University websites are easy to get wrong. Professors want the websites to look one way. The researchers want to be sure their programs are covered. The schools need to collect donations. And somewhere in there, universities are supposed to direct the website to their main target market, potential students.

Yesterday, I highlighted the top 5 university websites from the list of 25 top USA universities. Today, I tackle the 5 worst. This again comes from the list of top 25 universities as determined yearly by U.S. News.

I’ve designed, developed, and looked at thousands of websites over the past 6 years and based this list off of the following criteria:

  • Initial impression when arriving on the website
  • Modern or dated design
  • Whether or not responsive design was used
  • Ease of navigation
  • Quality of inner websites (programs, alumni, research projects, etc.)

Here is the list of the 5 worst university websites with the worst, first:

1. Columbia University

Columbia University

This website looks like it was designed in the 90’s. The only missing pieces are flashy display ads in bright neon colors and the university’s fax number. As the 4th highest rated university in the United States, I expect a little more from this website. It is not responsive, so if you view the website on a mobile device, you are taken to a mobile-specific version of the website. The mobile version also looks like it is 10 years old and once you click in a few pages, the navigation becomes daunting. This comes in an age where at least 15% of people accessing the website are using iPhones or devices with similar screen sizes.

Columbia uses Drupal for the content management system (CMS). It wouldn’t be all that difficult to keep the content the same and just do a basic design update. The inner college, research, and main websites are not much better and in some cases are worse.

There is also a heavy use of text as links. One way to assist in navigation is to turn text links into images or icons. Website visitors can interpret images faster than having to hunt and peck through rows and rows of text links.


2. Duke

Duke University

Duke’s main website does not warrant a number 2 placement for worst websites, but when considering inner websites as well, it gets pretty bad. I put together a spreadsheet as I analyzed these 25 top university websites and my comment for Duke was “they should be ashamed.” NPR’s Planet Money recently released a podcast discussing Duke’s $60k/yr tuition. Duke makes the case that the education actually costs $90k/yr and so students are getting a $30k/yr discount. Apparently the $60k doesn’t include website maintenance.


3. MIT

MIT Website

There are some cool elements to this website, but I’m setting the bar a little higher for the premier technology institute in the USA. This design was probably cutting edge a few years back, but it’s time to move on. There is no responsive version of this website but there is an App. MIT rotates the main website image each day. That’s neat, but people don’t return to websites every day. In fact, they may only be on the home page for a few seconds. Do they get a grasp of the university from a quick glance of the MIT page? I don’t think so.


4. Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis Website

Design standards change quickly online. This website probably looked fresh just a few years ago, but it’s time for an update. Also, the mobile version of the website is really bad. Does the second option really say “Campus Google Map (beta)?” Why beta?

Washington University in St. Louis Mobile Website

The navigation on the desktop version is decent. There are no drop-down menus, but you can easily get to the main inner pages and the content is laid out nicely. My main beef with this website is design-related. If you want to portray a fresh, advanced university, then that has to show on the website.

5. Cal Tech

Cal Tech

The navigation on the Cal Tech website is just plain confusing. I have the hang of it now, but it took me a while. Navigation should be so intuitive that you get it immediately. That cannot be a hindrance on the website. When I clicked “Explore the Menu,” it wasn’t immediately apparent to me that there were more main menu items. They sort of disappear into the black and white background of the website. The mobile version of this website was actually more impressive than the desktop version. The mobile version is easy to navigate and was much more intuitive than the desktop version.


Why is this so important?

Website visitors make split-second decisions when accessing a new website. Studies show that if a website does not have a mobile version, mobile users are more likely to leave the website immediately. Universities have the benefit of name recognition. They are not starting from scratch like other organizations. Visitors searching for a university already have an idea about the university. The website may be the second point of contact for a potential student, professor, researcher, or donor. If they have a great image of the university (and they should if they go to the website of one of these top universities listed above), that image can be easily altered with a lackluster website. You can’t be expected to be viewed as a top technology or design school if your website is not technically beautiful and functional.

What can universities do in planning for an overall web strategy? First of all, the assumption must be made that the website design will need to be updated every year or every other year. Stanford updates their designs every 4 months. Secondly, a content management system (CMS) must be chosen that has the two important features:

  • Easily upgradable designs
  • Ability to export website content

Ideally, a university wants to choose a CMS that has a lot of users. It is more likely that that CMS will be around a few years from now compared to a small CMS platform. In either case, universities must make sure they can export all website content to be able to use it in a new CMS if needed. This will allow universities to set standards for content additions to the websites and make it possible to easily change the design to meet technology and design updates.

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.

More posts by Erik Rostad

Join the discussion One Comment

  • My Truth says:

    I completely agree with you , i’m more disappointed with MIT’s website , there are websites about Music and cooking that are visually way more beautiful than these Websites , i honestly don’t know why they are still keeping it that way !

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