A matter of strategy, audience

This cartoon has hit my inbox 20 or 30 times since it came out last summer from xkcd. It’s taken me several months to think up a constructive response.

Before you start drawing diagrams about what shouldn’t be on your homepage, be it for an entire university, a department, school, college or program, you need to identify the very people you’re trying to reach.

What irritates me about the cartoon is not how poorly or how well uoregon.edu meets its criteria. It’s that these criteria are established in the drawing with no thought of audience. For example, at the UO, our homepage, or home site really, is targeted toward external audiences, primarily prospective undergraduates.

The items in the diagram that would be of help to prospective students or their parents — maps, parking information, visitor information, and the opportunity to explore academic offerings — have a strong presence on the UO home site, among many other helpful items, which Kirstin Hierholzer, a usability expert and director of the interactive media group in UO Libraries, tested with prospective students and their parents.

What the cartoon fails to capture is a nuanced approach to audience and usability. For example, shouldn’t a university have a dedicated set of pages built around the needs of faculty, staff and students without forcing its most prized piece of externally facing digital real estate — its home site — to shoulder that burden, as well?

After all, when we talk about building public gateways to campus around show pieces of architecture, we don’t talk about building a place to park our critically important fleet of public safety vehicles next door. Rather we find a dedicated — and out of the way — spot to serve a key role for the campus, but not a role in which the general public will have much interest.

Current faculty, staff and students are the prized pieces of a university. Their needs must be met, whether it’s class registration, email, payroll, benefits or bill paying. Each matter is critically important and deserves attention, which is why diluting the purpose of a university home site by trying to serve internal as well as external audiences serves neither audience well at all.

It’s like a restaurant that every night serves up great Thai food all of a sudden expanding its menu to serve burgers, pizza, breakfast and cocktails. It’s not that any of those foods is bad, it’s just that as a menu expands, the quality and attention paid to specialty items is bound to decline. The same can be said of the homepage of a university, school, college, department, unit or even a subset of web pages within a larger site.

The more audiences you’re serving, the more water gets in the gravy.

Identify who you’re serving first. Then decide who’ll feed ‘em and how they’ll do it.