Episode 17: Do Less, Better

Episode 17: Do Less, Better
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Michael Fienen, host of the Drunken UX Podcast and CTO of nuCloud joins Joel and J.S. to talk about how a better focus on the most valuable pieces of marketing could produce radical change in higher education.

Episode 17: Do Less, Better
Season 1

 
Play/Pause Episode
00:00 / 47:26
Rewind 30 Seconds
1X

Michael Fienen, host of the Drunken UX Podcast and CTO of nuCloud joins Joel and J.S. to talk about how a better focus on the most valuable pieces of marketing could produce radical change in higher education. Do less, better.

Do Less, Better Transcript

Joel Goodman:
Welcome to the Thought Feeder Podcast. I am Joel Goodman with me is the ever-popular Jon-Stephen Stansel and our special guest today is Michael Fienen. You all may know him as @fienen or “The Beard” or the host cohost of the Drunken UX podcast. A good friend of ours going way back. And we’re really, really excited to have Michael on the show today to talk about.

Web development and process and bad practice and trends and things in higher education. Thanks for being with us today, Michael.

Michael Fienen:
Thanks for having me on.

Joel Goodman:
All right. So, so we’ll just dive in because there’s a lot to talk about, J.S. has has been, kind of going back and forth, figuring out some good questions, really hard, hitting impactful questions for Michael.

And we’re going to start out with, yeah, what are you drinking?

Michael Fienen:
I am drinking a nice glass of water this evening. unfortunately hydrating, as a consequence of some allergies I’m having. And so I, I had promised to get Scotch-drunk for this, but, I’ll tell you what. I was a Theater major in college, I’ll act like it.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah, Fienen actually doesn’t need to be Scotch-drunk to spout truth on what we’re going to be talking about.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Theater minor here, but

Joel Goodman:
Oh, there we go. I’m the only one without a Theater background.

Michael Fienen:
It’s almost weirdly ironic that I run a show called Drunken UX. And then I come on this show and I’m like, I’m on water tonight. No, that’s I’m good.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Well, Joel, and I

Joel Goodman:
on the wagon.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
we’ll have, have a drink for you. I’m in your honor, I’ve got a nice glass of Maker’s Mark.

Joel Goodman:
And I have whatever was left in our bottle of, Powers Irish Whiskey, which was quite a heavy pour that my wife tossed into this rocks glass for me. So. Plus I have water someplace, but I needed it after, after my long day of technical live streaming duties. Anyway, Michael.

Michael Fienen:
Hi

Joel Goodman:
Hey. We tend to focus on the negative things in digital marketing and by we, I mean myself and J.S.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Who, us?

Joel Goodman:
And yeah. Who, us? Yeah, we, we do complain a lot. We try to add constructive feedback and, helpful approaches to fixing some of the things. so we thought maybe like, it would be nice to talk to you as, as someone who’s spent a long time in higher ed and then kind of moved outside to the periphery, but it’s still very much connected to the industry, to the people.

You, you still work on higher ed projects with, with, with your current job?

Michael Fienen:
so yeah, we’ve, I’m CTO of a company called nuCloud. we do interactive campus mapping for largely for universities. Some K-12 also some retirement communities, hospitals, things like that, but, the company itself was founded by three of us who came out of higher ed.

We all had very similar roles, either as you know, a senior web developer, I was a director of Web Marketing at Pittsburgh State University. God, I was there for six years, seven years on the borderline, started there in 2006 back in like the sort of the, what’s it, when the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis to become the butterfly? Sort of that phase of digital transformation for a lot of universities.

So, you know, we saw a lot going on then, and I left Pitt state, several years back, but stayed with nuCloud and still, speak regularly at conferences and things like that. Because even though my body may have left the university, my heart is still very rooted in the mission and, and helping people accomplish what, I personally view is incredibly important.

Joel Goodman:
So like part of what you all do at nuCloud is try to make the case for your campus mapping product to fit into a wider sort of web ecosystem that these schools have, you want it to feel branded, but you want it to feel, connected to what, what the rest of schools are doing.

In your time kind of working with various institutions, what are, what are some of the things that universities are actually doing well these days on the web? Compared to the, I mean, I don’t know how many of your, how many of your conference sessions I’ve attended? some multiple times. but we know what a lot of the problems are.

What are, what are some of the things that you think higher ed has learned albeit as slowly as higher ed tends to learn these things, and what’s successful these days?

Michael Fienen:
The one thing I think that has, the importance of it has definitely been driven home at a lot of places, is that design matters. And you’re seeing as a result, a lot of evolution in layout and design, for the better, for the most part. That’s absent the technical side, that’s absent the messaging and things like that. Like just in general, we do see a lot more attention being paid to that.

Now that’s, I’m going to be more at your mid- to upper-tier. if you look at a lot of community colleges or a lot of much smaller four-year universities, you still see a lot of that two, three, four year lag on some of the design and some of the techniques. But that’s always been true. You know, you’ve always kind of got this curve of adoption with higher ed, and the way things trickle, not just down as universities and colleges adopt what other schools do, but also as those techniques funnel through the vendors that end up working, with the smaller and picking up these longer tail type schools.

But to that end messaging, I think has matured a lot. The interest and care with which we approach a lot of messaging has gotten better. I’m not going to say it’s good. I wanna, like, stop short of saying that I think they’re doing a good job on it. I do want to say, I think it is getting better.

Joel Goodman:
I mean, a lot of taglines are still exactly the same across a dozen universities or at least have the same sentiment. I remember that video that Jeff Stevens did several years ago of just going through a bunch of university and college taglines. And they’re basically the same thing.

Michael Fienen:
You know, taglines to me are almost a blind spot. They exist because somebody feels they have to. I don’t consider them part of messaging for the most part. Usually what happens is a new director of Marketing comes to the university and is told to make things over. And the first and most visible way they can do that is changing four words about the school and slapping it on a commercial. So it’s a very visible change, but it’s not a very meaningful one.

But I think schools are getting better about thinking about things like, and for anybody who’s listened to me long enough, you know of my feelings on things like homepage carousels. The one thing I can say about it is even though universities have gotten away from carousels, they’re still married till their death to this idea of the giant hero space on their homepage. But they’re at least trying to utilize that — in some cases. Again, this is, it’s kind of all over the board, but, you do see a lot more effort, so to speak, being put into, Hey, let’s tie this to a story.

Let’s, you know, try to say something with this and not just make it be a big picture with some links overlaid on it. you know, you’re seeing fewer, the joke used to be “girls under trees.” That was the go-to photo, the stock photo, every school needed a girl under a tree. It was what would sell our campus.

And now you’re seeing, you know,

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Girls with masks.

Michael Fienen:
Girls in labs. (laughs) Girls in masks, you’re seeing

Joel Goodman:
Girls with masks in labs.

Michael Fienen:
laboratories. You’re seeing, you know, experiments being done. You’re seeing, work in classrooms, work outside of classrooms. So you are seeing some more storytelling in those spaces.

The other one I would say is like, I think, and this is kind of like the design thing. I don’t think it’s great yet, but accessibility as a priority. I think has dramatically improved from where it was, you know, 15 years ago. Granted, we weren’t talking about it nearly as much then either, but I think that’s

Joel Goodman:
No one was getting sued over it back then either.

Michael Fienen:
And I, I hate to, you know, see that as sort of the motor for change, but… it’s the motor for change. (laughs)

I guess I’ll take the win on that. But schools are paying more attention to it. They are thinking about, Hey, how do we build things in a sustainable way that has this stuff in it already? And again, you’re going to see less of it as you move down the long tail, you’re going to see more of it at a lot of the bigger schools who put more money behind it, or have more people or energy behind it.

But generally speaking, even when it comes to places that maybe can’t do great at it, I find that the people behind the scenes are still very motivated by it and they’re trying to find ways. Even though they’ve got 14 projects laid out in front of them, they’re trying to sneak some of that stuff in and they care about it, which is I think a huge improvement.

Joel Goodman:
I think that’s kind of always been the case too, that you have a fair number of people, especially the people that are executing this work that actually do care. And they’re finding more creative ways to kind of get that good work in place. you know, sometimes in spite of the. uncaring leadership they have, or the people that, that, get in the way with, well, why would we want to do that?

When you know it’s important and you want to do good work you want to do that. And I, I always want to give a shout out to that group of people in higher ed that have the hardest jobs, because they’re trying to do good work against all of the forces that push against them and try to prohibit them from doing good work.

Michael Fienen:
You know what it is. It needs to be sort of the Scotty mentality. When somebody comes in and says, Hey, how long will this take? Tell them four days, even though, you know, it’s long going to be too, but leave yourself some pad time to work in those other things that you know you need to get into it, to do it right.

Nobody’s going to know that it doesn’t need to be that long.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Well, too, it sets up an expectation, you know? I think for me on the social media side, you know, people come to me and say, Oh, I need to have this up on social right now. It needs to go. And if I jump and react and go, Oh yeah, okay, whatever. That becomes the norm of like, okay, well, I don’t have to give J.S. two weeks in advance to kind of plan this or make it effective. I can just pick up the phone and say it now.

But if I build the expectation of, no, I need this time. Because I really do, and we don’t know what other contingencies are going to come up.

Michael Fienen:
And they don’t know that they’re jumping the line, right?

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Exactly

Michael Fienen:
they see no line. They have no understanding of the line, so to speak. They don’t see your JIRA board, your work board, your ticket system, whatever you may use to manage that work. So when they come in and do that, they’re jumping all of this other stuff and, we’ll hopefully get a chance to talk a little bit about the sort of value exchange that happens when that comes into play. That means something else didn’t get done and somebody needs to be there to say, Hey, this thing, isn’t valuable enough to do it right this second.

Do the valuable thing then get to that tomorrow or get to that next week.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
So I think kind of what Joel’s talking about with some of the people that are doing the hard work and doing those thankless jobs on our university campuses, especially when it comes to websites, most of us know that higher ed websites are a hot mess. Even when it comes to our own. Or even on our own social media, I can tell you some things I’m like, I know that needs to be fixed. I can’t do that right now, or I don’t have the buy-in to get that fixed. So what steps can those in higher ed take today? Like, you know, when they pull out their earbuds after this podcast and. start their workday, I don’t know when they’re listening to it. I listen to podcasts at the gym before work, in the before-times when I went to the gym. but what can they do today to start that shift and that culture change towards better websites?

Michael Fienen:
Say “no” more. I mean.

And I’ve, I’ve made this argument in a number of spaces in a number of forums. And I, I know that it’s so easy to say those three words: Say “no” more. It’s like, okay, well that’s easy to do, but you don’t have my boss. I get that. I really, I do understand that, but you do have to say it more.

I’m not saying say it to everything. I’m not saying, say it at the wrong times. Say it at the right times to the right people. Because not all work is worth doing. You have too much website in front of you. At some point, you have to learn how to teach people about these trade-offs.

So this is what I was just mentioning, like thinking about, okay, we’ve got, you know, this department wants four pages stood up for a special project that they’ve got going on there. They’ve got a special speaker series coming in and they want these four pages to showcase it. Cool. I can do that, but. I’m an army of one or an army of two, you know, at best, in a lot of places. We can do those four pages. What’s getting bumped?

Make the decision-makers, the stakeholders, understand that trade-off and make them make that decision and explain to them, okay, I can do that, but what, what now is deprioritized and use that word, make them understand prioritization matters. So you want this now, we’re deprioritizing something and it won’t get done.

And it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen even, you know, within a short time span. But over time you can teach that process to folks that they know when they come, I better know, what’s on the table and how we’re going to organize that stuff.

Joel Goodman:
This is something that I’ve talked about for a while. I’ve there was a series of conference talks that I did about, not necessarily the saying “no” more, but the aspect of you just need to be vocal about your ideas, right? If you want change to happen and you feel like you are not able to do it on your own, you just have to talk about it.

And the more that people hear what you’re saying, the more they’re going to buy into it, or maybe even think it’s their own idea. J.S. and I were talking about this a little bit in a Twitter backchannel at one point. And what I realized is that I think a lot of higher ed in the, below the management kind of level, I don’t want to call them worker bees because they do way more, way more good than a typical, kind of devalued label would be. But I think a lot of higher ed is just run by fear. And I think it’s run by fear at every single level. And I’ve been wrestling with how that can be fixed or what advice can be given to people who are really just afraid of their boss.

And their bosses are afraid of their bosses and their bosses are afraid of what’s happening in the market. And their bosses are afraid of COVID-19 and afraid of what’s going forward and don’t have any ideas. And I don’t know if it’s this trend of “imposter syndrome” as a label, just kind of infiltrating and convincing people that they’re not good enough. Or if it’s people that actually aren’t good enough to be in their jobs, or if it really is just a crippling fear. And how, how people can get over that, I don’t know.

I want, I would be interested in your thoughts, Michael because it’s a.

Michael Fienen:
I think it’s all of the above, right? Like it’s, it’s a little bit of all, wherever you go. You’re going to pick up I think scents of some of that.

I would add to it, not so much fear of each other, like in terms of fear of bosses and bosses’ bosses, and all of that. I think it’s fear of the mechanization. You know, you’re staring at a treadmill, that’s already moving in some cases and you don’t necessarily…

Look at a treadmill and tell me how fast it’s going. It’s, it’s a hard thing to do if you don’t see the little numbers at the gym on the, on the display. and so I think it’s fear of figuring out how to jump on and jump off of this moving, you know, or carousel not to drive that metaphor home anymore.

But you know, this idea of something in motion and trying to figure out how to get on it and get off of it at opportune times I think is something that that’s what people get afraid of.

And I think you’re right talking about this stuff, and to this idea of, you know, other folks not knowing the line, not knowing they’re jumping the line by asking you for something. I think that’s where, too, you benefit from just talking. You don’t have to tell them that, “Oh my God, you’re making me push work back.” That’s not it. You can just help them understand, “Okay, your stuff’s incredibly important. I get it. I do have three other things, that are currently ahead of you right now. I will talk to whoever your boss is or whoever the stakeholder is, and I will get to this as soon as I can but understand we’ve got to prioritize this stuff and I don’t know where your priority is, but if you know, you want to talk to the director of Marketing and come to a consensus that something else could get bumped, cool. I’m on board. Let’s do it.”

Talk about your work. Talk about what you’re doing. Talk about it with your boss. Talk about it with the people asking for things, just so they understand that there is a lot there. There’s always more, there’s no bottom to this bucket, so to speak. It is a well that just keeps refilling from the spring because there’s always more work.

So you’ve got to figure out how to get people to understand that who don’t have that kind of, at least not in this sense, they don’t have an understanding of that kind of world.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Everything is a top priority in someone’s eyes. For example, with things coming up at universities all over right now, you’ve got a Housing director that’s, on you about Move-In Day coming up. But at the same time, you’ve got, Summer Commencement and there’s somebody with a fancy title that that’s their top priority. And then there’s Admissions, which is just a constant machine. So you

Michael Fienen:
And Campus Health telling you none of those things can happen.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Right. Exactly. You know, and then COVID-19, and that’s all that matters. So, it feels like there are so many people that are, you know, I don’t want to just constantly point the finger at VP, but that’s an easy title to pull, but there are all of these VPs that have their individual priority. As to when you’re in marketing, answering to all of them it can be very overwhelming and kind of fearful that, okay. I don’t want to displease any of these people at this high rank, but I can’t do everything.

Michael Fienen:
And I said, you know, learn to say no more, but say it at the right times to the right people. And understanding that from the web developer seat is really important because when we say things like, yeah, this is the top priority to, you know, everybody thinks they’re, you know, the most important thing in the world. That’s as it is. To them, that request is the most important thing from where they are sitting.

And that’s why that energy gets transferred the way it does. And they’re not wrong for that, because again, it is their most important thing. It is the top thing on their mind. Helping them understand and translate that to, okay, I know it’s your most important thing, and I want to take care of you. Now, let’s talk about how we get that done as quickly as possible. But please understand, if you want it to be done at a certain time, next time come to me a week earlier and we can, get it planned out for our next sprint or get it set up so that we can do the pre-work.

And the other part of that is, people not understanding that simple little ask is actually a very complex technical request or something. Like that’s another way that happens.

So it’s like, Oh, you just want to change a one column to a two column on something. Well, that sounds easy, but maybe your structured content doesn’t support it. Maybe the layout is not designed that way in that space and so it’s going to be a theme release and a rebuild of the Sass files. And, you know, you’ve gotta run your Java script through QA. I know most universities don’t have a QA system, but, But there can be a lot of technical underpinning, technical debt to pay for, to make some of those simple changes. And that’s another thing that a lot of folks don’t realize.

And pushing them with that to say, Hey, yeah, next time, man, you can get to me a couple of days earlier, I can probably get this done for you faster or get it done for you by the deadline you need, if you can give me a little more lead time. And start asking for some of that. I think a lot of people would find a lot more success using that approach as well.

You know, I say, say “no” more. That’s a very philosophical answer. I think one place that I would love to see universities actually make a change and do something useful is with their news sites.
Please can, can I beg, Because it is a dumping ground for content. They feel a need to make content, but they give it no purpose. They don’t tie it to any sort of mission and they don’t add anything value through it, to their departments, to their programs, to their initiatives, to their scholarships, to their donors. They just write. Maybe if you’re lucky they put some kind of category on it, but they don’t interlink anything.

And this is common across the board, I find. Like news sites were bad 15 years ago, news sites are still very bad. They just have like a quota they’re trying to pump out. And that’s if you could change one thing, change that! Like really think about tackling that and how to make it valuable to the work you’re doing.

Joel Goodman:
So I honestly can’t remember, Michael, if this goes back to the olden days back when you and I were kind of like at a distance corresponding over the same CMS and, you know, build projects and stuff where, “oh, you can do super cool stuff and like add related content. We can make these stories relate to a program!” And then no one else did it. or if it’s just something that I have continually thought about for years and years and years, but.

If you have a news story and whether it’s specifically living on a news site or you’re featuring it on your home page, which I would argue is a bad idea, if you don’t give it a purpose beyond just existing, it’s actually hurting your user experience. It’s hurting probably some aspect of your brand or at least it’s, it’s definitely at the very least not helping any of your business goals. and I don’t, I don’t understand these institutional sites that I still look at or they’ll have a great story about, say a Biology professor or, an alumnus that has gone on to do something great, and then they don’t tie it back to the program page. They don’t even like put a link in there to the program page that this person, got a degree in. And that’s prime content like that, that should do something. It needs to have a purpose.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
But this comes down to like, breaking down the silos within web marketing, communications, media relations, because the people running those, news pages, are media relations people and their goal is not to improve your SEO or to get people to other sections of the website. Their goal is I’m going to put out this news release and hopefully, news channel down the street picks it up and puts it on the 11 o’clock news and the president sees it and board of trustees sees it and they’re happy. Not thinking that it can be even more strategically powerful. And if we integrate it into the other areas, there’s, you know, it’s silos within silos within silos.

Michael Fienen:
And you know, what they’re missing, what, what a PR department is missing in that equation that is the key, the very key element to that? And it doesn’t even have to be in PR it could be part of the web team, part of the marketing staff, but somewhere in that mix, there’s no Content Strategist, ever.

Content Strategy is a word we like to use. It’s a phrase that is popular inside of the web circle for higher ed. They understand the value of it, but universities do not hire Content Strategists to sit down and say, Hey, we’ve got this content, let’s make it do something. Let’s give it some gas.

Joel Goodman:
Here’s the challenge to that too. The ones that do hire Content Strategists do not pay any attention to a governance structure. They don’t have a single or two people working together or three people working together to actually be the people that A) can say “no” more. Right? you know, but can be the gatekeepers for that and make sure that the Content Strategists can do their jobs for one, you know, if you actually have a Content Strategist.

But if you don’t have a Content Strategist, and I think this case is pretty common in higher ed at most institutions, you have a group of people that are skilled in a lot of different things. Maybe aren’t, experts in everything, but can do good work in a lot of different areas and they’re doing their best to put in place a content strategy and to write good content and to make that content connect to the overall business goals that the university has.

But if they don’t have anyone that can back them up, can run interference for them, can be that shield that clears the way for them to actually do the work that they do… Again, I say it’s 2020. Why are we still talking about governance in higher education?

Michael Fienen:
It’s, you know, it’s the, we create policy without teeth in, in those situations. Okay, great. You hired the Content Strategist, you had them come in and write up all of this stuff and come up with a plan, and you’ve got all of these goals. And then the first time somebody steps up and says, no, I’m not going to do that, you haven’t empowered them to push back and say, “Yeah, you are, because this is the way we do things now.”

Cause that goes back to your fear, right? You were talking about fear. That’s where fear starts to take hold, because then it’s like, well the Content Strategist doesn’t have the power to say no, their boss doesn’t want to say no because they don’t want to be the bad, naysayer.

The reality is, you have to have that. You have to have power in that structure. That’s what governance is about, ultimately. Not to like do things your way or the highway. To prevent bad things from happening. You know, we always use the, this is a little outdated reference, but you know, the Art department from going out and making their Geocities site, which was a thing they did!

They would get frustrated because they couldn’t have their wildly unbranded website. And so they would go to Geocities or LiveJournal. I’ve seen LiveJournal, I’ve seen just wordpress.com, you name it and they’ve gone out and just stood up their own thing because nobody had the power to tell them not to.

Joel Goodman:
These days, you know, the Art School, when, a non-hyper decentralized university goes to hire an agency, a lot of times the Art School or Art department, they still want their website to look different from the rest of everything else.

And they’re basically saying, Hey, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to build and design a different template for us. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad. Mostly cause I, I get what they’re trying to do. and I would rather them work within that process then go out and, build their Geocities site or, go build a Tumblr.

Although Tumblr might be more effective for them in some ways.

Michael Fienen:
There are right ways and wrong ways to do any of that. Absolutely, you can support flexibility and artistic freedom or whatever freedom, whatever group wants to have within that system. But you do have to have a plan and there are certain expectations that you, even if you’re in the CMS or, or what have you, you still need to maintain user expectations. Because if I’m a prospective student navigating around your site and I hit a completely wildly different part of your website, now I’m just confused and lost. And so, great, you had artistic freedom, but now you’ve completely lost your prospective student because while you’re showing how freethinking and wild, all this stuff is, they had a goal and you violated that goal or you broke that goal rather

Joel Goodman:
I think this is a good segue into talking about your ongoing mantra, gospel, proclamation of “Do Less Better.” And you’ve been saying this for

Michael Fienen:
a long time

Joel Goodman:
Your entire life? I don’t know. Since you were a tiny Fienen?

Michael Fienen:
You know, the, say “no” more is kind of like the, baby idea and “Do Less Better” is the actual idea, like that’s, that is the real goal that you get to when you start saying no. Because it’s, not about saying no to everything, because then you don’t have a job. It’s about strategically prioritizing the work so you… You know, we use a phrase at work, “you want to maximize the work not done.” You know, you don’t want to do work for work sake. You want to try to get to the most valuable thing.

We use this phrase, right? MVP, minimum viable product. You know you want to get to like that 80% Mark. And then decide if the other 20% is still worth doing if that 20% has value to continue pursuing. “Do less better” is about all of those things and trying to figure out, you’ve got a university, right? when I was at Pitt State in 2012, I think it was when I left, that website was about 80,000 pages. And Pitt State was a relatively small 4-year university. We peaked at about 7,200 students and it’s had a steady decline since then because every place has pretty much declined since then. Small regional four-year university. It is not uncommon for, major four-year research institutions to have websites that are a million, 2 million pages.

Joel Goodman:
it’s true.

Michael Fienen:
You have to look at what you can get value out of. And we can say, yeah, a lot of that is structured, right? A lot of it’s going to come out of the catalog. A lot of it’s coming out of core systems or, you know, it’s stuff like teacher profiles that by themselves, you’ve got 2000 of those or whatever. Take all that away.

Take all of this stuff out, you’re still left with how many hundreds of thousands of pages? if you say, okay, I’ve got a hundred thousand pages, let’s start with the bare, like very tiny. You’re an army of one. You’re one guy at a small school, a hundred thousand pages. You’ve taken out all of the auto-generated stuff. You’re still left in a situation where, at best, you are forced to touch about a thousand pages a day if you were to review that stuff constantly to maintain its quality and make sure it’s up to date, it’s accurate, that it reads well, that it’s usable.

There’s no humanly way possible to sustain that.

Joel Goodman:
So one way of approaching this that I really like came from Seth Odell. when you start a web project like that, when you’re going from this like massive kind of, tens of thousands of pages or hundreds of thousands or bigger, you have to adopt this mentality of like you’re cleaning out the closet, right?

You’re basically just getting rid of everything, choosing the few things that are important that you need to have in that closet. And then as you go along, you’ll figure out, Oh, You know what, no, I actually did need that tennis racquet that I threw out. I’m going to go buy a new tennis racquet. Or in the case of a website, this will be of some value to us.

But it makes you think through those things that aren’t obviously valuable on your site and that I think encourages you to, place a, good value weight on top of it and put it back in. But you’re not just assuming that everything on the site is valuable or has the same amount of value. And I think there’s real validity to taking a step back and saying, “you know what? No, no, no, no, no. Not every single thing on here year has the same value. They’re actually probably competing with each other and they don’t all need to be back on the site today.”

It’s not going to make that big of a difference if there aren’t you know, these, these 20,000 pages on the website.

Michael Fienen:
The — Is it Maria Kondo? What’s her name?

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Marie Kondo.

Michael Fienen:
Yeah, does it…

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Spark joy

Michael Fienen:
Does it spark joy?

Yeah, that’s it, that’s a very similar kind of philosophy there to look at.

Joel Goodman:
Gotta ask your prospective students, does this spark joy. Maybe that’s, that’s probably a good UX question for all of the UX designers out there and the UX researchers that listen to this show, are you using the Kondo Method when you’re doing interviews for, for websites? Cause that, I don’t know. I kinda like that idea.

Michael Fienen:
The thing about, all of that is you start thinking about things. So you say, do, what do I really need this? Is it competing? You start getting into all of this long-tail content, right? All of these little pages that have sprouted up. And the other thing you find is that maybe you do need it. But maybe we can combine, maybe we can consolidate, maybe we can turn ten pages into one page so that we are still reducing the footprint, like every, you know, just ’cause it’s one paragraph of text doesn’t mean it needs its own page and a photo.

You know like you’ll stumble across this weird random stuff that, the letter from the department chair. I mean, this is another one of those, like, we’ve, we’ve been talking about this for a decade. Nobody reads those. Like, I can show you the analytics that nobody reads those.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Well, then it does come down to, you know, recently we had a new Dean come in and it’s was my mentor in college. And he was my mentor at my Alma mater and we got him at the college where I work. And he’s an amazing writer and he comes in and I think he writes a new letter. And I think they come in and they say, okay, there’s a letter before me and the Dean before me wrote this in the form of rather than going, Oh, do I need to write this?

Like

Michael Fienen:
It’s painful. And. I think, you know, there’s always that fear of change. That’s the thing, you know, people are afraid of that kind of stuff, but, you know, that’s where we come back to this idea of part, you know, part of what “Do Less Better” is about it’s about control. It’s about vesting control in yourself and getting it away from other people so that you can help show why having one page doing the job of 10 is actually more effective for a million reasons from SEO to users, to everything.

But somebody needs to be there doing that. I’m actually a firm believer and this will make as many people clap as it will cringe, but I don’t think any department should ever be in charge of doing anything except reviewing copy. They should never touch the CMS. Asking secretaries or professors to maintain websites is part of the reason things are broken because of these people.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Or social media pages.

Michael Fienen:
The thing is your best voices can be anywhere on campus. And so you can tap into those, but that’s where things like Instagram takeovers and stuff like that can really, fly.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
There’s training wheels for social media, you can allow.

Michael Fienen:
And that’s hard in, in the CMS world. Every CMS vendor will tell you, Oh no, you can lock this down and have a whole review process.

Joel Goodman:
Oh, yeah. It’s all, it’s distributed editing

Michael Fienen:
We’ve got workflows. Yeah. Everybody. Every CMS vendor will tell you that. They’re not lying to you, you’re lying to yourself if you think you’re going to be able to use it the way they showed it to you.

Joel Goodman:
So I want to address one thing within this. If you think distributed content editing works, it’s just, cause you’re not willing to spend the money on the actual support staff that you need to handle content revisions and content creation and content editing. and, your institution should check itself, because you need to invest in those people that can do it so that you don’t feel like you have to rely on faculty members or department admin staff, because faculty, it’s not their job.

Their job is not to do web marketing. And the more you let them feel like it is their job, the less they’re putting their focus on teaching, and you know, adding value to your primary product.

Michael Fienen:
And the underlying thing that I see there is, you’re abdicating power, because you see a problem that you don’t know how to handle. You’re like, they’re doing okay. They’ve got a hundred pages and I don’t want to deal with those hundred pages. So I’m going to let them handle it cause they’re doing okay.

The reality is they should have five pages that you handle. that’s the secret. That’s the way you fix that problem because you’re letting them go off and write whatever they want, create whatever pages they want in many cases. And, do less, better. Have five pages. Have every department have the same five pages so that the user knows what to expect when they’re bouncing from department to department looking at programs and things like that, make it consistent, and really write that stuff.

Really, man, give that stuff The marketing grease on it and, and pretty it up and put some stank on it. You know? Like one page of really well-written text is worth the hundred pages that they’re putting out that’s garbage.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
One thing I really want to address while we, while we have time, we’ve all kind of rushed into these COVID-19 information sites. And I was thinking about this today, as I was thinking about you coming on the show, and I was listening to the episode of the Drunken UX podcast about creating, efficient emergency websites.
But from a content perspective, they really kind of have become microcosms of what university websites are. They they’ve quickly gone from day one, when we decided we needed the site, where it had just the bare bones information, this is all we had, to now, they’ve just become perfect examples of bloated dumping grounds for any information related to COVID-19 just, just throw it there. It’s all there. And it’s impossible for our target audiences to find what they need quickly.

So. How can we create better and more useful comms sites when A) we have to create things very quickly, and B) we’re under pressure from higher-ups to include more information than is actually useful.

Michael Fienen:
Step one, don’t be reactive. Don’t build it quickly. Build it now, for the future. the episode where we talked about that was episode 61 if anybody wants to go look it up. And part of what we emphasized was creating an emergency website framework that can just be in your back pocket. And it’s not something that’s going to take you three months to build. It’s something you could do, honestly, depending on your CMS, you could potentially build it in a day or two. Because you’re aiming for something low bandwidth, something that can meet the bare needs of what a crisis would require. And we talk about a lot of that kind of stuff from a content standpoint.

For universities, I mean, obviously, the horse is out of the gate, so you had to make a microsite for this and a lot of places weren’t prepared to lean on that kind of framework. But, you’re right that what happened was, very quickly it was the most important thing and then a lot of stuff got thrown at it and then people went away and just started emailing everything into you. And saying here, put this up, Oh, here, put this up.

And that approach lacks strategy. It doesn’t meet the needs of the user. a user coming to a university website to look up COVID-19 information has a very, very narrow band of needs. They want to know, when will your campus open? Is it going to open? What’s your mask policy? Is it going to impact sporting events? Those are things unique to you. They don’t need to come to your site to find out where to get masks unless you’re offering them on campus. You know, they don’t need advice on symptoms. The university is not a symptom checker.

Link to that stuff.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I mean, even like everybody wants to have their thing, from a social media standpoint, every university has their same graphics of like stand six feet apart with their mascot on there, or they put their mascot in the mask and it’s not really doing anything to promote mask use. It’s to say, look at us, we support mask use.

And there is value in that, but from our website and what we really want our audiences to know, we need to streamline, and get some of that clutter out of there, like, We don’t need symptoms on the university website. There are millions of other places to find that.

Michael Fienen:
It’s the triangle trade-off. you can have it two ways, fast, cheap, or good pick two of those because you’ve got to sacrifice.

Joel Goodman:
I would always recommend picking fast and good, and not cheaping out. cause even cheap and good I mean, it’s gonna take forever, like it’s it doesn’t fit your business goals. Honestly. Spend, spend some more money.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Well, especially for emergency communications, your decision, your triangle has been made up for you. You want fast and good, you know? That’s it.

Michael Fienen:
But what happened at universities is I think most schools did make that choice. They said, you’re right. We want it fast and we want it good. And a bunch of people got together in a room. They gave up cheap when they put five VPs and their health coordinator and their student services person.

That meeting was an expensive meeting for them to have for three hours to put all this stuff together.

Joel Goodman:
Problem is they don’t think about it that way. Right? Cause they’re not considering how much of VP’s time costs.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
They’re not doing that, but they’re also not defining what good is. Good good to us and good to our audience is something where they can easily access the basic information they need. Good to a VP is it has a lot of pretty graphics and it looks, looks nice. And there’s a drone shot on it, maybe like.

Joel Goodman:
Or it has information for every possible audience. And, you know, I mean, I remember early on, going to COVID sites and it’s like, here are 17 links in a list for faculty, and here are five for current students, and here are seven for parents. And it wasn’t focused. Like why don’t your faculty have another place to go?

Or why aren’t you communicating with your faculty better they’re, they’re staff. Like you should be communicating with them in different ways than you are with your primary audience, which I would assume are your prospective students and current students.

Michael Fienen:
That’s a whole other tangent, but I, I don’t, I’ve never understood the obsession with faculty pages, like not, not like a faculty profile, but like the faculty resources pages on the website instead of inside a portal or something. But that’s another battle that’s been ongoing.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
I was gonna say, it’s just kind of comes down to different philosophies between do less better, and then you have a certain contingent that feel more is better. And not because it actually is better, but because they can go into a meeting later on and just go down a checklist on a PowerPoint and say, we did this, this, this, this, this, this, this, you can find it all on our website and to them, that’s success rather than actually thinking about the user experience.

Michael Fienen:
More is just more. And, and what I would encourage folks to do is get the metrics on it. That’s why Google Analytics exists. You can show what does and doesn’t work and you don’t have to be antagonistic about it or anything like that. Just pull the data and say, Hey, before we do this, could we look at how many people are looking at whatever it is that you’re advocating for.

In this trade-off, the fast, cheap, good, I think a lot of them started fast and good, but the minute that, that initial meeting dispersed it’s silently switched to fast and cheap. where, and we threw good out the window. And so now it’s just throw all the stuff on it.
But you know, who has figured this out? And this is in a physical space, but it gets down to this idea of, okay, you want everything on the site? You want all the stuff there? Let’s talk about how to do it. Look at a library. Go walk into a library. A library has a crap ton of every kind of information you could possibly want, and they have a refined system to get you in the door to find the thing or things that you need and to get out of that door.

With those things. And, you know, I date myself by saying, you know, the card catalog, cause I know that is not a thing anymore, really, but they do have a card catalog. It’s just all digital now. And it still works, you know, incredibly well. That’s notwithstanding putting it on the website. But in that physical space, they have shown how much information architecture matters to the design of that system. And so if you’re going to talk about, okay, you guys want to put all this stuff on the COVID site or whatever site we have to come up with an architecture for it because people can’t walk in, get exactly what they need and get back out as quickly as humanly possible. We’re failing them. The key word in “do less, better” is better.

It’s about getting more value from less stuff because that’s the kind of, kind of affordance trade off that you want to make. When you’re doing all of the stuff and you’re buried under this mountain of work, you want to get to the most important refined the nuggets and not waste time chasing that last 5% of work that has limited value.

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
love the library metaphor. That’s.

Michael Fienen:
that’s what I do, man. I’m like a shark.

Joel Goodman:
I’m very glad to hear you still have the Dewey decimal system memorized.

Michael Fienen:
Yes. absolutely

Joel Goodman:
It’s a lost art. It’s a lost art.

Michael Fienen:
Memorized.

Joel Goodman:
You want to leave any closing remarks, Michael?

Michael Fienen:
I can,

Jon-Stephen Stansel:
Give your plugs, all that good stuff.

Michael Fienen:
If anybody wants to find me, I’m @fienen almost everywhere, except Instagram, where I’m “mfienen”, because sadly somebody had fienen and they don’t use the account, but they wouldn’t give it to me. So,

Joel Goodman:
I’ve got that problem with my baking account. There’s someone’s squatting in it.

Michael Fienen:
Usually, my name is unique enough that I’m easy to find. folks, you can find me, you know, Twitter or Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever. if you want to listen to more crap like this, where I ramble on and use a lot more curse words and get a little bit more drunk, you can check out the drunken UX podcast.

we have new episodes every other Monday, drunkenux.com/subscribe. you can find us anywhere you listen, or just search for drunken UX in your podcast app.

if you need a map, I don’t know that anybody does, does, but you can check us out at nucloud.com. and outside of that, if anybody ever needs help with something ping, me, I’m always around hit us on the other podcast or shoot me an email or a tweet or something I love, helping out giving advice or just giving people a set of eyes.

Joel Goodman:
Thank you so much for listening to the thought feeder podcast. We would appreciate a rating, a review on Apple Podcasts. we’re on iHeartRadio now we’re pretty much everywhere. I’m not, there’s always a new podcast aggregator popping up and we may not be there yet, but we probably are.

In any case, we appreciate you listening and would, greatly appreciate a rating and review. you can find us on Twitter, @ThoughtFeedPod and you can visit our website at thoughtfeederpod.com, where we’ve got links to all the places you can subscribe as well as transcripts of all of our episodes and the ability to download them if, you want to archive our episodes, you can, it’s weird, but you can do it.

I am Joel Goodman. Jon-Stephen Stansel is my fantastic co-host and we want to give a huge thank you to Michael Fienen for being on today. Thanks Mike. We appreciate you.

Michael Fienen:
Can I do that? Am I too old to make that noise?

Joel Goodman:
No, I don’t think so. And be sure to check out the drunken UX podcast. We’ve got a link in the show notes. I’ve actually been on that podcast. It’s a, it’s a good episode. It’s a while ago, but it’s a good episode.

Anyway. Thanks for listening to Thought Feeder. We’ll catch you next time.

Thought Feeder is a production of University Insight.

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