XKCD's Take On College Websites.

Yes, I saw the cartoon when it first came out. I might have missed it, but 34,578 people emailed it to me. It was brilliant! I laughed for hours!

No, no I didn't. Instead, I thought, "It must be nice to be in a position to spew commentary on things you only peripherally understand, to mass numbers of people who will take it as gospel."

Yes, I sound bitter. I really wouldn't care about any of this if it weren't such a perpetual thorn in my side. Probably not fair to take it out on xkcd.

But seriously, running a college website is an extraordinarily complicated affair. There are many academic and administrative departments on campus - often with competing agendas - and the site has to (at least make a solid attempt to) satisfy them all. There are many target audiences, internal and external, and the site has to satisfy them all. There are students and faculty and administrators and alumni, with unique preferences and opinions on how the school should translate itself to the web, on what information is "useful," on what stories to tell and why, and the site has to... you get the idea.

Cultivating compromise doesn't even begin to describe it. Mark Greenfield pretty much gets it right in the InsideHigherEd piece that came out today when he talks about "homepage politics."

There's no magic pill of a solution here, or we would have figured it out long ago. Our first step this summer has been to envision two distinct audiences - internal and external, i.e. those who already know Oberlin intimately and those who don't - and build homepages for each of them. The new homepage for the insiders should launch early this fall, and I'm pretty excited about it.

We also have a gorgeous new homepage design for the external audience waiting in the wings that will also hopefully launch sometime in the next year. It addresses many of the issues outlined in the InsideHigherEd piece.

In my experience, both at MIT and Oberlin, there is an audience - and a very significant one - for both sides of the xkcd Venn diagram. Of course there are folks who are just looking for the "CIA operation" - i.e. get in, get what you need, and get out - but there are plenty of others who are looking for the stories of the place, the primary sources, the narratives of transition and transformation. To suggest otherwise is a pretty good indication that you've never worked on a college website.

Enough from me. What do you guys think?

Responses To This Entry:

I think your quote:

"Our first step this summer has been to envision two distinct audiences - internal and external, i.e. those who already know Oberlin intimately and those who don't - and build homepages for each of them."

...says it all. Too often schools attempt to serve both audiences with a single homepage, or a single portal, or a single anything, really.

Hope you're well.


Posted by: Laird Nelson on August 4, 2010 11:54 AM

I'd imagine that Oberlin's unique combination of high-quality small liberal arts college and world class conservatory doesn't make things any simpler...

Posted by: John Congdon on August 4, 2010 12:32 PM

I haven't been to the Oberlin website in forever -- just now went mostly out of curiosity.

I agree that serving two distinct audiences is the way to go. Though my oldest is only five, I looked at the site trying to envision what would be important for us years from now when he is applying to schools (as opposed to getting ready for Kindergarten!). But as an alum, I am way more interested in reading about the school's accomplishments, grants won, stand-out alumni, etc.

I work for a web-design firm focusing on building sites for authors, so we pretty much have one audience to capture with a home page. I cannot imagine the headache that comes along with building a homepage that appeals to multiple target groups.

Looking forward to seeing the new Obie site... or rather, sites!

Kudos on forward-thinking vision, Ben!

Posted by: Abi (Cotler) Bowling on August 4, 2010 12:33 PM

You could make the website an exact copy of the xkcd cartoon, with each of the words hyperlinked. That's probably what I would do because I'm lazy.

Posted by: Christina on August 4, 2010 12:38 PM

(Disclaimer: I am Oberlin's Web Developer, and I work for Ben in the Office of Communications. My work is technical, and I am not responsible for the policy or content of our website. So, while my opinion is formed in part due to my exposure to the environment, my opinion is just that: mine. I certainly do not speak for Ben or the Office of Communications or Oberlin College, and my respect for all involved or mentioned, and the institution as a whole, is beyond reproach.)

Ben said: "There are many academic and administrative departments on campus - often with competing agendas - and the site has to (at least make a solid attempt to) satisfy them all. There are many target audiences, internal and external, and the site has to satisfy them all."

I searched for a relevant quotation, and the one I enjoyed was attributed to Bill Cosby: "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone." I haven't been able to confirm him as the source, but it serves to illustrate my feelings on this nonetheless. (I also considered the "jack of all trades, master of none" idiom, though it speaks more to the result than the intention.)

Seeking to satisfy all who would make a claim to shape the institution's website or message—in effect, anyone and everyone with a loud enough voice—is futile. As the aim of professionals such as ourselves it eschews our own usefulness as experts, and results in, at best, a mediocre product. I would contend that the only approach that consistently leads to success, and that should thus be considered valid, is one of identifying target audiences and determining the resultant product(s) entirely by way of research into what those audiences find appealing.

While I am proud that we have started down this path at Oberlin, we have a long way to go. As Ben mentioned, we have been doing some very impressive work on targeting some of the different audiences we serve. But we could do more, especially when it comes to researching the needs of those audiences. We need to take fewer "truths" for granted. We're indeed, as Mark Greenfield noted, in a culture that does not conventionally consider "prioritizing user needs based on research" to be wise. But it is.

I enjoyed the xkcd, and I don't think that referencing political priorities, however real, is a defense to its accusation. Political priorities serve the individuals involved for a time, but they can only serve the institution and its customers indirectly, at best, or even harm them, at worst. Were politics rendered irrelevant, experts and researchers such as ourselves would have a far greater chance, in my opinion, of solving the remaining problem, that of identifying and targeting audiences effectively. So while politics is certainly a large part of the reason that the situation is as it is, we don't need to defend it or be proud of it. We need to change it. Can we? Can one person?

I think so.

Posted by: Joseph Spiros on August 5, 2010 9:52 AM

When you switch to the new web page many, probably most users, will complain initially. We all know how to find the things that we use on a regular basis in the old website and it will take us a while to find them in the new one.

Posted by: Ken Stanley on August 5, 2010 1:13 PM

Working for communications, I found the strip funny because I know a little bit about the politics behind Oberlin's website, and I think that's part of what Joseph is saying too. It doesn't seem to me to be making fun of the people who make college websites or even the parties whose sometimes conflicting and cacophonous voices make the process so difficult to navigate.

I'd like to think that this is what Randall was going for and it just got exaggerated by the constrictions of the medium (it needs to be funny, not simply daunting). The real venn diagram would be much more difficult to draw: It would have lots of circles, much more overlap, and it would be easier to see that the stuff in the center is actually an attempt at compromise.

But don't worry, Ben. No one hates the playa, we hate the game.

Posted by: Anonymous on August 6, 2010 11:42 PM

More from InsideHigherEd today... pretty good stuff:


Posted by: Ben on August 12, 2010 1:00 PM

Re the second IHE article: what do you make of the claim that "most [prospective] students did not care about student or faculty profiles. They expressed even greater indifference toward things like videos, interactive features, blogs, and podcasts"? I'm pretty skeptical of that myself, at least for our prospies, and I assume you are too...

Posted by: DW on August 12, 2010 4:10 PM

@DW - I agree 100% that Oberlin's prospective students are quite different from "most [prospective] students." Our own data definitely shows this to be true.

The parts of the second IHE article that really resonated with me were:

(1) "...trying to be everything for everyone results in cluttered pages that are more likely to turn off all demographics, experts say."


(2) "One problem with using nationwide data or broad-based best practices is that just as many institutions are different, the audiences of different institutions may want different things. And parsing those demographics effectively requires self-study more than adhering to broad principles."

Posted by: Ben on August 12, 2010 5:06 PM