I should probably feel terrible for making a play on Ray Kurzweil’s famous book 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 JBoye.com 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 Content Strategy for the Web, 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 dictates, directs, 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.