3 Things Good Websites Require from Their Owners

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Lessons from Pavlov’s Pet Treats

I bake and sell dog treats. I’ve been doing it since last spring and even have my own website. While I’m not getting rich at it, I’ve learned a lot about selling dog  treats during that time. And I’ve learned a lot about selling the University at the same time.

Pavlov's Pet Treats homepage

You see, I have a crummy little website at pavlovspettreats.com (any free advice would be appreciated). And I can look at my site and see how it pales in comparison to others and especially to those built by the Web Group at Notre Dame.

I know my site stinks; I just need three things to make it right so that it will actually sell treats: time, money, and an outsider’s view.

Requirement No. 1. Time

Between working at the University all week and baking nearly every night, I’ve not been able to find the time to think out a logical plan for my website. But I’m not alone in that.

Image of hourglass showing time running outToo often our clients come to us when they need a website “by the first of the semester” or “ASAP” or “right now, ’cause we’re sending out brochures and need to provide a website for people to go to.” Thus, they have not given themselves (or us) the time to think out what the website can truly do for them. It takes time and effort to determine

  • The goals of the site
  • The audience(s) of the site
  • How the audience wants to interact with the site
  • How the site’s success will be measured
  • How the site will be maintained

And speaking of maintenance of the site, too often clients leave that to an overworked, disinterested, under-trained employee to “stick this photo on the site” and don’t have a plan for regularly scheduled maintenance. (My dad would be so proud of me for using that term, which he insisted was the only responsible way to keep a car, a house, a furnace, or anything of value.)

Requirement No. 2. Money

My personal financial situation at the moment is not one to envy. My husband retired in spring; we lost a bundle on a business venture we closed; and Pavlov’s Pet Treats is eating away at any spare cash. I simply have no money for marketing and website design and building.Man viewing large bill

Again, I’m not alone. Although the University of Notre Dame is not as hard-hit as most higher ed institutions, we have a fiscally conservative administration (for which we still-employed staff are grateful). Thus, we have tight budgets. Our clients are often trying to squeeze the last penny out of their budgets, and they come to us with very little in the way of funds to pay for work.

Our Web Group has to bill for everything we do. Even though the money is “funny money” that goes from one pocket into another, if it’s not there, it’s simply not there.

So clients ask for the impossible. How much website can I get for $X?

In our case, we have DIY sites for a few hundred dollars. With the purchase of one of these, our clients can set up a site with varying degrees of functionality, often solving their problem quite reasonably. The Web Group has designed templates based on University brand standards (recently adopted), and these sites work quite well. With a little bit of training, clients can be off and running in no time. Is it the same as a custom design? No. Not by a long shot. But a DIY site can take care of a great number of needs our clients have.

Likewise, a template such as my current Shopify site could probably take care of Pavlov’s business—if I had the other two components.

Requirement No. 3. Outsider’s View

I am no designer. I am also not a developer. I am, however, in the field of information architecture and usability. But can I put together a site (even a templated one) that works as well as it should? Not without outside eyes.

You see, just as an author should never edit her own work, rarely can a site owner depend solely on his own opinion, review, and expertise to make a site as good as it should be. In most cases, the site owner is so closely entwined with the subject matter that he can’t see his site as a user would.

That’s where it helps to have outside eyes and expert review of such things as

  • Organization
  • How the Site is Organized—Is your site organized along the lines of your org chart for your department or program? If so, that probably makes no sense whatsoever to your audience. Consider, for instance, Notre Dame’s organization. Would you look under Food Services or Admissions for ID cards?  (Faculty and staff get theirs through Human Resources; students get theirs from Food Services.)
  • Amount of Information—Is it best to include several pages worth of information on one page? Or should it be divided into several?
  • Redundancy—Are there redundant pages? Should there be?
  • Design
    • Colors—Are the colors Web-safe? Can those with color blindness properly read all aspects of the site? Do the colors reflect the personality of the program or department? Are the colors consistent with a larger branding effort?
    • Backgrounds—Is the background consistent with the site’s personality? Does it interfere with the readability of the site?
    • Links, Images, and Videos—Are they appropriate in number, size, and location? Or is there a better way to place them so that they are found and more likely to be clicked on or read?
    • Functionality
      • Calls to Action—Are there too many on a page? Do the links all work? After a user clicks on action items, what happens next? Does it make sense?
      • Analytics—Can you track the analytics for your site? Will you be able to set up filters, goals, and other tracking to help you determine your site’s success/failure?
      • Accessibility—Does the site function well for those with disabilities?
  • Usability Testing
    • User Expectations—Do users read the terms the way you do? Do they use the site in the way  you intended? Or do they get lost because they don’t understand your terminology or come to the site expecting it to behave in a way you hadn’t planned?
    • Writing—Is your site too heavy on the long paragraphs and jargon? Do they lose interest because they can’t easily find something in which they’re interested and want to delve deeper?
    • Distractions—Are there too many calls to action, and do they confuse or distract your audience? Is the background too busy and does it pull attention away from the text or make the text hard to read? Does the page appear too cluttered? Is everything on each page really necessary? Or can some of it be removed or moved to other pages?
    • Navigation—Does the navigation make sense? Is it logical, or is it too complex? Does the navigation scent lead the audience down the right paths?
    • Design—Is the page attractive? Is it compelling? Or does it simply drive away your audience (or worse yet, bore them)? Is the design appropriate to the topic?
    • Images—Do the images help your audience? Or do they simply pull attention away from the text? On academic sites, it’s tempting to put the standard “students on the grass” image up, but will that really help move the audience to take the intended action? Or will they see the image as yet another students on the grass, just like every other college has. (One has to wonder if students ever study anywhere else!)

Now What? 

Okay, so I know I need those three things in order to fix my site. And now you know some of the challenges our clients face in building or reworking their sites. Time to roll up the sleeves.

While we’re at it, what else would you include in the requirements for good website needs?



Content, Context, and Beethoven

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I preach content made for the audience: context is vital. It bears repeating.

The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. Typically, this just makes me feel old. But then, I felt old when I was 18 and mentioned Albert Schweitzer in a college speech class and was told that I should have explained who he was because not everyone knew had heard of him (and that was MANY years ago; I can’t imagine trying that today!).

With this year’s report, however, it’s different. Today, I feel a call to action. I need to use this mindset as a reminder to our Web clients (and me) that not everyone knows that Nirvana was a band; that Beethoven wasn’t always a dog; and that children used to never even consider divorcing their parents! Today, students (according to the poll) don’t even know how to write in cursive (it’s an optional subject in school these days).

In other words, it’s a different world out there. Messages and calls to action that might work for my generation probably won’t do a thing for the college crowd. To make a reference to Black Monday in a financial sense won’t bring our students’ minds to Wall Street (well, except for a few finance majors), but instead, to the punk rock band.

We speak in the same language in different tongues.

The lesson I need to drive home (in my own mind as well as those of our clients) is that we need to ALWAYS keep in mind the experiences and knowledge of our readers–in other words, the CONTEXT in which the CONTENT will be read.

Secret Formula to Capture About Page Readers

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How much thought do you give to your About page of your website? Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about them either. Yes, I know, we need to cover the basics—who, what, where, when, and how—on these pages, but really, can it be that hard?

According to John Hyde, who wrote “About Pages: Good, Bad, and Missing,” it can be. Hyde says that, although users seldom choose to form a relationship with businesses (or, in our case, a school) because of an About page, they often come to these pages to get a feeling of who we are, “who lives behind the websites” to find out whether the like what we are and what we value. According to Hyde, “About pages help users put our heretofore anonymous organization into perspective.”

In the competitive atmosphere of higher education, drawing students, staff, and faculty to our university can be a challenge. By providing good About pages, we are helping our various schools and departments fulfill their missions to bring the best to campus.

After reading Hyde’s article, I decided to quickly review some of Notre Dame’s sites to see how they measured up to Hyde’s  5 Ws of About pages (who, what, when, where, how) as well as an added one (call to action). (Hyde also has other good criteria, but I’ll touch on those later.) While the call to action might be an arguable requirement, I would argue that even having an added “Contact Us” button or link (even if in the header of every page of the site) would help make users feel more “at home” and comfortable, knowing we are inviting their contact.

Here’s how a few of our sites stacked up. (Note that the last site is not ours; it is Hyde’s. I wanted to make sure the doctor took his own prescription!)

Who What Where How When CTA
nd.edu/aboutnd/ (University of
Notre Dame)
x x x x The University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842 by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is an independent, national Catholic university located in Notre Dame, Ind., adjacent to the city of South Bend and approximately 90 miles east of Chicago
al.nd.edu/about/ (College of Arts & Letters) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About
x x x Uh oh! We have work to do!
(Center for Social Concerns)
x x x x Separate history/staff/quick facts sections

(School of Architecture)
x x
(English Department)
No About page
(Notre Dame Security Police)
x x x x
ndfd.nd.edu/about/ (Notre Dame Fire Department) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About
provost.nd.edu/ (Provost’s Office) x x Separate biography, directory, and other pages
registrar.nd.edu/ (Registrar’s Office) No About page
uhs.nd.edu/about/ (University Health Services) x x x x x x/
Welcome letter rather than specific “About” section.
(John Hyde)
x x x x x x/
I’m John Hyde. I’ve been improving websites since 2006. I’m based in York, England.

With a new client I look for the easy wins. This makes everyone feel good.

Did you notice that the University home page covered who, what, where, and when all in one sentence?

Some of these were “stretching” to cover all five Ws. Some were better written than others. But just reading these, I’ve a new appreciation for a good About page.

What are your thoughts? Does it matter, for instance, that some sites don’t have an About page? Or that some don’t have a call to action?


Now that I’ve completed this little exercise in reviewing some of our sites and making notes for future edits, I think I should take some of that medicine Hyde offered and drank. I need to fix my About on this blog. And then offer some suggestions to those who maintain the AgencyND site. Thanks, Mr. Hyde!