Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 19, 2017

College of the Environment: Sharing web services

The challenge: Updating websites in units without web designers

What do you do when nearly every one of your websites is dated, unstable, off-brand or all of the above? In 2013, this was the situation for the College of the Environment’s many schools, departments and research units. From academic program homepages that didn’t mention the University of Washington to unstable, inaccessible websites that couldn’t be updated, the problems were varied and complex.

To add to the challenge, a number of the college’s units lost some or all of their web staff during the last economic downturn. Some units relied on a rotating group of graduate students to create and maintain their web presence; very few sites had an optimal number of visitors.

The solution: A centrally-supported website framework

After the marketing and communications team assessed the diverse communication needs of the college’s schools and departments and the resources available to help, they decided that updating the websites of units in the college was a major priority. An investment was made in 1.5 full-time staff members in the dean’s office. Without centralized investment, this change could have required each unit to hire a vendor or add a web professional to their staff.

“None of our websites were representative of the quality and unique character of our people or our work,” says Molly M. McCarthy, managing director of marketing and communications for the college. “We had an opportunity to make a huge impact in the way our units tell their own stories, share important research and recruit students.”

Joe Eastham, associate director of online communications, joined the team to develop the college’s unit website framework to meet these needs. The team chose WordPress to support the framework, which keeps the effort and cost of building, maintaining and hosting dozens of websites reasonable. Eastham can build carefully chosen features such as news sections and faculty profiles and then share them seamlessly with all websites in the framework.

Benefits: Independence, time-savings and improved services

“We wanted to respect the independence and expertise of each unit, while recognizing that some aspects of the process are more efficient when managed centrally,” says Eastham. “While each unit has a distinct voice, they all need human-friendly web design, development and support. Using a standard framework saves time and allows us to constantly improve our visitors’ experience and add new features, like searchable faculty directories and custom news categories.”

Next steps: Meet the growing demand

McCarthy, Eastham and team members Drew Collins, Cole Bessee and Jack Stoller have completed websites with 13 units, and are working on five more sites. After some initial hesitation, almost every major unit in the college has opted to participate, and smaller groups such as individual labs and faculty members have requested a future version of the program suited to their needs, as well. Initial fears about lack of control over content and design have calmed over time as more sites have launched, seamlessly blending the unit’s unique identity and the UW brand.

The marketing and communications team members continue to work toward bringing more UW environment sites into the framework, improving overall user experience and making the system easier for content editors. Someday, they hope to offer a limited version of the framework to a broader range of college projects and programs.

Lessons learned: Unit-led, with clear expectations and constant improvement

Several factors have been key to successful partnerships between the college team and individual units:

  • Taking the time to understand the priorities and culture of each unit allows the team to build sites customized to their needs.
  • Recognizing the subject matter expertise in each department or school, and giving them full control over web content is key.
  • Being clear from the start about expectations and scope of work, such as the college’s focus on externally-facing content, keeps the size of each project manageable.
  • Scheduling annual updates encourages a process of constant improvement and helps ensure that sites don’t fall into disrepair.

Examples of unit websites:
School of Environmental and Marine Affairs
Friday Harbor Laboratories
University of Washington Botanic Gardens
School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences
Earth Lab
Environmental Studies