they need their own website.  Every college.  Every Department.  And my simple advice is to quietly and consistently smother that demand.  Smother it, and or prioritize it far beneath that of providing relevant content for your key audiences.  The user doesn’t care who’s providing that information, they just want it.  And they don’t want to dig through your borg silo-structured website to piece it all together.

I’m a fan of Khoi Vinh, Design Director of the New York Times.  And a nugget of wisdom from his recent Q&A is worth a CTRL-C.  It’s worth pasting into a word doc in big type and sticking it to your wall for permanent reference:

Every time we add a new feature to the site, redesign an existing section or create new digital products of any kind, we start with the premise that our primary “clients” are the people who will actually be using it…

…It’s kind of an obvious assumption, but it really is the hardest part of the process for any design team, regardless of the industry: setting aside your own familiarity with the content, your own expertise and envisioning a solution through the eyes of those whose relationship with your product is much more casual.

4 responses so far

  1. I totally agree. However, if a department wants a site, it’s my job to deliver (they’re the client my job description demands that I serve — plus it’s job security). Also, I’ve found that the most unorganized depts/offices can really benefit from the site creation process – it forces them to take a good look in the mirror. Then again, if it’s a site that will add zero value, I have the option of playing the Web “expert” card and calling BS on the project.

  2. Let me backtrack a bit on the whole “smothering” statement. That was a bit over the top. But you get the idea.

  3. I’d go you one further and say that your university department/telephone directory is not a good source for your A-Z index. Faculty should not need to click on “A” to find out about travel reimbursements from Accounts Payable. And, students who want to do community service should not need to go to “O” to find the Office of Student Volunteer Services. Just dealt with this yesterday when considering layouts for our new A-Z directory.

  4. Design by institutional org chart plagues print, as well. Every time I see an admissions brochure with a majors list that is broken down by college or division, I cringe. (This is often carried over to the Web site, too.) And sometimes it goes beyond a mere list to sections of a viewbook (which has pros and cons).

    The high schooler doesn’t know where to look for psychology or environmental science – heck, that varies from one institution to the next!

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