No More Webmasters: Building an Ideal Higher Ed Web Team

So you’re a higher ed manager who’s just been handed the keys to your institution’s website. Congratulations… and condolences. Chances are that (unlike at, say, a Silicon Valley startup) very few people in your organization have any idea what kind of resources are required to keep a website both functioning smoothly and useful to its audience.

Maybe that’s even true for you. Maybe you’re a VP of Marketing and the web team has just been reorged into your division, or you’re the new Director of Admissions at a school where the website falls under that department. Or maybe your institution’s leadership has just handed you a blank check and told you to put together your perfect web team, and you’re not entirely sure where to start (hey, we all have to dream, right?).

If so, you’ve come to the right place. What follows is advice based on my own two decades working on the web in higher ed, as well as dozens of discussions over the years with higher ed colleagues from around the world. By far the biggest complaint I hear from web team managers is a lack of human resources—they just don’t have enough people with the right skills to do the job the right way. We are expected to create websites that live up to user expectations set by major corporations, without having the money to hire the breadth of talent that those corporations recognize as vital to producing a world-class user experience. As a result, we often wind up holding sites together with virtual chewing gum and duct tape because everyone on the team is forced to reach outside their existing skillsets. Of course, having to stretch one’s limits occasionally is a good thing, but having to do it on a regular basis is not sustainable. In the end, your students will be the ones who suffer the consequences of a poorly organized, poorly performing website.

Below I’ve outlined the “skill bundles” that I see as vital to producing and sustainably maintaining a college or university website. A few caveats and disclaimers before we dive in, however:

  • I recognize that every school is different, with its own set of historical circumstances, political landmines, and vestigial bureaucratic oddities that might prevent you from needing or being able to build a team like this. And it may well be that I’ve forgotten something below, or have a different understanding of something based on my own unique experiences of the schools I’ve worked at. If that’s the case, I encourage you to please chime in in the comments.
  • The size of your school (in terms of number of students) makes very little difference in the size of the web team or breadth of skills required to build and maintain a high-quality website. Small schools require the same skillset as large schools. Sure, if you are a client services shop at a huge state school that serves dozens of internal clients, you may need more representation of some of these skills; but you can’t skimp on any of them just because your school is smaller.
  • Not every one of these skill bundles needs to be represented by a single person, but I am fairly confident that you will get better results if they are. Some of the skills below will overlap slightly with each other (see the diagram at the end of the post), but most of them are fundamentally distinct. Perhaps there are a handful of unicorns out there who manage to not only develop but *maintain* a majority of these skills, despite the dizzyingly exponential pace with which knowledge in our industry increases. Even if you find one of them (and I’ve actually met a few over the years) you will likely not be able to afford them, or keep them around for long. The “webmaster” who used to be able to handle all aspects of your website no longer exists; make sure that they are replaced by a diverse, well-trained, and well-resourced team of professionals.

Back End

  • Systems Administration & Security: At the foundation of your web presence is the server. Making sure that it is properly maintained, tuned, patched, and secure may or may not be a full-time job, depending on the number of sites you maintain, but it is a vital one regardless. These days more and more schools are outsourcing many of these duties to large hosting companies; if you still maintain servers on-premises, this position could potentially be shared with other IT duties.
  • Database Management and Data Integration: Long gone are the days when institution’s websites consisted of a series of flat HTML files sitting on a server; today most of what you see in a web browser is generated dynamically on the fly from a multitude of databases, including not only your content management system but everything from student information systems to course catalogs to sports information systems. Someone has to maintain those systems, figure out how they can all be made to work together, and ensure that they are secured from the curious or nefarious.
  • Content Management System Development: Virtually every higher ed site these days is built on some form of content management system. Whether it’s WordPress, Drupal, or one of half a dozen proprietary systems that specialize in the higher ed market, a deep understanding of how that system works and the language it’s built in is absolutely critical to customizing your site to your institution’s needs.

Front End

  • User Experience Architecture: The job of the UX architect is to ensure that your site’s visitors are able to complete the tasks for which they came to your site with the least amount of friction possible. Some of the work they might do could include: collaborating with the content strategist on information architecture; user testing; working with the analytics specialist to identify potential user barriers; working with the UI developer and designer to redesign a site’s interface.
  • User Interface Design: Based on the vision of the UX architect, the UI designer creates the concrete visual elements that one sees on the page, from determining font size and line-height to the color that buttons will turn when you mouse over them. The designer should also work with the content manager and multimedia producer to ensure that brand standards are properly implemented throughout the site and any ancillary materials (for example, social media avatars and cover photos).
  • User Interface Development: If the UX architect shapes the overall vision of the site, and the designer turns that vision into actual visual elements, the UI Developer is responsible for bringing those elements to life when the visitor interacts with them. UI Developers should be fluent in HTML, CSS, and Javascript.


  • Content Strategy: Someone needs to see your site’s content forest for its content trees and maintain a holistic view of how the entire site fits together. A content strategist deals with the intersection of content (what gets posted/removed and when), people (who does the posting) and technology (what tools or platforms are best suited to reach the audience you’re trying to reach.) A content strategist may also deal with information architecture, ensuring content is properly structured for reuse on multiple platforms, and creating and enforcing content governance policy and procedures.
  • Web Writing and Editing: Many content strategists started out as writers or editors, but being able to craft well-written content for the web is its own stand-alone skill. A web writer needs to understand not only how to communicate a message effectively in concise, to-the-point language, but they also need to know how to structure that message in ways that are accessible, optimized for search engines, and in accordance with brand standards. This is why the distributed authorship model that so many schools employ, in which web content creation is foisted off as an afterthought on un- or under-trained secretaries and faculty members, so often results in poor quality content. If multiple individuals are creating content for the site, an editor needs to be involved to ensure consistency in language, tone and voice, as well as proper grammar and punctuation.
  • Content Production: A writer may craft the words in your content, but getting those words into your content management system is a different matter. The Content Producer is to web content what a music producer is to a hit single—taking the raw material and ensuring that it is polished and perfectly adapted to its medium before publication. This role requires a deep understanding of how your content management system works and how to ensure that content is properly marked up for usability, accessibility, and search engine optimization purposes.
  • Multimedia Production: Video, images, and audio are more a part of the content landscape than ever before. Someone on your team needs to know not only how to capture or generate this content, but also how to appropriately process it for the various platforms on which your organization has a presence.
  • Accessibility Compliance: Accessibility absolutely can not be an afterthought on the modern web—it must be baked into every stage of the design and development process. Truly understanding web accessibility requires knowledge of both technology and law, as well as the ability to deeply empathize with users whose life experience might be incredibly different than one’s own.


  • Management: The department manager sets overall strategy, ensures everyone is working toward the same goals, and acts as ambassador to the rest of the institution, especially in the area of gathering community input and change management.
  • Project Management: Where the department manager is concerned with big picture strategy, the project manager focuses on nuts and bolts and keeps things running on the ground. They manage budgets, set schedules, allocate human and financial resources, and make sure that deliverables are handed over on time and on budget.
  • Digital Asset Management: Once your photos, videos and other media have been created, how do you store and retrieve them? Are they properly tagged and archived so that you can find appropriate quality version of the required file at a moment’s notice, on all of your platforms?
  • Analytics: One of the great things about digital content is that it gives us the opportunity to track so much data, and everyone on your team should be making decisions based on that data. One of the terrible things about digital content is that it gives us the opportunity to track so much data, and hardly anyone knows how to properly read and dig into that data to produce actionable recommendations.

Well, there you have it—a sketch of my ideal higher ed web team. If you’re a higher ed web pro, I’d love to hear your suggestions, your arguments, and your own experiences in this world. I also hope you will consider passing this on to your boss, as I think that while the needs for these skills may seem blindingly obvious to those of us in the trenches, they may never have ever been articulated to those with the power to make staffing decisions at your school.

diagram illustrating the skill bundles required for running a high-quality higher education website in 2019

Top Tasks in Higher Ed

The post below is condensed from a presentation I gave at Confab Higher Ed in November, 2017. Most of the ideas below (the good ones, anyway) come from Gerry McGovern’s book The Stranger’s Long Neck. If you haven’t read it yet, go get yourself a copy right now.

Meet Luisa

Luisa is about to start at your university next fall. She’s what we call in higher ed a “first-generation student,” meaning she’s the first in her family to attend college. Luisa was born in the U.S., but her parents came from El Salvador not long before she was born. She did well in high school, but didn’t receive the same kind of college-search support that perhaps her more well-off future classmates might have, but nevertheless she has navigated the complex admission process mostly on her own, and been accepted to your school. As the beginning of the fall semester approaches, she receives an email telling her it’s time to sign up for classes. She goes to the university website, which has an architecture that might look like a way more complex version of something like this:

For many of us in higher ed, this is an all-too-familiar model for how our websites are set up. I call this the “Office of …” model, a model in which every office in department in an institution has its own small section of the web. Usually these start with “Welcome to the Office of … website!” and the proceed to outline the mission of the office, before (perhaps) outlining the responsibilities of the office and the services they provide. The “Office of…” model makes sense from a certain point of view: it’s very easy to maintain permissions in your content management system, and it reflects the mental model that we, as employees, have of the organization. Of course, problems do crop up when there are reorganizations (higher ed’s favorite pastime); these often lead to broken links, bad search results, and inaccurate or outdated information. But usually we just rename the webpages and carry on.

But back to Luisa. She’s gone to the website looking to sign up for classes. With no clear signposts, she starts clicking around to try to figure out how to do so. She guesses it’s probably under “Academics,” but then isn’t quite sure where to go from there. She tries “Catalog” and gets a list of courses, but no way to sign up for them. She looks through the other options… what the heck is a “Registrar”? What on earth is a “Provost”? Annoyed, she goes to the search interface and types in “sign up for classes.” She gets a hundred results, scrolls through the first two pages, and, frustrated, closes her browser, thinking “I’ll come back and do this later.” Unfortunately, first-generation students, who generally don’t have the support systems or inherited knowledge of how to navigate college life of their peers, are prime candidates for “melt.” Luisa may never come back to choosing her classes, and may just never show up to the school she worked so hard to get into.

Meet Todd

Todd is a incoming transfer student from a local community college who has just received his first bill from your school. Now, Todd’s a junior — he’s been around a while, and he knows that higher ed likes to throw around weird jargon and acronyms and antiquated bureaucratic terms. He knows that  when it’s time to pay his bill, he should look for the Office of Student Accounts; after all he’s been doing that for the last two years. So he goes to the website and finds the same information architecture pictured above… and doesn’t see an Office of Student Accounts.

If you’ve been around higher ed a while, you probably know that the Office of the Bursar probably has something to do with collecting tuition and fees, but how on earth would Todd know that? Why are we putting a linguistic barrier between our user and the action he’s trying to take, the action (giving us money) that affects everything from our operating budget to Todd’s ability to register for classes and take books out of the library. Under the “Office of…” model, if students don’t understand what departments do, we’re making it more difficult for them to accomplish what they need to get done, and more difficult for them to complete their educations.

To get around this difficulty that we create for ourselves, we have two options: 1) we can educate students over and over about which departments provide a given service (until, of course, that department is reorganized and the service moves to a new department and we have to start over again) or 2) we can organize our websites around the students’ needs rather than the institution’s.

Enter “top tasks”

At the university where I work, 45% of our students are first-generation, like Luisa. More than 50% are transfer students like Todd. These are real problems with real effects on our institution. So when the stars aligned for a site redesign in late 2015, I wanted to do something to help our students and help our institution get out of this trap we’d created for ourselves. Making the site responsive was the primary driver, but far more than design needed to be addressed. We had very little by way of formal governance in place, and our information architecture was a mess that was very much focused on the needs of institution. So I used this chance to reimagine our information architecture using a methodology created by Gerry McGovern known as “top tasks,” laid out in his book The Stranger’s Long Neck.

At its core, “top tasks” is really just the radical idea that websites exist to help our users get stuff done. It seems obvious when you see it in print, but how often are pages created on your site to house information that someone *thinks* someone, somewhere, *might* need someday?

For me, one of the key quotes in The Stranger’s Long Neck is:

Nobody cares about information for its own sake, except the creators of said information. The customer has a task they want to complete, a problem they want to solve. Information is only useful in the context of the task.

Again, this seems really obvious once you see it in black and white. But if there is one thing that higher ed is incredibly good at, it’s producing information for its own sake. In some ways that’s really our raison d’etre. But if our website is going to be actually useful to our users, we have to fight that impulse at all costs.

Three principles

McGovern spells out three fundamental principles provide the rationale for his methodology.

  1. Every website has a small set of tasks that deliver a huge amount of value. In higher ed these are usually things like prospective students submitting applications, students registering for classes, or alumni making donations. These are the actions that keep the organization solvent and functioning.
  2. Every website has a large range of tiny tasks with the potential to deliver value, but also potential to destroy value by getting in the way of the top tasks. Less useful content gets in the way of user’s being able to quickly access the useful content. This is most likely that sparsely attended lecture put on by [insert your least favorite department here] that someone inexplicably feels should be on the institution’s home page.
  3. Focus relentlessly on helping your customers complete the top tasks as quickly and easily as possible. If you can truly nail the user experience for completing those tasks, you will ensure that your organization is getting the most value out of its website, and that the majority of your users will leave the site happy and satisfied.

“The Pareto Principle, Stretched”

From his observations in working on websites for organizations ranging from multinational corporations to European governments, McGovern posits that a slightly modified version of the Pareto Principle applies to most websites: on average, 25% of a site’s effects will be generated by 5% of causes, and 60% of effect from 20% of causes. That is, 5% of the tasks users come to a website to complete will generate one quarter of its value, and one fifth of tasks will generate 60% of its value. The best user experiences, McGovern argues, will only happen when we concentrate on the “long neck” of tasks rather than the long tail. Particularly in instances where administrative resources are limited (looking at you, higher ed), both our organizations and our users are best served by concentrating our efforts on the long neck.

Three more principles

Once you’ve decided to embrace top tasks as a methodology, McGovern offers three more principles to guide your efforts.

  1. Know your user’s long neck. Your opinion of what constitutes the long neck may be radically different than your users’ opinions. You have to do your research.
  2. Continuously improve your top tasks. Top tasks is a continuously iterative methodology. McGovern argues that you need to continually measure your users’ task success rate, disaster rate (when users think thy’ve successfully completed a task but haven’t), and completion time. Then you need to make tweaks, measure again, rinse and repeat.
  3. Manage with facts, not opinion. This is of course easier said than done; no matter how good your data, it can often be difficult to shake the gut instinct of a HiPPO. But whenever possible, base your arguments on the data available to you.

Establishing possible top tasks

Your first step in moving toward implementing top tasks is to establish the universe of all possible tasks. The goal is to generate a “longlist” of at least 100 tasks. There a few ways you can do this, and I found all of them to be helpful. You can gather qualitative information simply by talking to stakeholders about their own use of the website and their perceptions of their constituents’ use. You can gather survey data directly from your users with a freeform question such as “Why do you most often come to the website?” and use their responses to identify patterns. You can look at your analytics to see the most visited pages on your site, as well as what people are using your internal site search to look for on the site. You can conduct an analysis of your competitors to find out what tasks they appear to have optimized their sites for.

As you assemble your list, try to word the items on it as verbs. For example, “library” might be one of the top searches on your site, but there are any number of tasks that users might be trying to complete with that search: finding out the hours the library is open, looking for research help, renewing a book they’ve checked out, and so on. Also, try to word the tasks in as natural language as possible; avoid the jargon of which higher ed is so fond. You can actually duplicate some tasks on your list using different wording (for example “register for classes” vs. “sign up for classes”) to see which version your users prefer.

Determining which tasks are “top”

Once you have your longlist of possible tasks, the next step is to see which ones your users feel are most important to them. McGovern’s method for this is perhaps a bit surprising, and he spends a fair amount of time in the book effectively saying, “I know this sounds kind of crazy, but believe me, it works.” Essentially, you present your users with your entire longlist of tasks at once, and give them just five minutes to choose their five most important tasks. The task they choose as most important gets five points, the task they choose as second-most important gets four, and so on. This weighted voting method allows you, once you’re looking at the results, to really see items that jump out as most important to your users.

I added an additional layer to this leg of the process. Since higher ed sites have so many different audiences, I had a hunch that different audiences would have different top tasks — after all, the things a prospective student comes to your site for are likely very different than the things an alumna comes to the site for. So the first question on our survey was to establish the respondent’s relationship to the university, and then frame the survey within those terms, e.g. “As a current student, which of the tasks below are most important to you to be able to complete on the Roosevelt website?” If a respondent had multiple relationships to the school (such as being both a staff member and an alumnus), we asked them to fill out the survey multiple times, changing the framing of how the tasks were presented each time.

Implementing your top tasks

Once you’ve established which tasks are the top ones for your audience(s), you need to implement them on your site. Most likely, this will involve organizing your pages around the task that can be accomplished there, rather than the office that provides the service, and reorganizing your information architecture around groups of tasks. For example, we created a “Get Help” section for our current students that included both the Counseling Center and the IT helpdesk; it’s highly unlikely that any “Office of…” model would ever have put those two things together.

As suspected, we found that our different audiences have very different top tasks. This may mean segmenting those audiences into separate sites, or finding some other way to keep one audience’s top tasks from getting in the way of another’s.

Cut pages that do not support top tasks, and be merciless. This is easier said than done. People don’t like to be told their content is useless; data can help, but people get attached to their content. This is part of why we included this change as part of the redesign process; starting from an effectively blank slate can help a great deal, since people will often not even notice (sometimes for months or even years) that their less-than-useful content has disappeared.

Keep testing. Implementing top tasks, like most things on a website, is a process rather than a project.

Things I wish I had known

While The Stranger’s Long Neck prepared me for much of the process of implementing top tasks on our website, there are a few things that I wish I had realized and prepared for better before I started on the process.

  • Education and outreach are critical. People love their silos and they will not give them up without a fight. The idea of website as a tool for users rather than a repository for their information is not intuitive to people entrenched in the “office of…” model. We can’t build it and expect everyone to be on board immediately. We have to involve them in the process. Talk to the people on the front lines first. Your explanations about why you are implementing top tasks and how it will help your users will not trickle down to them if you go through the standard chain of command. Educating the students is just as important as educating staff. While they are probably more adaptable than a lot of faculty and staff, they’ll also be used to the old way of doing things and we need to explain our methods to them as well.
  • Empathy for users must be learned. Putting oneself in the shoes of the user is easy for writers and designers. Empathy is our stock in trade, but this is not the case for many of our colleagues, especially those whose jobs depend upon the rigid following of processes. Choose concrete examples to illustrate the obstacles your users face and how your solutions can overcome them. Take stakeholders on the journey with you, let them see why the “office of” model can be difficult for our users. Data is great, but a single anecdote can override it in your stakeholder’s mind.
  • You will have the same conversations over and over. And over and over. You will find yourself explaining the key concepts of top tasks and other user-centered design principles repeatedly, often to the same people. It can be frustrating, and it’s hard not to give into the feeling that “I am the expert, why do I have to justify these decisions to someone who doesn’t know anything about the web?” But don’t let it make you dismiss your colleagues’ concerns; channel that empathy for the user mentioned in the last point into empathy for your colleagues. After all, they are users too.
  • You will have to compromise. If you choose this path, you will face a lot of hurdles. Some will be technical, most will be political. Your site will not become the platonic embodiment of Gerry McGovern’s methodology – I guarantee it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you can find workarounds, embrace them; for example, to assuage concerns that offices would no longer have effective web presences, we built a new office directory that includes links to tasks for which each office is responsible.

Implementing top tasks on your higher ed website is not easy. But the improvement is real. Visits to our top tasks for prospective students (apply, request info, programs/majors, visit) all increased significantly once we implemented our new design and top tasks-based architecture,  and this fall we had more students entering the institution than leaving for the first time in five years. The website and the top tasks methodology can’t take full credit for that — we’re only one piece in a complex machine — but I’m certain that it helped.

Learn more

This post really only scratches the surface of McGovern’s methodology, so I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of The Stranger’s Long Neck. There’s also a Top Tasks: Higher Education Website Content group run by Bob Johnson on LinkedIn, with more than 500 members, which I recommend joining. And of course, I’d love to hear about your experiences in implementing top tasks in a higher education setting.

The Cobbler’s Child

It’s a common problem for those of us who work on the web: we never seem to have the time or energy to put into our personal sites. This was certainly the case for me — I hadn’t updated the look and feel of my site since 2010 (!), it wasn’t responsive or mobile-friendly, and it no longer particularly reflected what I hope to get out of a personal site. Content-wise, I jettisoned a bunch of the sales-pitchy stuff (I’m not really looking for freelance work anymore) and have turned the focus to my blog posts, which I’ve now finally migrated from Blogger to the more flexible platform of WordPress. Design-wise… well, this cobbler’s child may finally have new shoes, but they are straight off the rack from Payless.  I chose to go, for the time being, with the default “Twenty Seventeen” theme. It’s clean and gets the job done, and I knew that if I started spending time obsessing over the site’s design, I’d never get it launched. So I will go back and customize the design at some point, but for the time being I’ll have plenty of content-related cleanup to deal with (I’ve already found a few broken image links, and I’m sure there are more).

#heweb16: a reflection

I just returned from the annual conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals Association, held this year in Memphis. It was my fifth national conference for this organization in six years, with a handful of smaller regional events in Michigan scattered amongst the same timeframe, and the third conference where I’ve been involved in helping to choose presenters and keep the show running during the week.

In the course of those years, I’ve noticed that there are a few words or phrases that you tend to hear a lot over the course of HighEdWeb, and I’m not talking about acronyms, buzzwords, or terms of art. I’m talking about phrases like “I’ve found my people.” Even LeVar Burton (of Roots/Reading Rainbow and Star Trek fame), who presented a powerfully moving keynote on Wednesday, said it. But what exactly does that mean? Attendees at HighEdWeb tend to be fairly widely distributed in terms of their job functions — they are writers, programmers, videographers, designers, social media managers, marketers, and more (sometimes all at once). What brings us together, I think, are three things:

  • an fascination with and curiosity about this incredibly quickly-evolving meta-medium we call “the web;”
  • a commitment to higher education, despite the fact that most of us could probably be making a lot more money in the private sector;
  • a belief that, if you’re going to be spending eight-plus hours a day doing it, then damn it, work should be fun.

Another word that one hears frequently at HighEdWeb, often half (but only half) jokingly is “therapy.” Many of us work in places where we are one of just a handful (if we’re lucky) of web workers, where the people around us don’t understand the strategy, resources, and sweat that are needed to go into building and maintaining a website that effectively serves the students who are our primary audience. Our work is often thought of as some sort of arcane magic, or, worse, something that pixel-pushing and button-mashing trained monkeys could do. To be surrounded by 800 other people who understand the joys and frustrations of the work we do, and to learn that every school has pretty much the same problems, can be a powerful experience, one that truly makes you feel like you are less alone in the world than you might have thought.

Particularly among the group of people who volunteer many hours of their lives toward putting together this event, those first two concepts—”finding one’s people” and “therapy”—seem to coalesce into another word that I heard a lot this year: family. It’s a family that I’m glad to have been adopted into, and one that I look forward to sharing many memories with in the years to come.

Content Sheep & User Grass

(also posted on Medium)

There is probably an entire introductory economics textbook to be written using negative examples from the higher ed web world (the sunk cost fallacy in relation to content management systems comes immediately to mind). The one that is most evident to me as I fight through my first redesign at the university level, though, is the distributed authorship model and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. I’ve written before about the problems with distributed authorship when it comes to the quality of content produced, but in this case the issue is really sheer quantity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tragedy of the commons, it’s the idea that, given a shared resource, rational actors are incentivized to consume as much of that resource as possible, before the other actors can do so. This leads to the eventual, often permanent, depletion of the resource. So for example, farmers grazing their sheep on public land have every incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible, despite the fact that this may ruin the land and eventually make it unsuitable for any grazing at all.

At first glance, the problems with the distributed authorship model may seem like exactly the opposite problem: in the distributed authorship model, our content creators are incentivized to overproduce, rather than overconsume. Our tendency on the web has long been, “when it doubt, put it up.” After all, webspace is nearly infinite, and the (perceived) cost is basically zero. As a result, we rarely think to ourselves, “Why am I putting this online? Does it serve an actual purpose for actual users?” So when faced with the question of whether or not to put something on their website, each content creator, in charge of a small territory of, say, a dozen or two pages, may rationally think, “I’m not positive that anyone actually wants, needs, or is looking for this information. But someone might need it someday, so why not?” Now multiply that decision across dozens or even hundreds of content creators — none of whom is aware of what the others are doing — contributing to an institutional web presence, and we wind up with hundreds, even thousands of pages of content that no one (including their creators) really cares about. This useless content chokes search results pages, leads users down rabbit holes of irrelevant or outdated content, and drains staff efficiency by forcing them to both maintain more and more web content *and* to deal with phone calls from confused and frustrated users who can’t complete the tasks they’ve come to the website to do.

How is this like the tragedy of the commons? If we think about it, in the distributed authorship model, content is not the finite resource — our users’ attention span is. Our users’ attention is the grass, and our content is the flock of hungry sheep. That content devours our users’ attention to the point where they throw up their hands in frustration and simply pick up the phone, or worse, give up entirely and move on. If we want to sustain this finite resource, some measure of governance must be put in place. Requiring our editors to work with a centralized strategist in the creation of any new content, rather than giving them free reign to create pages as they see fit, would be an excellent start.

Press Play: Resources

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the CASE Multimedia Workshop. One will be a reprise of last year’s “Serial Effect” presentation, while the other will be a new one entitled “Press Play: Engaging Constituents Through Games.” Below are a few resources mentioned in the presentation that may help if you’re interested in adding some gamification tactics into your communications tool box.

Evaluating Web Content

At my day job, we are in the early stages of a massive redesign and reorganization of the primary website at Roosevelt University. With nearly 100 content editors spread across two campuses, you can imagine that the amount of content on our site is pretty intimidating. If a website is a garden, ours has, in parts, gone back to prairie. A key component to taming this beast is going to have to be the institution of more clear and concrete content governance rules. One of the tools I’ve been toying around with for this purpose is a set of questions to ask stakeholders every time a new piece of content is requested, and whenever an old piece of content is reviewed. The questions are heavily influenced by Eileen Webb’s A List Apart article, “Evaluating Ideas,” which is a very quick, very worthwhile read.

Here is the set of questions so far:

  1. Who is the primary audience for this content?
  2. What task does this content help that audience complete?
  3. What business objectives of the University does this content fulfill, and how?
  4. How will audiences find or be driven to this content?
  5. Are there other/better channels through which this content can be communicated to the audience rather than through a webpage?
  6. Who owns this content?
  7. Who will maintain this content?
  8. How often and when will it be reviewed for accuracy, etc.?
  9. What would  constitute “success” for this content, and can we measure it?
  10. Under what circumstances would this content no longer be required and need to be removed from the website?

If you use a similar set of questions for ensuring your organization’s web content retains a high level of quality, I’d love to hear how you use them, and how they might differ from the ones listed above.

#heweb15 or bust

This coming week, I’ll be attending the Annual Conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals’ Association (aka HighEdWeb) in Milwaukee. This is the fourth national HighEdWeb I’ve attended, and the second year I’ve co-chaired the Management and Professional Development track. I thought I was getting off easy this year, as it was supposed to be my first not putting on some sort of presentation (assuming you count the Johnny Cash cover band in Austin back in 2011), but as it turns out I’m also a late addition to a discussion panel during the Leadership Academy on Sunday.

If you’ll be there, please come up and say hi; if you’ve never been, but think three days of web nerdery, karaoke, Cards Against Humanity, and finding your tribe sounds like fun, start saving up those professional development dollars. You won’t find a more welcoming bunch of introverts in the Western hemisphere.

Higher Ed: Professionalize Web Content

(cross-posted on Medium)

Back in Ye Olden Days of higher ed websites, they were usually relatively simple affairs. Someone (almost always in IT) set up a web server and became, by default, the fabled “webmaster,” responsible for the whole shebang, from hosting to code to content updates. Sometimes, depending upon the size of the school, this happened multiple times on a given campus, as each college, professional school, and department began to realize the vast potential inherent in the web. By the time I graduated from college in 1999 and started my first job on the web, schools had started to recognize that running a successful, institution-wide website would take more than one person, and a centralized gatekeeper to the posting of new web content seemed more and more like an unnecessary bureaucratic bottleneck.

Sometime in the early 2000s, a hero arose: the content management system. The CMS would open content production to all, realizing the democratic dream of the early web. No longer would small departments be subject to the monarchial webmaster; instead, the power of the crowd would be harnessed, institutional efficiency would be increased, and we’d all live happily ever after.

Fast forward ten years or so, and most higher ed websites are, to put it bluntly, a mess. New pages sprout up like weeds, full of astounding mutations of conflicting voice and tone, contradictory information, and baffling formatting. Countless person-hours are lost to Byzantine information architecture, students are left unsure whether their important documents have been submitted, potential donors abandon their donation forms in frustration before hitting the “submit” button.

How did we get here? Under the guise of the great and terrible “other duties as assigned,” the CMS very often put content management and production in the hands of smart, capable people… who have little or no training in, interest in, or understanding of the web as a medium. The office of what used to be the “webmaster” was left putting out fires, retraining CMS users (and then retraining them again each year), and desperately trying to steer a boat in which dozens or even hundreds of content editors were rowing at wildly varying paces in opposite directions. 

Sadly, as Tim Nekritz has pithily pointed out, a “content management system creates neither content nor management nor a system.” The web was a technology problem, we thought, so we dedicated our scarce institutional resources to technological solutions. But when we fail our users — when students can’t find accurate financial aid information, when administrators get lost in Kafkaesque redirects between departments — the problem very rarely lies in our technology, and almost always in our content.

The solution, or at least part of the solution, is to start treating content production — and I use “production” here in a broad sense, including not only writing but also engaging content at the levels of strategy, presentation, multimedia integration, information architecture, and so on — as a field in which we need to start investing human resources as well as technical. 

In short, our content should be produced by content professionals.

Content production has what I think of as all the hallmarks of a specialized profession. It requires:

Special skills: Because people read differently on the web, writing for the web is different than writing for print. This is especially the case if you are dealing with academics who have been charged with creating web content. Academic prose is intended to promote deep engagement and complexity of thought; web content is there to help users get things done. Beyond writing,  web content production requires thinking in multiple dimensions. In addition to the length and height of the printed page, it adds the depth of hyperlinks, embedded media, and so on. Remember the episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets transported into a 3D world? That’s sort of what moving from print to the web is like.

Specialized knowledge: How many of the people creating content in your CMS know what “semantic code” is, or why it’s important? Or know how search engines work? How to optimize images for multiple screen sizes? This medium changes so quickly that it’s difficult (if not impossible) for those of us who love it and spend all of our time in it to keep up with the state of the art. How can we expect those for whom it is not really their job to stay up to date?

Special tools: At its core, the web is still just HTML and CSS (with, more often than not, some JavaScript on top of it). The CMS makes these tools more readily accessible to the layman, in the way Home Depot makes the ability to do electrical work more accessible to any homeowner; but in the end, you’re almost always going to get better results with someone who really understands the tools they’re working with than with the handyman special. 

Moving higher ed toward a professionalization of content production may mean a recentralization of that function, but I suspect that many of the folks currently charged with this work won’t object too strenuously. There are a lot of people out there who thought their departments really needed a website… until they got one, and realized what went in to keeping it up. How much more efficient it would be, both for our employees and especially for our users, to let people concentrate on the jobs they’re trained in and good at. Let teachers teach, administrators administer, and let web professionals run your website.

The Serial Effect: Audio Content #casemmw

Notes for “The Serial Effect: Audio-Based Content,” presented at the 2015 CASE Multimedia Workshop in Washington, DC on June 19, 2015.

Podcasts/Audio cited:

Interactive and video cited:

Articles cited:

Additional reading and listening:

And, of course, don’t forget the Serial Effect Spotify Playlist: