Most universities update their main website every five years. The sheer size and scope of these website overhauls require resources that only make sense in 5-year increments. The problem with this approach lies in the time frame. Websites begin looking dated after a year or two. By years 4 or 5, potential students begin to wonder if a quality education will accompany a website that looks like it was designed before they were born.

Stanford University has taken a different approach. They have changed their website life cycle from 5 years to 3 months. This agile approach is possible when the following components are present:

  1. A solid content management system (CMS)
  2. Standardized style guidelines
  3. Humility

Solid Content Management System (CMS)

One great feature of a CMS is in separating the content from the design. The content lives in the website database while the design lives in the website files. This separation creates the opportunity for interchangeable parts. Content can easily be changed without touching the design. Likewise, the design can be changed to update the appearance of the content. In this scenario, both parts do not require updating at the same time.

Standardized Style Guidelines

The reason Stanford is able to make incremental design changes every three months is because of standardized style guidelines. In website design, styles can be assigned to titles, text, photos, and other content. These assigned styles dictate the behavior of the content. When clear guidelines are set and followed, all titles across the entire website can be updated with one simple change to the style sheet.

This is obviously a huge challenge for universities. What often happens is that different programs, research groups, student services, etc. go their own way and begin creating unique websites. These “rouge” websites all have unique designs and are not connected to the main website.

With standardized styles, incremental design updates can be made every few months. Major design updates can be made every few years. During this time, the CMS can remain the same and content updated when needed.

Humility

One issue, not often discussed, is that the 5-year website overhaul plan relies heavily on a top-down approach. The old website is held up like a piñata for everyone to beat down while faculty, staff, designers, developers, and consultants sit around tables to centrally plan the website for the next 5 years.

These plans tend not to work and drain valuable time and resources. For one, the final website usually doesn’t launch for another year after the planning. By that time, it looks like AOL in the 90’s. Second, the planners usually don’t have the main target audience (potential students) in mind. And third, each website’s audience will interact with the website in a unique way, yet planning usually assumes a specific interaction with the website.

At the end of the day, websites cannot be centrally planned. Institutional knowledge and past analytics must be combined to make the best website possible, but after that, the goal is to launch as quickly as possible and measure. Measure analytics. Measure visual analytics (how users actually interact with the page). Measure how real potential students interact with the website. Measure what devices are being used to access the website.

After measuring, make quick and incremental changes. If it becomes apparent that a certain style of text or photo looks dated, change it. Don’t wait 5 years to change it. Change it immediately. And then measure the changes.

This takes tremendous humility. A website design and development company must admit they don’t have all of the answers. Faculty & staff must put aside their agendas for what the target audience truly cares about. Everyone involved must be willing to learn. And then respond.


Stanford’s mentality can best be described as responsive. This does not just refer to a technically responsive website design, but rather to a responsive approach. The technical aspects that make a responsive approach possible are the CMS and style guidelines. The organizational aspects that make it possible are a shift in mindset and humility.

In this day in age, design standards change rapidly. A new operating system by Apple can immediately change the look & feel expectations of visitors across the web. Previously awesome websites can be rendered old school in a matter of days. Responding four years later is no longer an option. Responding 3 months or even 3 hours later is possible, and is a better reflection of the university.

Erik Rostad

Author Erik Rostad

Erik Rostad started EPR Creations in May 2008. He works with universities, international organizations, and executives on their online presence.

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