I can't help but notice that even in CS, professors' websites are almost always difficult to navigate, poorly-organized, and just generally hard to look at (poorly-tiled backgrounds, inconsistent fonts, etc.).

Why is this? Is it expected of academics? I'll be applying to graduate programs in the Fall and took a few hours to update my personal website, and was outright told by a professor that it was "too much". If I have a "fancy-looking" website, will this reflect negatively on me as an applicant?

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    Professors have virtually no incentives to spend resources working on their websites. They don't get tenure or publication credit for their site. – Bill Barth Feb 10 '15 at 19:11
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    Because if professor's actually could make their websites pretty, they'd be web developers instead. I'm here all night. – Compass Feb 10 '15 at 19:18
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    even in CS, professor's websites are almost always difficult to navigate, poorly-organized, and just generally hard to look at — [citation needed] – JeffE Feb 10 '15 at 20:34
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    Because they care more about content than presentation and maintaining websites is a lot of work, especially if you are a busy professor with better things to focus on than keeping up with the latest web technologies. Websites are important in academia and the time it takes to maintain them is a big deal, but my question on it wasn't exactly welcome ... I did make pretty websites in the past and never maintained them. Now I made a simple with one thing in my mind: minimum effort maintenance. This time it worked. – Szabolcs Feb 10 '15 at 21:54
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    Why is it surprising that "even CS professors" aren't graphic designers? Most CS professors would also be terrible at Windows tech support or helping for advice on picking the right motherboard for a custom build. None of those things have anything to do with CS. – fluffy Feb 11 '15 at 1:29

11 Answers 11

up vote 70 down vote accepted

Not ALL professors' websites are terrible. As referenced in this nature commentary, many academics acknowledge the potential benefits of having a good website. This article also links to a contest where submissions for the 'best lab websites' were solicited. Many of the links there are great examples of lab websites with elegant aesthetics and intuitive navigation.

I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that many faculty are older or too busy; making a good website takes time and skills that most academics simply don't have. Some labs will hire web designers to help with design, but today's funding climate makes that impractical for most PIs.

Having a good website for your own interests and professional development can only help you. I can't see any downside to this...

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    +1. I am honestly amazed that all the other answers, along with the question, tacitly assume professors will build and maintain their own websites. How many professors, even in engineering departments, will maintain their own car? How many med school professors will treat themselves outside their own specialty? Most departments have sysadmins nowadays, and for good reasons: specialization makes sense. Same for website design and maintenance. This should really be part of the sysad's duties (who, with modern CMS, can hand day-to-day maintenance back to profs), or of a specific web designer. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 11 '15 at 7:30
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    @StephanKolassa Basically, there is no sysadmin (in most cases I know of). Nobody pays for a person to do that. Universities should probably recognise the benefits of attractive web presences, but right now researchers are left alone with the stuff. – Raphael Feb 11 '15 at 8:08
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    @StephanKolassa Web sites are a lot easier to maintain than cars. And sysadmins have more important things to do than maintain web sites. – JeffE Feb 11 '15 at 12:09
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    @JeffE: I won't argue about cars. But: professors also have more important things to do than maintain web sites. Which is why I'd argue for a dedicated web site maintainer at a departmental level - even if it's only a part time job. Universities have HR departments, secretaries, lab technicians and so forth for the same reason. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 11 '15 at 12:16
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    @StephanKolassa I'd argue for the same, but the current reality is that almost all universities don't have such a position. In my department, we occasionally have this done by taking undergrad CS interns, who are supposed to practice web development on a real or semi-real project. – Peteris Feb 11 '15 at 13:06

There is another aspect that I have not seen mentioned in other answers.

In some scientific fields/cultures, a stylish website could be viewed as unnecessary or even pompous. In this view, the textual content of a website is the only thing that matters, and if you "need" to make your website stylish perhaps it lacks real substance. This is the same line of thought that supports simplicity in presentation with minimal graphics. I have encountered this especially in math and theoretical CS.

There might also be a prestige factor, along the lines of "I am so important, my work is so well-known and I am so busy, that I don't need a website".

In many other cases I agree it is simply a lack of knowledge/time/benefit.

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    I truly doubt that anyone thinks having a bad website will increase their prestige. – Cape Code Feb 10 '15 at 21:42
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    @CapeCode: sure, but aesthetic standards of what makes a bad or good website vary greatly between subcultures. I’m an academic mathematician; I have friends who are professional freelance musicians. If I styled my website like theirs, it would be seen as insufferably over-designed and pretentious by most other mathematicians. We tend to favour simplicity in both style and content, probably to an unreasonable extend. – PLL Feb 10 '15 at 23:14
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    Upon observation, some reasonably-good mathematicians have disdain for websites, and say so in conversation. This is highly correlated with substantial computer/internet-incompetence, and, commensurately, with professed disdain for the latter. I've occasionally asked whether they disdain Writing as undercutting The Oral Tradition, but I don't get clear answers. – paul garrett Feb 10 '15 at 23:25
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    While I have seen an academic's website that I thought was "too fancy" and left me with a bad impression (like he was selling something), there is a big difference in being over-stylish and having a clean, well-organized and aesthetic webpage. – Kimball Feb 11 '15 at 1:37
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    From my personal experience, I can confirm that such an attitude exists, even if subconsciously, and that it is not (only) a byproduct of technical incompetence. It is the same reason why people frown upon overdressing in conferences. – Federico Poloni Feb 11 '15 at 7:22

Because there is no need for them not to be.

Professors and academics, per their job descriptions or the scope of research grants, mainly have research, teaching, and students supervision duties, mitigated by administrative hurdles. None of these are addressed by polishing their website.

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    I disagree -- I've had professors direct me to their websites for things like, say, solution sets. These can be buried six levels deep starting from the middle of some densely-packed wall of text. – Alex Reinking Feb 10 '15 at 20:19
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    @AlexReinking it's not surprising since she/he has no benefit in you accessing them quickly. What I'm saying is, in my experience of academia, professors are not paid to maintain a good website. – Cape Code Feb 10 '15 at 20:23
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    When you say "there is no need for them not to be", do you mean there is no need for them not to be ugly? Or there is no need for them not to be difficult to navigate, poorly-organized, etc.? – Trevor Wilson Feb 10 '15 at 20:25
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    I see. Then I disagree with your comment, but not with your answer. Of course professors should make their course websites easy for their students to use, and this is part of what we get paid for. – Trevor Wilson Feb 10 '15 at 20:27
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    @TrevorWilson But do you? Will you lose money if you don't have an easy to use website? Is it asked about on those student surveys? Do students give higher scores on anything for better websites? You can say it's part of your job of helping students, but if no one is complaining, no one is evaluating you for it, and you won't get paid less--is it really? In other words, I put the blame not on the professor but the students and the institution. If it's not a priority to them, it's not going to be for the professors. – trlkly Feb 11 '15 at 9:18

Web technologies change rapidly and so does the criteria of a non-ugly webpage and standards of ease of navigation. Most professors are not so web savvy (even CS) as to keep up with the new developments. At best, they might update the contents but I think this simply not happen to be a priority. Web development is increasingly a highly skilled and specialized profession and takes quite a bit of dedication to do right in my opinion.

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    I disagree - high level web development is getting more specialised, but anyone can throw a Wordpress site together with minimal effort – Jon Story Feb 10 '15 at 23:40
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    I think part of the problem is that a lot of professors made their websites before they could "throw a Wordpress site together with minimal effort", i.e. WordPress didn't exist when they made their site. – dantiston Feb 11 '15 at 3:23
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    Right. It's basically the economic concept of marginal utility. I learned HTML 3 back whenever that was current, and since I'm not a web designer, there's insufficient marginal utility for me to learn HTML 5. I suspect many professors are in a similar position. – Kevin Krumwiede Feb 11 '15 at 21:40
  • It seems to me that it takes very little effort to create an easy-to-navigate and non-ugly course website (except for people with an unreasonable idea of "non-ugly".) It is as easy to do as it was in the beginning. New developments in technology seem irrelevant. – Trevor Wilson Feb 12 '15 at 22:32
  • "anyone can throw a Wordpress site together with minimal effort", sure they can throw it together, maintaining it and keeping it secure is another matter. I would reccomend any non-experts running a website to stick to static html pages unless they have a very good reason. – Peter Green Jun 2 '17 at 17:58

Because to at least some people (I'm one, and I expect many professors are also) a "pretty" website can often be a horribly dysfunctional piece of crap. When I look at a web site, I don't want to look at your choice of fonts & colors or your distracting patterned backgrounds, and I especially don't want to be "entertained" like the web was an effing TV. I want information, with as little fuss as possible. And I especially don't want web sites that use gee-whiz features that are only supported by a few browsers, or sometimes only one.

PS: I can think of any number of commercial web sites, starting with Amazon, where "prettyness" gets in the way of the site's primary function, which is selling me stuff.

PPS: Seeing the comment about Tim Berners-Lee's web site above made me consider another reason that some professors might choose not to have 'pretty' web sites. It's the same reason I don't have a personal web site, or FTM a Facebook page: privacy. I've never really understood why some people feel the urge to tell the world all about their personal lives. If I had to have a web site for my academic work, it would be a lot like Berners-Lee's: Here are links to my published work, here are the homework assignments &c for the classes I teach, now go away.

  • I agree with what your answer says, but it doesn't seem to address the OP's question apart from the word "ugly" in the title. In the body of the question OP asks why Professors' websites are "difficult to navigate, poorly-organized, and just generally hard to look at (poorly-tiled backgrounds, inconsistent fonts, etc.)" Assuming for the sake of argument that they really are like this, they sound a lot more like the "horribly dysfunctional pieces of crap" that you describe rather than "information, with as little fuss as possible." – Trevor Wilson Feb 12 '15 at 22:26
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    @Trevor Wilson: While I've not seen the same subset of professors' web sites as the OP, by and large the ones I've seen are quite usable. (Of course I have my user style sheet which usually ensures that I get my preferred fonts &c, rather than the designer's dictates - and isn't that the way it's supposed to work?) OTOH many that I suppose were done by professional designers are pretty bad. Which is the trouble with generic questions: we need some concrete examples of what the OP thinks are bad to really give sensible answers. – jamesqf Feb 13 '15 at 6:12

I agree with @Bitwise. But I also want to mention that as a PhD student I had a site with colours etc. but when I got a bit older that began to look pretentious and like I had too much time on my hands, so I switched to a site with plain text and links to things I had done. This seems to be a typical pattern in mathematics. Having a spartan website sends the message that you are too busy doing research to bother with such trifles as CSS.

Personally I also think the plain text looks nice. I saw the website of one mathematician who was (and I believe still is) a prominent media personality. To enter it you had to click on a picture of his head. You could click on the left or right half of the brain to access his mathematical articles or his artistic pursuits/newspaper articles. Amusingly, since his head was facing towards the viewer, the two sides of the brain were labelled the wrong way round.

  • >"you had to click a picture of his head". Talk about having a big head! – easymoden00b Feb 13 '15 at 16:51

I think your premise may be incorrect. For example, looking at the websites of CS faculty at my institution (http://www.cs.uci.edu/faculty/index.php) it looks like almost all are easy to navigate and well-organized. Almost all are either (1) pretty or (2) written in very basic HTML, and if (2) looks ugly then it should be considered the web browser's fault, not the author's fault (but I don't think it does look ugly.)

As for your second question; if you make your website neither fancy nor ugly, then everyone can be happy. Fancy is not the opposite of ugly for websites.

I'd like to throw in one more fact into the ring:

Before a professor gets tenure, she often hops between several institutions (e.g., a PhD institution, two postdoc instutitions, one assistant professor institution, one institution to switch to after tenure, etc.). This means that the homepage has to move with them. Some institutions actually insist on using their design, and adapting an older page with lots of material to a new technology (the new institution may use a content management system) can easily take days that is probably better spent with doing research. So a simple copy&paste solution is often preferred. Obviously, that doesn't quite improve the visual quality of the page.

  • That is a very relevant fact. – user 2646 Feb 11 '15 at 19:18

I believe @BillBarth's comment says it all: It's a matter of Cost vs. Benefit! Why bother updating your website to meet users' quality expectations when:

  1. it bears no influence on your job peformance evaluation (i.e. tenure evaluation) and
  2. It takes too much time and effort to make websites look nice.

The only exception to this rule is if you have a rather large laboratory and Public Relations is a necessary evil. Then, you might find professors hiring website developers/administrators. But never would you find a professor doing this all by themselves.

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    Re users quality expectations: just who are the users in question here? Seems to me that the vast majority will be from two groups. One, and by far the largest, will be students looking for course info like assignments &c. The other will be other researchers looking for information about the professor's research work. If both those can be provided by a plain, no-nonsense site, why worry about some web designer's notions of 'pretty'? – jamesqf Feb 12 '15 at 4:00

The thing people tend to overlook is the fact that CS professors do not always have experience in the areas needed to design good interfaces. Making something work well and making a good user interface are often completely different skills; a web programmer is not a web designer, and vice versa. In most cases, you need to take specific design courses in order to understand what it takes to design a good user interface.

Ultimately, web design takes too much dedication of time for most busy people to consider investing their own resources even if they can build the website from scratch, and being able to build a website takes enough dedication already. It is also worth mentioning that being a professor of programming does not imply they know about web programming. For example, teaching data structures has no dependency on being able to use a database within the core of a website.

That being said, a "bad" design to most might have been the "best" design to some people. This is called an opinion, and these have changed a lot since just the past two decades. Just be happy tiled animated gifs and auto-play midi files have lost popularity since then.

And as for your site being too flashy, it depends on the situation and your personal preference. If you want it to be flashy, then go for it. However, the content of a personal site will have a bigger impact on more pragmatic people, which is common in the CS department. The most important aspect for a personal website is to provide a quality experience for the right situation in order to show you know your stuff. This will vary depending on what you need to accomplish.

You have to ask yourself what makes a website poorly designed or well designed? If a website executes its purpose is it then really poorly designed? You have an idea of what an academic website should be but what if the website in question's design philosophy was simply get the information out there as quickly and cheaply as possible, how bad was the design really?

That being said I do think it is an error for any institution of learning to not have a website that is more in line with what you consider 'good design'.

The website is the first source of information about an institution for many people, if this source looks poor then it simply reflects badly on the institution.

If you have a job somewhere and you have a mullet and an earring do you really think that your employer is going to be all that happy about the impression you are leaving on his customers?

That may not have any bearing on you as person or the work that you do but still that is not going to make your employer all that happy.

First impressions rarely have any bearing on reality but that does not make them any less long-lasting.

You would like to think that the type of things universities generally teach are of intellectuall standard higher than basic web design and that these places would put a premuim on good website design just for the mere fact of trying to give the impression that someone has mastered the type of skills the sysadmin mastered when he was 14.

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