New thoughts on the Bucknell University website…

Bucknell University… website comments from website developers

New discussion among the University Web Developers community took place this week on the pros and cons of the Bucknell University website launched earlier this year after one member wrote in with a link to the Jakob Nielsen group’s critique of the site.

In April and May I wrote about the site here and included notes from Gord Hopkins, another of Gerry McGovern’s Carewords partners. Gerry has also written about the site in a New Thinking column.
Enough from Carewords partners. Today in the tradition of “wish I’d said that” I’m going to repeat comments that appeared from four uWebDev members that together get to the heart of why the Bucknell goal (be different from conventional higher education websites) will not increase online marketing strength.
1. Testing for speed
Paul Fairbanks at Gettysburg College noted something I found when testing download speed on a smartphone as part of a competition review project for a client: Bucknell was the slowest to load (more than 6 seconds in my Mobitest). Paul referenced added detail provided by Google Page Speed Insights:
2. Using a website and driving a car

Paul Dempsey at Ursinus College made a useful analogy between “operating” a website and operating a car:

  • “In most cases, we can get in a car we’ve never driven before and in a few minutes we’re able to operate the lights, radio, doors and windows… not to mention the gas, brakes and steering wheel.
  • “The criticism of the Bucknell site is that they abandoned these standards, and that contributes to usability challenges. There were bold design decisions, and the site has an impact. But I think they could have had a similar impact while retaining some of the conventions of higher ed websites, such as a traditional navigation.
  • “Even thought it’s over 25 years old, Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” can be useful in getting us to look at how we interact with things… This can help open up our thinking about how we organize and design websites. I don’t always agree with usability purists, but I think there is a balance that needs to be found between design/marketing and the user experience.”
3. Reducing stress and frustration
From Michael Bazeley at the UC-Berkeley School of Law:
“As the parent of a new college freshman, I noticed three things about his web experience with university sites, none of which are surprising:
“1. When we would look at sites that were very out-of-box and visually bold, his first reaction was, “Wow, that’s a cool site.”

“2. When we would sit down together to research majors or look for classes or learn about housing, all we wanted was the simplest, most direct path to that information. We had lots of questions and wanted answers. We wanted web sites to perform as expected, and in-line with our experiences at other web sites. There is a high level of stress when researching and learning about new colleges, and anything that gets in the way of finding the information you want is super frustrating, even off-putting.

“3. You’ll ultimately choose your college on the campus visit, costs, etc. A web site is not going to determine where a student goes. The ginormous hero image is not going to make the sell, and frankly, when you’ve seen one giant university image, you’ve seen them all. Bucknell mocks the co-ed-under-a-tree look that is so familiar. But I’d argue that the giant, full-screen hero image is quickly taking the crown as the new university web cliche.
“I applaud Bucknell and Kenyon and others that are trying to redefine higher-ed sites. They may well be on the leading edge of where we will all be someday. But these new navigation and UI paradigms are not familiar to us yet. And the very last thing you want as a stressed out prospective college family is to feel confused and frustrated by an unfamiliar university web site.”

4. Usability first, not Mobile First

Let’s close with these wise words from self-described “web flunky” Brian Smith at SUNY-Albany:


“I mostly agree with what Paul mentioned about the Bucknell design”We should bridge mobile first/full bootstrap with previous higher ed design conventions.

“Overall, it seems like we’re all moving toward a mobile first scenario, but perhaps it should be usability first.

“There have been listserv remarks that some people “like” this and “like” that about the Becknell design and that’s great, but a designer should really only like it after they see that the general audience really likes it and can USE it.

“It’s great when things are DISCOVERABLE on a page, but OBVIOUS is much better. Our mantra is “Don’t Make Me Think”, which is the title of a very practical web usability book by expert Steve Krug. Krug relies on testing and so do we. Why add to the frustration level unnecessarily?

“Overall, the Bucknell interface sure is interesting and fun, and looks great, and is certainly no tragedy but it’s weak in usability.

“I’m hoping we can bridge mobile first designs to higher ed designs that people are somewhat used to.”

Most important marketing element: easy task completion
Most important to the marketing impact of a website is not how it looks, but how it works. That’s why the auto analogy is key to preventing the frustrations that Michael describes. You have less than 5 seconds when a page on your site opens to capture the attention of a visitor. 
You’ll capture attention if people can quickly find and complete the tasks they came to your website to complete. That’s the secret to marketing success. Not glitz and glamour. Not extra time and effort to figure out your unique navigation secrets.
For an example of a university home page that gets it right by focusing on just 4 top tasks
, visit the University of Ottawa. Truly innovative.

That’s all for now.

Subscribe to “Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter” for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.
Join 6,640+ people and follow me on Twitter
Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *