The Web Singularity is Near

I should probably feel terrible for making a play on title, because I don’t think I’m quite good enough to borrow from someone like him. But, I did it anyway. I know, I’m without shame. I’ve come to terms with that. I want to go a little editorial on you all here, and look at a growing problem among higher ed institutions (and the private sector as well): How do you handle the mutliheaded monster that is the state of your web site?

Everything is coming together. Slowly, steadily, it’s all about to come crashing together in an energy producing, gamma ray blasting, supernova explosion. Twenty years ago when the first colleges and universities started getting in to the web (and ten to fifteen years ago when it became more commonplace) the web was a very decentralized and amorphous thing. Rarely was there central control because there was no central to do the controlling to begin with yet. Part of our issue with centralized control now is that frequently colleges and departments started sites entirely on their own to begin with, and now don’t want to give up that freedom (whether or not they are doing good things with that freedom). That’s a problem many of us are dealing with, generally with varied success. Usually the move to an increasingly centralized control can be made or broken on the backs of high level buy in. That is crucial, especially with what I’m talking about, something that can span departments, colleges, and the university on the whole.

The issue I’m seeing is way bigger than that. It goes beyond who should be allowed to put content on the Art department’s web site. Look at your web presence - the whole thing. You likely have a web site that is all front facing and public, right? What about an intranet? Student portal? E-commerce platform? Student information system? Alumni portal? Athletics, fundraising, help desk, housing, event ticketing, blog system… The web isn’t just about a stack of HTML files anymore. This is the problem. Of all of these systems present on campus, how many different people are involved in running them, and how many of those are working together (better question: how many are working against each other)? How many are even under the same authority? I’ll happily throw down a stack of money that says you can’t even name everyone responsible for the whole of your web site. Peter Nissen of talks about some of the reasons decentralized control doesn’t work.

Despite all of this, we still have a core client to address. They might be in different audiences, but they are all web users, and they have common expectations. Is there someone responsible for looking at a housing management system that can say “Hey guys, this system has some serious usability and integration problems, and I don’t think it’s going to be a good fit in the overall web presence.”? I can answer that for you: you don’t. You should. I’m sure there are a couple exceptions out there that have gotten over this hump (and PLEASE share your experience in the comments, I’d love to see what you have to say). We see similar issues with content. Kristina Halvorson, in her book , looks at the web like a news show, newspaper, or magazine. All have to have multiple content types and sources, all reach an end user, and all need to have a central point of oversight to make sure it’s right. Where’s our editor-in-chief?

The Singularity in this case is user expectation with respect to our systems. Your web visitors don’t care that you have a dozen different systems and applications running to make their web experience happen. All they know is that if it sucks, then you must be failing. They get angry, they get frustrated. They want a simple, seamless experience. If you’re familiar with the MVC style of programming, users want a single, standard view, not dozens. And to put it simply, the systems are starting to get good enough that our excuses for not working towards that goal are getting very thin. It might be hard, it might take time, but that’s our job. We aren’t here to just set something up, slap the school colors on it, and walk away. If you aren’t striving to do better than that, then you are probably falling prey to the very issues I’m talking about.

Imagine if you will a cruise ship. Cruise ships have tons of components that make your vacation happen. Some you have direct contact with, some not. Engineers, cooks, stewards, bridge crew, medical, security, performers, and so on. Imagine if all of these people tried to make your cruise happen without any central management. It’d be a mess, a complete disaster. Every cruise ship has a captain. The captain might not know the fine nuance of the water reclamation system, but he can at least make sure their team coordinates with the right people when there’s trouble or when a common goal must be achieved. He can’t do the job of all 2,000 employees on the ship, but he is a successful planner. He dictatesdirects, and designates well. He’s a 3D sort of guy (get it? 3D? Because he dictates, des… oh nevermind).

That’s what we need. Our web sites need a captain. That captain doesn’t have to be a Python guru, or a master of Flash, or a jQuery ninja. But, he should know the heading and be able to make sure efforts are properly and efficiently coordinated. Their knowledge should be broad, but not always deep. That’s why you hire the experts in the respective fields for your specific tasks. Our problems aren’t going to get simpler moving ahead. It used to be a web site was a handful of GIF animations and a dozen HTML pages. Now we have CMSs, tens of thousands of pages, multiple servers, and all that just to maintain our front facing presence. In the coming years, these systems will have more crosstalk, not less. Expectations will increase, not decline. And the complexity of our sites will balloon.

Centralized control might not be a popular idea to a lot of people, but it will become a necessity for success, regardless of how big your university is. That’s my prediction. The alternative risks a mess of code, duplicated efforts, and upset development teams. Without someone at the helm, to use a phrase from Twitter this morning, running your site will be like pushing a wheelbarrow of squirrels. That’s my rant for today. Our needs are going to come together, as users and providers, and we’re all going to be looking for something central to tell us what to do. We’re already near the event horizon of this problem. It will be up to us how we’ll handle crossing the threshold.

Illustration by NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital Inc.

13 Responses to “The Web Singularity is Near”

  1. Says:

    Lots to take in here, Michael, and you make a good case for centralization. I like the cruise ship analogy. For some of the key, outward-looking clients, however (i.e., those who recruit students or raise money) maybe the better analogy would be that of a battleship. Many of these clients see their role as fighters, competing against other institutions for students and funds, and the terminology of the marketing sphere has borrowed from military terminology for quite some time (“target” markets, collateral, etc.). Just food for thought.

    I’m not sure how well a centralized approach will work. It goes against the grain of the decentralized, networked, flattened, anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional paradigm of online communication. Add to it the very independent, anti-authoritarian perspective of many campus cultures, especially on the academic side, and you have a very tough job on your hands. Unless your president/chancellor is a field marshall, and not many are.

    You didn’t even touch upon the sphere of social media and the Sooner land grab going on there to stake claims in Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’ve developed a centralized social media plan on our campus, but it’s based on the decentralized, “agreement by consensus” and “authority by influence” model that usually prevails in higher ed, rather than the command-and-control 3-D approach you advocate. I think centralizing a university’s social media presence is even more difficult, since anyone can grab a Twitter or LinkedIn account without having to go through any on-campus mediator.

    With our campus’s social media efforts, I’ve likened the effort to trying to get all the horses back into the barn after they’ve been running wild and free for so long — and long before the barn even existed. It’s slow going, and tough going.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Says:

      Social media is another monster all together. In the past, I’ve advocated very hands off approaches towards use of social media. Maybe offer guidelines for very basic protocol and behavior, but otherwise I think it’s hard to centralize such a moving target and goes against the principle of that particular medium. I think the better solution is to educate those that would use it in good practices and techniques. The problem is that it is such an agile, fast moving area, that if you put anything in the way of the community, you introduce unnecessary noise in the channel. Besides, if you made it too hard, what’s to stop a teacher from asking a student to set the page up, then make them an admin. If anyone questions it, they just take the teacher off for a while till it quiets down.

  2. Says:

    I agree with most of your post, Michael, although I don’t think its necessarily an issue of centralized control as it is centralized leadership.

    It has been my experience that even in the most decentralized situations, people will follow if they’re shown the way. This doesn’t have to come from a higher level of the academic food chain, just someone willing to help them see how their little corner of the website fits into the big picture.

    I used to scoff at the flowery language of university mission and vision statements. But their real value is in helping internal and external audiences see where we’re going and how to get there. If people buy into these ideals, it’s easier to show them the need to present one image.

    • Says:

      I totally agree with you, and perhaps used the term “control” in a way that sounds a lot stiffer than I meant. A ship captain doesn’t necessarily step in and show the performers how to put on their show or anything. It’s not about “my way or the high way.” It’s just a matter of direction and cohesion. As you say, leadership. The only issue is that I think it does have to come from a higher authority in the structure, mainly because a peer has no authority. You have to have someone with authority in the cases where something is otherwise going to go off the tracks. A good leader in that regard won’t have to flex their authority, because their teams will do like you suggest, and will work with each other rather than against.

  3. Says:

    I preach centralized control whenever anyone is willing to hear it, though my spin includes latitude for content creation:

    Even if you don’t agree with centralization, it’s pretty clear that decentralization isn’t exactly working out beautifully. There may never be a perfect approach, but experience should tell us that other options and models ought to be tried.

  4. Says:

    Very timely post. Within my team, which manages our school’s main website we talk about this issue almost every day, and from our perspective the singularity’s already upon us.

    We first became aware of this over two years ago. Before launching our redesign, we did an online survey of students about their web use and their opinions of the then-current website. Most of what we learned was pretty much what we expected. We knew there were problems, and that’s why we were doing a redesign.

    But one surprising comment kept getting repeated over and over: “the website has too many logins.”

    It was surprising because-our website didn’t *have* any logins.

    Further investigation revealed that while we thought of “the website” as our central web presence, our users thought of “the website” as everything the university had online: course management systems, registration, parking ticket payment, everything. And almost every one of those systems had its own unique login. (And none of them were purchased or implemented by offices with any experience in usability or design.)

    Our problems in changing this are the same as what you mention. I’d add that we, and I think many universities, don’t just have this issue on the website. (That is, it isn’t just websites that are working against each other.)

    I’d be very interested to know how others are working toward establishing, if not centralization, some better coordination between various web properties. (And other media outlets, too. Ever hear a radio ad for your school mention a URL “for more information”-when there actually isn’t *any* information at that URL? [Just to be safe, I won't confirm or deny that this ever happened to me.])

    Here’s my approach for the moment:

    1. Documentation and data collection: I’ve got a growing collection of web coordination issues available to share with senior decision makers. Whenever possible, I’m reaching into web analytics and other research to put some sort of number on the value lost via lack of coordination. I.e., “this ad drove 200 hits to the website, and only two of them looked at more than one page” or “the main website sent 1,500 prospective students over to the registration system, but only 300 actually managed to sign up.” (I’m trying to establish a dollar value for a prospective student, but that data’s hard to come by from my place in the bureaucracy.)

    Having data *really* helps, esp. when you use it to show that *lack of coordination* is the main problem, not the incredibly low quality of someone else’s website (even if that’s true).

    2. Showing where we need to go and comparing that with the resources made available: Having shown how lack of coordination hurts us, I show via mockups or wireframes where we need to go, inevitably getting the response “but we don’t have the time to do that.” Exactly. Most of our sites are maintained by faculty or their department secretaries. They aren’t web experts and they really do have other things to do.

    So the argument is: We know what we’re losing through our current (lack of a) system. We know where we need to take the website. We know we’ll never get there using the current de-centralized system. So, senior decision makers: what’s your decision?

    In a world of unlimited resources, in which rational argument always worked, I’d have an obvious winner here. In the real world-the jury’s still out.

    Other approaches?

  5. Says:

    Great post! Interesting viewpoint, it seems more in tune with the private sector. I also agree with Andrew’s comments on campus culture.

    I work for a public two-year system that has 13 physical campuses plus online that feed into the larger 13 four-year campuses of the University of Wisconsin system. We are part of the UW system (governance, etc.) but UW Colleges is seperate in most other ways(chancellor, etc.). We share resources to an extent.

    Organizing the web efforts is nearly impossible, as most campuses consider themselves independent and have different housing systems, calendaring, individual resources, etc.

    I started my position in central marketing three months ago. My postion (Web Projects Manager) is newly created and thus open for interpretation. And I would definitely agree that the overall cohesiveness of thinking about the greater “web presence” is missing.

    Our CIT department has done a beautiful job of centralizing to an extent but they work in the technical and don’t cover issues like: usability, accessibilty, social media, recruitment-based design, best practice, content strategy, IA, Analytics, testing, etc. We have; however, begun to leverage resources for bigger need projects from central that will benefit all the campuses, such as a media archival tool. It seems progress in this direction is slow and meets some resistance as everyone wants their own unique thing (and ownership over it).

    One of the projects I am working on is to create a strategic web plan, which I hoping will provide some guidance on how to move in a more centralized “web presence” direction among the campuses. I am wondering if anyone has done a web plan like this, if they would be willing to share, provide any advice or guidance.

    Thanks and again, great post!

  6. Says:

    There is a third option that might work for higher ed: voluntary centralization.

    Most departments on campus can’t afford more than one web developer, but today’s sites require a team of professionals to be successful. Web development spans various areas of expertise: programming, design, usability, writing, photography and information architecture. That’s the benefit of a centralized Web office. You get a team of professionals who can specialize.

    Departments are starting to understand this but still shy away from centralization because they feel like they will lose control. They don’t want their message to get lost or be forced to fit a template.

    To ease their worries, you could meet them halfway by allowing them to voluntarily fund a position on the centralized Web team (or move their current employee to the team). They get all the benefits of having a team of Web professionals work for them, but they also get a stake in what happens with their site. They get a primary contact in the central Web office to be their advocate and the university gets their external messages and branding to stay consistent.

    You won’t get everyone on board overnight, and no matter what you do there will be rouge offices that will never conform, but over time, as other departments show success, you’ll get more participation. If you’re able to get key groups onboard first, you may be able to reach some of your goals quicker than you thought.

    • Says:

      To add to my previous comment:

      Your centralized Web office may also need to become a “for hire” type of business. Instead of having a department pay a salary, they could hire the central Web office to build them a site in a CMS and then contribute to a maintenance fee that includes certain services, like photography and marketing, once a semester.

      In that scenario, the department feels in control because they become the client and the Web office is the consultant. There isn’t a long-term commitment and they can update their own content in a CMS without the expense of hiring a Web developer. The central office, in return, gets a steady income to pay their Web team.

    • Says:

      Josh, this is pretty much what we’re hoping to do. (We even call the non-conforming offices “rogues.”) The only hitch is that the departments never received funding to create websites. They’ve been labors of love by the faculty. (Or at least they were until the redesign.) So we want to do opt in, but we need to get the funding from somewhere higher up.

  7. Says:

    I certainly agree with you here-I’ve said the same thing for literally ten years at our institution. The problem for us has been (and continues to be) the vendors we use to provide our administrative database services. Even our Blackbaud product looks and functions terribly-it just took over our on-line donations page, which used to be a very smooth in-house page. I wish that I could get this message through to the vendors. This is also a situation where a sort of Web Captain couldn’t do much, because the Web Admiral (one VP or other) is the one calling the shots for whether to use the Blackbaud junk or not…

  8. Says:

    I certainly agree with you here–I’ve said the same thing for literally ten years at our institution. The problem for us has been (and continues to be) the vendors we use to provide our administrative database services. Even our Blackbaud product looks and functions terribly–it just took over our on-line donations page, which used to be a very smooth in-house page. I wish that I could get this message through to the vendors. This is also a situation where a sort of Web Captain couldn’t do much, because the Web Admiral (one VP or other) is the one calling the shots for whether to use the Blackbaud junk or not…


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