Crash course on website design lingo (bonus points for higher ed field)
November 11, 2016 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm an expert in my field and know what information our customers need, and I have to convince a website expert with no knowledge of my field how our website should be re-organized.

On Monday I (not a high ranking person) am going to lead a conversation with two heads of departments in our organization about how I think our own department's website should be updated to meet the organization's new design standard. I'd love to sound a little bit like I know what I'm talking about, though I'm anticipating the people I'm meeting with to have their own ideas already and just want to tell me what to do.

Are there any big popular web design concepts, structuring, etc. that are "in" right now that I can try to use to my advantage to show them I'm not a total idiot about what I think needs to be done? Our department is extremely customer focused but also extremely overloaded with complex information that no one can ever find or understand easily, but they should. One college website format that is similar to what we're moving to is Pomona College, if that helps.

Would really appreciate other experts' advice!
posted by wannabecounselor to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Not an answer, but relevant: XKCD's University Website. Bringing that up would let the web developers know you care about how the site is actually used even if you don't know how it should be designed, or how to describe how it should be designed.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:22 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Have you or the web experts done any research into what people need from your site? Or what problems the new design will help resolve? Do you have stats or survey results to back up your thinking? Awareness of your site's usage trends will give your views credence.

Modern web design practice is very heavily geared towards user-centred design. If you can describe who your main audiences are, what their key goals are, and how your proposed restructure will improve your organisation's ability to meet business objectives by helping your users to achieve those goals, you will have a good basis for discussion. Look into prototyping and testing and ask how these stages will be built into the design process.
posted by freya_lamb at 8:23 AM on November 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


I have to convince a website expert with no knowledge of my field how our website should be re-organized.

Forgive me, but you're probably not qualified for that. Your web team should have someone on-board with a UX or IA brief. It's their job to get user needs from you and other stakeholders and synthesize them into something useful.

Will this be an ongoing project, or does it have a fixed time/budget?
posted by Leon at 8:57 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


I am a guy who works with a web development company. I am neither a web developer nor am I your web developer.

I think you've got the shoe on the wrong foot a bit, unless you have some negative past experience with the web developer in question, it's not a process of convincing them. They should be leading you and guiding you. What you need to come to the table with is a strong sense of what your customers are looking for when they visit your website.

I'd also suggest that you be open to some counter-intuitive thoughts if you don't spend a lot of time thinking about websites. Just one example; if you have a lot of information in a database there's a tendency to want to build a lot of complex menus so that the customers can drill down to it. But it may be better to build a simple menu and focus on making the information searchable, on the grounds that if your customer is looking for the manual on a XYJ-11 whatsit they can enter the specific search string XYJ-11.

I wouldn't worry about "current web trends/terms" and boning up on the latest so as to seem to be intelligent. Your part of the process is to discuss openly with them what your customers need; you're the expert on that. If they're not expert on web design and dev, nothing you can do will change that.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:02 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


"...unless you have some negative past experience with the web developer in question...".

Yes.

"Forgive me, but you're probably not qualified for that. Your web team should have someone on-board with a UX or IA brief. It's their job to get user needs from you and other stakeholders and synthesize them into something useful.

Will this be an ongoing project, or does it have a fixed time/budget?"


I know I'm not qualified, which is why I'm asking here. I believe the main issue is that our website is catering to two entirely different audiences: prospective students, and current students. The heads I'm meeting with are much more experts on prospectives, and we are much more experts on current. We're all anticipating a tug of war on how to cater to both audiences. No user surveying or feedback has been collected at all to my knowledge. They want the biggest changes to happen before Christmas, and after that we will be able to make more minor content changes.
posted by wannabecounselor at 9:10 AM on November 11, 2016


Your area:

- Who your users are, in detail and in variety. Like acting, where they're coming from, where they're going to next, and what they want.

- What they want

- What they need, but don't know they need

- What result you want from the redesign

- What you have

- What you can put into the site on an ongoing basis

- How long you would like it to take to create the new site


Their area:

- How to accomplish the above with the resources you have

- What additional resources you'll actually need, or resources that you can put toward other things

- What you can do that you haven't considered yet

- How to organize information for maximum helpfulness

- How long it will take




Both of you:

- Communication is hard. Start formulating what you can in concrete terms. Don't rely on statistics (which show how things have worked). Start thinking in very concrete terms about how things can and should work, for a variety of users, in the future.


- If you can put into words what a successful design will be like, or how it can be measured (things like "19 out of 20 current students with no instruction should be able to do X in 90 seconds"), you can set that up as success criteria and really focus the designer on those problems.



Two things you can do today:

- Research user personas. This may or may not be the most current trend, but it's a valuable way to start thinking of your users and all your stakeholders in concrete terms.

- Research very basic user testing. I once did user testing that consisted of having three working teachers (the site users) come to my client's office, one at a time, sit at her desk, and use the new site while she was watching. We didn't rent a room with one-way glass, we didn't contract with a testing firm, we didn't add more than a week to the project. It made a huge difference and was very inexpensive. This is an extra step, but it doesn't have to be a big derail.
posted by amtho at 9:17 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


To add to what others have said: Build some sort of usability testing into your process. This could be as simple as taking a laptop and cookies to your student center and asking students to accomplish a common task on your site with no input from you, or asking a prospective student with questions to give you feedback on finding the information on your site. You will learn so much. There are a lot of resources at usability.gov - this is a good place to start. If you are afraid the people you are meeting on Monday with might strongarm you into decisions that are bad for your business, testing a prototype of your site will help you get leverage (or prove them right, you never know!)

There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from websites like the one you linked here. You can show examples of people who have done it well, and explain why their approach was good. If you are in higher ed (I assume you are) my favorite trick for finding these is adding site:.edu to my search in Google. For example, "prospective students" "current students" "financial aid" site:.edu will help you find websites addressing both of your audiences by name like this one from UChicago.

I don't think you need jargon for the meeting. An understanding of your users, what they are trying to accomplish, and the shortcomings of your current site will be more useful.
posted by beyond_pink at 9:19 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


I completely agree with what's been said about usability testing and clearly defining roles.

I've been a web developer for over 2 decades now. Your plan of attack to brush up on jargon so you can fake credibility is a bad plan. It won't work. The developers will know you don't really know what you're talking about, and therefore you won't accomplish what you want (to convince the developers to do it your way) Take your question and replace "web developers" with "plumber". Do you think it's a good plan to brush up on plumbing terms and then follow the plumber around the house telling him he's sweating the copper incorrectly, because "cleanout trap"?

Stick to what you know and your roles as described above.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:27 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


No user surveying or feedback has been collected at all to my knowledge.

Maybe not officially, but surely you have an idea of the most common questions people ask when they visit your department in person, or call or email a staff person. Make a list of everything your staff has been asked recently, and see if you can suss out common themes. Then decide if those are the questions you want your site to answer instead.

You need to be the expert on your department's services, and how you want to provide those services. The web site is just an extension of that.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:34 AM on November 11, 2016


I agree with what everyone else has posted, and I'll add two things. You say you've had a bad experience with this developer before? That isn't a great way to kick off a new project. Do you have any ability to switch to a dev you don't already hate?

And see if you have access to any of your existing analytics-- that can be a window into what your users want from your website. (It's not foolproof if your current design is so bad people can't find what they want, but it's a start.)
posted by instamatic at 9:48 AM on November 11, 2016


One other thing: if you can identify some actual users for the developer to talk to directly, or otherwise provide a channel for that to happen, that can be invaluable. If you're stuck with a developer who never does this kind of thing, just insisting that it happen will get them to approach the work a little differently.
posted by amtho at 9:53 AM on November 11, 2016


Do what you do in your language as clearly as possible, and let the web people translate.

What you can probably do that is most helpful is explain every use case and your own priorities. When I was doing UX and info-architecture work a million years ago, I would have loved to hear things like this in plain language:

Sixty percent of our audience are students looking for course info and schedules, about ten percent are faculty from elsewhere looking for work, five percent are...

When a person comes, I need them to find THIS INFO first, and I need them to be able to find ALL THIS STUFF quickly.

THIS OTHER STUFF we need to have on there, somewhere, for legal reasons, but it's not really important how easy it is to find.

I love what THIS SCHOOL is doing for THESE REASONS, and I want to avoid what THIS OTHER ONE does, BECAUSE REASONS.

On the other hand, hearing someone fake their way through fashionable web talk was always cringey, since I had to try to figure out what it was they thought they were saying, untangle it, then put it back in real terms anyway.
posted by rokusan at 10:01 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is so helpful, thank you all! Just to clarify I don't want to go in "faking" that I know my website s***, but more like if they use a term or concept that I don't understand, I might be lightly familiar with it now and perhaps they can appreciate that I did a little homework (as I hope and wish they did some homework on our stuff). And just to get a sense of their own priorities and perspective is great since I have no idea what they're thinking.
posted by wannabecounselor at 10:20 AM on November 11, 2016


I do this for a living, and I think I'm good at aspects of it. Just to give you some perspective on how one person approaches this from the other side, I am a very strong advocate for keeping things simple. When I go into a meeting, my job is to meet the business objective, combined with what I know about how the website is used. I'm often asked to do things for political reasons that don't make sense statistically or from a usage perspective. Sometimes those things are organizationally important and should be done, and sometimes they're political and they shouldn't.

Your job is to be the expert for the business side and come in with a clear goal, or at least a specific problem you're attempting to solve. Be flexible in how that problem is solved. It's often useful to find examples of sites you like in terms of how they're designed and structured. It often isn't useful to pick out one single feature on that site, that usually ends up being terribly complex, and say, "We want that."

I don't think you need to go too deep into technical jargon here. If you have web people throwing jargon at you, they're not doing their job of communicating to you on a level you both understand.

Really seconding everything beyond_pink said, particularly the simple user testing, which can be accomplished in a couple hours or less.

I believe the main issue is that our website is catering to two entirely different audiences: prospective students, and current students. The heads I'm meeting with are much more experts on prospectives, and we are much more experts on current. We're all anticipating a tug of war on how to cater to both audiences. No user surveying or feedback has been collected at all to my knowledge. They want the biggest changes to happen before Christmas, and after that we will be able to make more minor content changes.

It's fine to cater to both audiences. You need to attract new students and serve the ones already in place. I don't work in a university setting, but my know-nothing first guess would be to separate these two things. Obviously, there are some common things both Current and Prospective students need to know, but Prospective Students really seems to me like it ought to be a subsection of the site. You could put buttons, or a hero image (big picture with a button) prominently on the front page. You could also use your primary navigation, whether it's at the top of the page, or a menu or left rail or whatever, to refer to the Prospective Students section. Then the focus is how to build that section out, as opposed to fighting about whether to emphasize Current or Prospective.

What I would caution you away from is trying to cram all that stuff on the front page. Business folks can sometimes think that they should put everything on the front page, so it's "easy" to find. That's like spreading all of your paper files on to your desk to make each individual file easier to find. Does not work.

Not sure how to wrap this up, other than to second what freya_lamb said about knowing your audience and their goals, and listening to your web folks, who should be able to tell you a lot about what people are actually doing.

One last thing - unless you have a huge staff, and the business side is willing to put in a ton of time, Christmas isn't realistic to launch a major website redesign on anything but the smallest site. You can do it fast or you can do it right. Pick one.
posted by cnc at 11:13 AM on November 11, 2016


Yes, Christmas is only a month away, and a complete redesign and re-architecture of a website and the relevant back-end data is more like a 1.5 to 2-year project for a full-time dedicated team. Just tracking down all the *current* information and understanding how it is presently organized and served will take several months. There's also the factor that people tend to be out of the office over Thanksgiving and Christmas, so they wouldn't be available to provide the information the web engineers would need to answer the umbrella questions of, "What info is needed and how should it be organized". There is absolutely zero chance of anything significant being accomplished before 2017. That should be a clear expectation going in.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:35 PM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Serious question - why are you working with a web expert that has no knowledge of your field?

I am a web professional in the higher ed field and can point you to a wealth of resources for higher ed web (https://www.highedweb.org and the associated conferences, or http://wpcampus.org for Wordpress-specific but still higher ed general web info).

As a web professional (the person on the other side of the table as you), I would want to know the following things:

1) what is the elevator speech of your area. How would you describe what your office does to someone who is skimming the internet looking for something. If you had a table in a huge gym with a lot of other tables, what 100 words would you use to help your visitors know that they had the right resource?

2) what five questions do you answer most frequently?

3) what five tasks do people need to do most frequently?

4) do you have frequent deadlines, news, or events?

You point at a Financial Aid page, which makes me assume you are in that field. I hope you are working with the general web team of your university. Again, as a web professional, I NEVER assume that my clients know the keywords of the web. I'm super happy to answer questions as our meeting goes on ("what the heck is responsive design? Event tracking?). Worry less about talking my language and more about being open to my recommendations.

But seriously, why are you working with people who don't know your field at all? I'm genuinely curious how you have reached this point.

Feel free to memail me. This is my passion (high ed web) and I'm happy to help.
posted by kellygrape at 6:58 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


When I worked at a University, the websites were completely changed. In my experience, there are a lot of distractions. Some stakeholders will want to limit access to University info, enforce design and content standards, make it easy to use, make it easy to search, make it meet the needs of Marketing, Academics, students. The website of the University where I used to work is now soulless, has very limited content, is heavily branded. For ease of use a content management system will be recommended; it will not be nearly as robust as promised/ assumed. Focus on the goals - what should the website do.
posted by theora55 at 7:29 PM on November 11, 2016


Hi, I'm an art director in higher ed who works on websites.

The most common solution to the issue of different audiences needing different information is an audience navigation menu, that's a complement to the main navigation. There's nothing wrong with clearly distinguishing between prospective and current students and having different sections of the financial aid site for both — we do it. So does USC. The way you 'cater to both' is to have sections for each. Ask the heads you're meeting with about what the prospective students' needs are; you can contribute what the current students' needs are.

(Although, financial aid sections are pretty bog-standard: whether they're prospective undergrads, or current grad students, your users still need to know how much they're paying, when they need to pay by, and what hoops they need to jump through so they can possibly pay less. Also, if you don't make your school's FAFSA code prominent on the financial aid landing page, the ice weasels come for you in the night.)
posted by culfinglin at 2:35 PM on November 14, 2016


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