Make the world want your website

Olly Willans, Founder of digital agency Torchbox, shares his thoughts on what makes a great university website

Torchbox recently launched sites with two of the UK’s most exciting universities: the Royal College of Art (RCA), often described as the world’s most influential art and design university, and the world famous University of Oxford. At some point, during these projects someone pointed out the well known XKCD university website cartoon (xkcd.com/773/), they always do.

It features a venn diagram showing in one circle, ‘what appears on a university homepage’ (things like ‘Letter from the President’) and in another circle ‘what people go to the homepage to find’ (things like ‘Term Dates’) needless to say there is very little cross over!

The cartoon captures the frustration of someone studying or working at a university, who is faced with a homepage that is not designed for them. It’s an old cartoon, but it’s still a powerful piece of satire. 

Happily, university sites are changing. The most enlightened have home pages that provide clear navigation to give an obvious route to information (good ‘information scent’) and use the rest of the page like a magazine, to showcase what is going on at the University. 

When we started working with the University of Oxford, the first design principle that we set down was that the site should provide a ‘window on the University’. And, nowhere is this more true than on the homepage, although their wall of video profiles and the content coming out of their research departments are two other excellent examples. Similarly, the Royal College of Art homepage melts together a showcase of news, events, tutor profiles, alumni profiles, work from the student shows, research, reviews of events and articles from the students’ micro blog.

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The last two of these show how the RCA are enabling students to create content for their website. Students from their Creative Writing MA now write reviews of the lectures delivered by high profile artists and designers. In doing so, they create engaging, new content for the RCA website, which is ‘amplified’ and attracts traffic, inbound links, ‘Google juice’, and, potentially, the attention of those same prospective students for next year.

Universities in the US have been doing this longer and better than in the UK. My favourite is Boston University. Their website could use an overhaul (it’s not responsive) but their content is fantastic. They have a team of two editors, five writers and four producers who create great content. When a research story comes out, they don’t rehash a press release, they go and interview the research scientist, and often have an accompanying video profile. It’s magazine quality production across the board. And, beyond being a ‘window on the University’, bu.edu provides as good a window on Boston as any tourist guidebook – check out the hundreds of excellent restaurant and café reviews.

To enable great content publishing and content marketing like this, University sites need a good CMS behind them; like Drupal, which we used for the new Oxford University site, or Wagtail for the Royal College of Art. Wagtail is a new, open source content management system (https://www.wagtail.io). Built on the modern development framework Django. It’s fast, extensible, and has a fantastic user experience. Using Wagtail at the RCA, even students can update the website (moderated, of course), logging in over LDAP with their normal university login credentials – it makes for an easy way to update all their work for the end of year show catalogues.

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