Here’s a rant for you.
Yesterday I was trying to find lists of Entomology researchers and staff at various Universities. This turned out to be a very frustrating experience, and I decided to follow up on this a little more closely. I pretended I was a potential graduate student who was interested in Entomology, but who did not necessarily know who (i.e., by name) to look for. So, I went to main University homepages and attempted to navigate my way to a list of faculty within, for example, a Department of Entomology.
This was a stunningly frustrating and annoying process. In my largely unscientific approach, it took me an average of 5.4 clicks (range 3 to 7) to get to Faculty listings in a series of Canadian and US Universities (my sample size was 20). The best was Ohio State and Iowa State – in three clicks I was able to get to the list of Entomology Faculty. These worked – essentially you move from University Page to Academics, where there is a complete list of Departments and from the Departmental page there is a clear link to ‘people’. The most clicks was seven, and of these, Penn State was the worst because once you got to the Department of Entomology, you still could not easily access a list of people and had to instead navigate through ‘research areas’. At my own institution, it took me 7 clicks to find a list of faculty within my department (yikes!). The most significant challenge of this exercise was to ‘guess’ what College or Faculty (or Department) to navigate to (Faculty of Science? College of Life Sciences and Agriculture?)
You might argue this is useless exercise, because people will just use Google. However, if you don’t know who you are looking for you are forced to deal with University websites.
I tweeted about this issue yesterday, and Alex Wild and Crystal Ernst suggested this is one key reason why researchers need to set up their own profiles through Google Scholar profiles (e.g., here is Alex’s) or through their own websites. I agree with this, but it is still important that you can be found at your own institution!
Think of this again in terms of a potential graduate student searching for staff listings in an area of study that interests them. How quickly will someone give up and seek a site that is easier to navigate?
A bigger question: who is the audience for a University website? Donors? Alumni? Staff? I would argue the audience is students, and as such, these sites must be designed for students – and in many cases (especially for potential MSc and PhD students), students are looking for people: informative and easy-to-find listings of faculty should be a priority.
In sum, University websites are not easy to navigate. Try to find a list of people? Good luck.