Taming the Wild Beast: Building Better Higher Education Websites

A large classroom in a higher education setting: there are many seats facing a large video screen and dry-erase board.

Colleges, universities, and other higher education websites have to be a lot of things to a lot of people. These institutions are filled with some of the smartest people on the planet who are trying to share their information with not only their peers, but also with laypeople and prospective students. Some institutions have hundreds of departments, each with its own goals and priorities. So how do you build a website that meets the complex and multilayered needs of higher education?

Our answer is research. We’ve worked with universities and colleges both big and small — from Stanford and Berkeley to local community colleges. And all of them start in the same place: targeted research to determine who is actually using the website (as opposed to who faculty and staff think is using the website) and what is important to those users.

Clients are often surprised by the findings of our user-focused research. Why? Because the results don’t mesh with their preconceived notions of how many people are using the site and for what purposes. But the end results speak for themselves. Knowing exactly who your audience is and what they need is a crucial but often overlooked step that can make the difference between a good website and a brilliant one. As an added bonus, being able to point to the research can help to manage the sometimes competing goals and priorities (and dare we say egos?) of various departments … and department heads.

Once the research has been conducted, we turn our attention to organization. Universities are often what we affectionately call “hoarders.” When we migrated the Berkeley School of Information’s legacy website to a new version of Drupal, we had to work with ten years of content — much of which was outdated and no longer relevant to the university’s audience.

During the discovery process, we went through each content type and mapped the old content to the new website. This process allowed the School to carefully analyze how much of the old information was necessary to bring over to the new site. It also allowed the Kanopi team to gain clarity on the specific content that needed to be migrated during the development phase. Working with immense amounts of content is a challenge that particularly applies to higher education, which is why we develop a system for content governance early in the process.

We know that many colleges and universities have their own information technology systems and protocols, and we’re happy to work within those. We have a strict “don’t reinvent the wheel” policy! (Another reason we do so much research up front: we know exactly what we’re working with — which saves the client time and money down the road.)

Integration is key when managing higher education websites that are both broad and deep, with multiple sections and applications. Our years of experience integrating single sign-on for users saves time and headaches and streamlines what once was an unwieldy, cumbersome process.

Thankfully for the world we live in, institutions of higher education are hotbeds of free thinking and intellectual independence. Of course, this isn’t limited to the lecture hall and academic papers. The spirit of independence also applies to website management and maintenance. No higher ed client wants to depend on their web company for every little change and problem, so we use a “teach the teacher” support model. We train the power users and site admins so that they aren’t tied to us, but are empowered to manage their own sites going forward. Of course, if things ever get out of hand or the IT department goes on vacation all at once, we’re here 24/7 with reliable, responsive support.

Kanopi has years of experience working with higher education websites and clients all across the United States and Canada. Some recent clients include UCLA, Stanford, Berkeley, Washington State, UCSF, Columbia, the University of Delaware, and the University of British Columbia. We do our homework (lots and lots of homework), test our theories through vigorous research, and then build the very best websites for our nation’s very brightest institutions of higher learning. Contact us to help with yours.