Running the digital experience is a large-scale operation for most higher ed institutions. Whether your architecture was established five or 15 years ago, the departments, offices, and entities you need to manage may add up to hundreds or even thousands of websites. And each new addition is increasingly challenging to maintain.
Some sites use shared modules, while others do not. If you want to make an update to one website, you have to cross your fingers and hope it doesn’t break something on 500 others. Every day, another stakeholder presents a new request in support of an upcoming project.
Facing all these compounding issues, the IT department at Yale understood that a lift-and-shift of their existing sites was impossible. Upgrading their digital platform presented an opportunity to reset their architecture and processes to start fresh.
In a preview of our upcoming presentation at DrupalCon 2023, here’s what happened next — and what your institution can learn from it.
Why reinvention makes sense for higher ed institutions
Universities are facing significant challenges related to budgets, economic uncertainty, and reduced admissions applications. The pandemic introduced further uncertainty balanced with an increased need to sharpen digital presentations.
As one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, Yale needed to find a new, more sustainable way to manage its digital needs. The institution had stretched the limits of a very mature Drupal 7 site with more than a decade’s worth of modules, themes, and custom code.
It was difficult for the IT team to test with confidence, because they manage more than 1,100 sites that were all created in different ways. In addition, the more impressive a new site looked, the more other offices and departments wanted to emulate it.
The unintended consequences of an overtaxed website platform
With the university’s website system at critical mass, Yale’s teams lacked incentive to add new features to its legacy platform. Consequently, some larger departments found the platform inflexible, leading them to Wix and Squarespace for new projects. If the university didn’t find a workable platform solution, it ran the risk of increased site errors, design inconsistencies, and a diminished user experience.
Resetting Yale’s approach to digital required a sizable upfront capital investment. As the work comes to fruition, the organization is gaining a flexible, scalable platform that will benefit every department into the next decade — and beyond.
YaleSites: A transformational approach to higher ed websites
YaleSites is the product of years of examining the university’s needs. Through our previous work with the institution’s cybersecurity office and the Schwarzman Center, we developed a new platform that incorporated the following elements:
A unified brand identity and design system
YaleSites offers many departments the ability to create unique digital experiences that are aligned with the institution’s overall design. Instead of a conventional CMS, Yale’s team uses a customized drag-and-drop page builder drawn from a library of proven components powered by Emulsify.
Inclusive and accessible development for all customers and devices
Institutions like Yale need to offer an equitable digital experience for every audience. YaleSites upholds and prioritizes the university’s accessibility standards by making sure every content block follows best practices for usability and accessibility.
User-focused experience and design
YaleSites prioritizes the needs of the organization’s audience and its end users. Across the organization, content authors of every skill level can access a full library of templates, starter kits, and media libraries to produce what they need.
Standardized practices for development
The organization’s development process has been streamlined. Rather than asking “What do you need in a website?”, work begins with the question, “How can our tools help with your strategy?” Developers don’t have to reinvent the wheel for a new site. Instead, they have the support of a system that’s performant, on-brand, and secure.
We implemented YaleSites with an eye toward thoughtful and sustainable growth. Universities often set digital priorities based on the loudest or most powerful voices in the organization. Now, Yale uses processes that enable them to focus on the organization’s most pressing needs. Plus, a core group meets regularly to collect feedback, respond to requests, and adjust priorities as needed.
Shifting from a project-based to a product-based perspective
After launching YaleSites, the institution will enter the maintenance phase of protecting its system. The university’s new platform required a significant financial investment — now it must invest in the long-term work of governance.
The success of Yale’s platform hinges on a seismic internal shift. YaleSites isn’t a project that concludes with a specific end date. It’s a product that the organization must refine and support in perpetuity.
Since YaleSites is a product, its resources are finite. For example, if IT plans to add six new features in a quarter, any new request is a negotiation. Something may need to get bumped from the product roadmap. Rather than rushing a new feature into development for a short-term need, the organization follows a multiyear roadmap and measures the needs against all of the priorities in the queue.
Eliminate deadline pressure by focusing on constant improvement
Thinking long-term about your organization’s website removes the need to squeeze as many improvements as possible into a project’s deadline. Following the principles of Agile development frees your team from solving every use case before launch. Instead, you can launch a minimally functional feature like an events calendar, see how people use it, and refine how it works according to actionable feedback.
YaleSites allows the institution to implement site improvements with confidence. Rather than working on whatever makes sense in the moment, they see their work progress from ideation to development, testing, and release.
From the flexibility of its digital tools to a more managed, Agile-driven approach to website improvements, YaleSites marks a dramatic shift for the better. If this sounds like a shift that would benefit how your organization works, we should talk. We can help you view your site and its planning from a new perspective.
Megan Bygness Bradley and the Yale team contributed to this post.
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