Website Development

#HEWebHero Q&A: Erik Runyon

We asked our HEWeb community, who is your #HEWebHero?

Erik Runyon, technical director for marketing communications at the University of Notre Dame, has been developing websites for fun and profit since 1995, and joined the university in 2007. Erik enjoys chatting and writing about web performance, accessibility, mobile support and RWD. He’s currently offering free COVID-19 web performance consultations for any college or university coronavirus websites.

As Erik says on his website, the strain on U.S. broadband as a result of the pandemic will impact universities’ abilities to provide relevant, timely information to their communities. In other words, the last thing you need at a time like this is a website that takes too long to load. We asked Erik about the consultation process and the most common web performance issues he sees.

Link: How did you come up with the idea to do COVID-19 performance audits?

Erik: When the need for COVID-19 communications first began, many of us were sharing our emergency/COVID-19 sites in the HighEdWeb Slack. While reviewing a number of the sites to see what others were posting and how content was being organized, I noticed several performance issues. Given the importance of web performance, especially on emergency sites, I decided to offer free assistance.

Link: A lot of us are drinking from the fire hose right now trying to get COVID-19 content out. Why is it worth the time to invest in a performance consultation?

Erik: Users hate waiting for content to load. A 2015 study found that waiting for content to load on a slow website resulted in equivalent cognitive load as watching a horror movie. How much worse then for users who are already stressed due to the current pandemic? We owe it to our students and communities to provide them fast and seamless experience. Initial performance evaluations take very little time (for the requester), and the fixes can be completed as time allows. Some issues can be addressed in a matter of minutes.

Link: What performance issues are most common on higher ed homepages in general?

Erik: The worst performance offenders such as full-screen hero videos and social media plugins are not proving common (thankfully) on COVID-19 sites. On the sites I’ve reviewed, the most common performance issues revolve around images, javascript and custom fonts. I would recommend anyone in charge of an emergency website take the time consult with an expert, or run their site through a performance evaluation tool. Most sites have a number of easily addressable issues.

Link: There will be a lot of traffic on university sites as they begin to announce their plans for opening (or not) this fall. What can web teams do to make sure they’re prepared?

Erik: Test and fix performance and content issues now. Once an emergency or event is happening it’s usually too late, or the team may be too busy, to address perf and content issues. Also think ahead to content challenges that may occur. Getting the pieces in place now can save time and reduce stress.

Link: Who is your #HEWebHero?

Erik: This is such a difficult question. There are so many doing amazing work in higher-ed. As someone who is very much into the tech side of higher-ed, I keep an eye on what Dave Olsen of West Virginia University is up to. In the decade I’ve known him, he’s been solving complex problems with interesting and clever solutions.

Contact Erik to schedule an evaluation of your school’s COVID-19 website.

Think someone should be nominated? Bring some good to your Twitter feed and use #HEWebHero to recognize someone who deserves it!

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By Jenna Spinelle

Jenna Spinelle is the communications specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, where she hosts and produces the Democracy Works podcast in collaboration with WPSU, central Pennsylvania's NPR station.

When she’s not podcasting, Jenna teaches journalism in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and works with national and international clients as a freelance writer and marketer. She also plays the saxophone in the Bellefonte Community Band, which like a high school band for grownups.