Best practices

These are not requirements for official VCU websites, merely suggestions. The following best practices can help university webmasters improve the quality of their sites and the experience for their users.

Content

The phrase Content is king is cliche because it's true. You should spend more time working on your content than on anything else on your site. This isn't to say that you should ignore the design or the code of your site; however, if you have a beautiful page or a well-coded site with worthless content, all your work is basically for naught. Here are some tips to help you improve the quality of your content.

  • Write early and often. Edit ruthlessly. Every sentence should be concise.
  • Adopt or create a style guide. The Elements of Style is a good starter, but there may be other resources appropriate for your field. Style guides are a helpful path to consistency and clarity.
  • Spend time organizing your content. If your site is arranged haphazardly, your readers will not stay to poke in every corner.

Web standards

Web standards refer to the practice of coding a website to match the guidelines set down in a specification defined by the W3C. Using web standards entails:

  • using valid HTML or XHTML to mark up your content.
  • separating your content from your design using CSS
  • using Javascript and the DOM to enhance client-side interaction

Why is coding your site to web standards important? For quite a few reasons actually:

  1. Standard code is often more accessible.
  2. Code can be easier to debug and more likely to work properly in different browsers. (That's two advantages in one.)
  3. It's easier to update and maintain standard code. Try changing content in table-based layout with lots of nested font tags sometime.
  4. Your code can be lighter. It can take less time for your user to download and less time for their browser to process.
  5. Browsers will continue to support standards-based code. Code that includes temporary hacks or browser-specific implementations often breaks with the next browser version.

See the additional resources for more about web standards.

Usability

Usability refers to how easily a user can interact with your website. (There is some crossover between usability and accessibility.) Usability enhancements can run the gamut from simple to intense. Small sites can become more usable with these simple techniques.

  • Keep it simple. The simpler your interface is, the easier it will be to use.
  • Make sure your site works. Once you've got your site up and running, use it. Make sure your links go to the proper pages. Make sure your forms submit properly (on both the front end and the back end).
  • Test your site in different settings. Test it in all the major browsers. Try resizing your window. Try changing your security settings. Does your site still work without CSS, images, Javascript, or Flash?
  • Make your site readable. Give your content room to breathe with generous margins and line spacing. Make sure the font size is big enough that people with poor vision or small screens can read it. Don't choose chronically unreadable fonts.
  • Increase the clickable area for links, buttons, or anything else that users have to click on. Even better, provide keyboard shortcuts whenever possible.

If you have a larger site or a web application, usability testing can reveal hidden problems you might not catch on your own.

  • One-on-one testing: There are different ways of doing this, but the basic idea is that you observe someone using your site and document the results.
  • Focus groups: Focus groups are not as useful for specific feedback as they are for learning about broad expectations. Find out what a sample collection of your users expect from your site; selectively implement what makes sense.
  • Open feedback: Provide clear and easy ways for users to provide feedback on their own; make changes based on problems they may experience. Proactively respond to problems by watching your statistics or visitor click through heatmaps.