Survey of university websites

Bar chart showing Scotland vs UK vs world university websites As part of our work around developing a solid strategy for the University website for next few years, over the last couple of days we’ve been doing a little ‘competitor analysis’ and have visited over 200 university websites; in all it took us around eight hours. We asked three questions of each site we visited:

  1. Responsive
    Is the homepage responsive? (In other words, does the site adapt depending on the size, orientation of the screen used to view the pages?)
  2. Log in
    Do you need to log in to view information for internal audiences (which we broadly defined as an intranet)?
  3. Standard design
    Do the academic schools’ websites have a standard design?

Similarly, we looked at three areas:

  1. Scottish universities.
  2. Top 100 UK universities (from the Guardian university guide 2014).
  3. Top 100 world universities (from Times Higher Education world University rankings 2014).

Results

The results were both fascinating and encouraging:

Scotland UK World
Responsive 21% 43% 36%
Log in 50% 59% 53%
Standard school sites 86% 91% 39%

Not as far behind as we feared

Working largely in isolation from other university web teams—apart from those few moments each year we gather at Scottish Web Folk, IWMW or T44U conferences—it is easy to convince yourself that you are lagging far behind our fellow universities in terms of adoption of the latest web browser features and standards. A recent meeting of web team members from Abertay, Dundee and St Andrews, however, showed us that we are facing largely the same issues in each institution. And these results show us, certainly in terms of adoption of a mobile-friendlier, responsive website design, we are still a part of the majority. I wish we’d carried out this exercise, say, a year ago so that we could see how quickly this is moving. Time to respond, though.

In or out?

There has been a question posed here about whether our ‘intranet’, our pages for internal audiences, should be available to the general public or whether they aught to be secured behind a login. From this limited sample of approximately 200 institutions, around half restrict access. I’m still trying to figure out what is the exact question that we’re asking here. Is it simply about making some information unfindable by the public, or is it more about providing a more focused experience for external audiences, particularly in the area of search. Currently when someone enters a search term into the search box on the homepage it returns results from the entire University website: over 250,000 pages. Should we be displaying results only from sites that are relevant to external audiences (e.g. information for prospective students, administration A-Z, about the University, school websites, etc.)?

Standard school sites

Finally, we were surprised—but encouraged—by the high percentage of sites that offered a standard look-and-feel for school websites. We would never have guessed, for example, that 9/10 of UK websites would offer this.

Conclusion

This has been a valuable exercise. It would be interesting to repeat this exercise in 12 months’ time to see how the landscape has changed, particularly in the area of responsive design.

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Grid—a simple guide to responsive web design

Grid—a simple guide to responsive design by Adam Kaplan.

Grid—a simple guide to responsive design by Adam Kaplan.

It feels like the web is evolving at a frightening rate these days, and while we’re being encouraged to design for mobile first even the technical specifications (particularly HTML5, and CSS3) haven’t settled down yet and are still subject to change.

For example, there is currently a lot of energy being put into how to deal with responsive images: you don’t necessarily want mobile devices (possibly with smaller screens and slower bandwidth) to download images that would be more appropriate on desktop browsers, with larger screens and possibly fibre-optic broadband connections.

If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by it all and wondered where to start then I can recommend Grid, a simple guide to responsive design, created by Adam Kaplan, a designed from Chicago.

In seven simple steps he unpacks all the important stuff: why and how. And then he ends it with an encouraging, non-threatening challenge: practice makes perfect.

New framework for responsive HTML emails

Quickly create responsive HTML emails that work on any device & client. Even Outlook.

Quickly create responsive HTML emails that work on any device & client. Even Outlook.

Ink is a fairly new framework from Zurb, who brought us the Foundation CSS framework, for creating responsive HTML emails.

It’s been a while since I’ve been asked to help put together an HTML email but as news of this new HTML email framework dropped into my inbox this morning I thought it would be useful to share it.

As anyone who has been charged with creating HTML emails, and told that they must look equally good in Google Mail, Outlook and any other client, will attest it’s not entirely straight-forward. Not least because, well, who wants to go back to using tables for layout?!

Newer versions of Outlook (2007 and 2010, I’m looking at you) don’t help either as they use… wait for it… Microsoft Word to render the HTML!?

I don’t have any need for creating HTML email at the moment, but this really looks interesting. I may just have a play with it one lunchtime.

Download Ink from Zurb