Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Content suggestions for departmental websites

I'm sure you've all seen the now infamous XKCD comic on this, i.e., why the heck can't we find anything on most universities' websites?

I can (kind of) forgive universities et large. Professional web design is expensive, and if a university shelled out a lot of money in 2006 to make a flash(y) website, in this economy I can sort of forgive them not wanting to update.


Computer Science departments honestly have no excuse. They have a plethora of free labor (undergrads) who have likely been writing web code since they were tweens. All they need is someone (department head? faculty committee?) to figure out what sort of content they want, write it down, and let a few undergrads loose on it. Done, problem solved.

Honestly, it's not about fancy designs, it's about allowing people to find the information they need easily, and keeping that information current. Here's all a department needs. This information helps everyone - new people, old people, visitors, etc.

  - Faculty:  Name, Title, Contact Information, Research/Teaching Interests.
  - Staff: Name, Title, Contact Information, Job Duties.

Bonus points if this information is current. I find it really weird when I go to a department's website and someone who got tenure 3 years ago is still listed as "Assistant Professor", or someone who left to go to another university is still listed.

Staff job information is useful too. One of the new students in our group didn't know where to go to get pencils. Why wasn't this info on the webpage? (i.e., "Office Supplies, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, Room 227")

Bonus points for a headshot. When I attend an event where I know a particular person will be, I like being able to identify them in advance. I had to attend something last week and talk to someone, and due to lack of a photograph, I had to go up to every person and ask, "Are you so-and-so?"

  - Address
  - Phone Number
  - Email address for general questions
  - Directions

You would be shocked how many places don't list directions to their department, or don't put their address in an easy-to-find place. I know, in this day and age, people can use google maps, but it's the principle of the thing. It should be easy for visitors to find the information they need - there's no other reason to have a website.

  - Main areas of interest
  - Links to relevant faculty/staff/students

This section honestly doesn't need a lot. If the department wants to throw in something about student project highlights, that's fine, or maybe a mission statement of some sort. But honestly, this should just give people a quick overview of what this department is all about. Short and sweet.

 - Degrees Offered
    - B.S.: Overview
    - M.S: Overview
    - PhD: Overview
 - Courses Offered
    - 2010 Course Listing
        - Schedule
        - Syllabus

  - Upcoming Talks
  - Whatever else is important (new grants, new faculty, new graduate students, etc).

That's it! Done.

Frankly, not having this stuff and having tons of other useless stuff is just embarrassing. It reflects poorly on the department, regardless of institution/program prestige. It simply displays an inability to organize and be responsible for content. Who'd want to attend school / work / visit a place that can't even build a website?

Also, again, being consistent with wanting to hire people / have students with disabilities, make sure your website is accessible. This is not about grumbling about having to comply with some law, this is about making sure that the millions of people with disabilities out there who have an interest in Computer Science can actually learn how fantastically wonderful your department is without having to go to great effort. This can be woven into a lesson to the students - inclusive software/hardware design is hopefully already a strong component of the department's teaching anyway.


  1. This is a claim I hear a lot, and it seems way over-simplified. If you look around, it turns out that HCI groups always (okay, I should really back off to "often") have nice web pages. Compare http://www.cs.washington.edu/ and http://dub.washington.edu/

    These same groups are often the leaders of the whining about how bad the department website is -- I think I've heard them complain at 2 or 3 out of 4 of the last grad student meetings here -- but no one wants to step forward and take charge of the DESIGN. That's the big challenge.

    Personally, I don't have time (or ability, frankly) to do it. And your hypothetical army of undergrads -- which everyone strangely seems to think are easily obtainable, even for tasks they're not personally invested in -- can't do anything without a direction in which to head.

    By the way, I fundamentally disagree that the design doesn't matter. It affects how applicants and visitors think of your department, and probably more so than its utility. Certainly, if the department is going to make a concerted effort to overhaul the website, doing so without a nice new design is insane. There's a variety of reasons, but the most obvious and most damaging seems to me that no one would sign on.

  2. P.S. You made an excellent list to start with, and I'm planning to forward it to those same people. Also, thanks for mentioning accessibility. It's important, and something we (specifically including myself) don't think about often enough.

  3. Great list, FCS!
    Similar holds for faculty/research group webpages. Even non-CS people can easily throw together a simple website listing PI, group members, papers, resaerch directions, and contact info.

  4. Great post! I am embarrassed to say that my group site is kind of lame, though it does have all the information GMP mentions...

  5. Daniel: Thanks for your comment. I don't mean to suggest design doesn't matter, just that good design is not necessarily something flashy. What matters most of all is how the data is presented and how easy it is for people to find the things they need. It's just basic information management. So many departments are just too cluttered - there is text all over the place, and it's impossible to find what you're looking for.

    I really believe Google won the browser wars not because their algorithms were particularly brilliant, but because they had such a minimalist interface. If you go on the wayback machine and put in some of the old competitors, the amount of junk they had on their front pages was astounding.

    Nowadays there are so many free css templates, drupal, wordpress plugins, etc, that I'm not really sure why anyone would need to design a website from scratch. Harvard built some wordpress-like thing specifically for Academics recently too - I can't recall the name. Really it's about picking the right content, keeping away the clutter, and using space well. It's not NP hard. :-)

    GMP, Prodigal: Thanks :). And not to worry, Prodigal, lame is ok as long as people can find what they need!

  6. Great post, FCS. This is a problem in my field, too. But it's not just "bonus points if the information is current."

    When I applied to my PhD program, the information on their website was so out of date that the research project I built my proposal around was actually wrapping up, instead of starting up as their website indicated. It worked out in the end, but it just as easily might not have.

    I think the Harvard project you mentioned might be this one (OpenScholar):

    I haven't tried it yet, but might take a look soon.

  7. I made the mistake of showing the XKCD cartoon to the person in charge of redoing our (non-broken 'cause I made it) web page. She started gushing: Oh yes, we need a photo slideshow and a virtual tour and .... (facepalm)

  8. Do you think there's that much agreement about what makes a good website (of how important it is)? I personally agree with what you're said, but I don't know how many department heads would. If they think the department website is fine then it's unlikely to change.

    At my old department it was common knowledge there were issues with the website. But it wasn't that important to any particular person so it was never prioritized.

  9. Academacule: That's nuts about your PhD program. Hopefully it's all straightened out now! And thanks, OpenScholar was the one I was thinking of.

    WiseWoman: That's too funny, though definitely in a facepalm way!

    Anonymous: Well, there's a lot of literature out there on web usability, and I think those same design principles apply here. It's mostly all about how easily information is conveyed to people and how easily people can find things. Some of these websites are just too cluttered - there's too much stuff on them.

    A lot of times I suspect it's an organizational issue. So much stuff is put on the front page. This could be easily solved by better use of sub pages, easy to understand/read headings, etc.

    Maybe Beki or Gail can comment - they work in HCI I think. Not sure what the general consensus is.