What makes an academic website great? Recently Michael Eisen started collecting suggestions for great lab websites via Twitter. He's posting the suggestions at greatlabwebsites.tumblr.com. I expressed my dismay at the rather pedestrian average of these great lab websites (deemed great by the people who suggested them) and have been asked which ones are my favorite. I could have tweeted a couple quick examples, but the request emphasized my reasoning so I thought a blog post a better answer.
Lab websites should be judged by the standards of all websites: design and function. I'm certainly one to emphasize design and aesthetic as much as function. Sadly, most lab websites are heavy on function and absolutely dreadful on design. It doesn't have to be this way. Here are some favorites and reasons why:
Design by Template
Haters gonna hate, but check out my website: samuelcrane.com (this one you're on!). I think that there are a great many ways to leverage good design without having to pay a lot of money for it. I use Squarespace and their Montauk template. I only had to make a few design layout decisions and all the rest was baked into the template. I pay a monthly fee that includes hosting. There are very good free solutions as well. These hosted solutions include professional designs, modern web technologies underneath the hood with mobile support and responsive web design, good (i.e., user friendly) fonts and colors, traffic analysis tools, social tools, and customer support (for you). Some of these things make the website better for your readers, some make the website more useful for you. Resources for template based modern designs:
At the end of the day though, the only true professional solution is a bespoke solution. My favorite here is the Rob Dunn lab website done by Neil Mccoy Design. I've never had the opportunity to ask Rob about their design process, but Rob has a great set of project, lab, and personal sites. The Neil McCoy studio has also done a number of other lab websites. I think these designs are great because they feel unique—giving a voice to the lab—and they are a pleasure to use. As a lab website, all the expected elements are there: research statement, pub list (time for an update Rob!), lab people (very well done here), and news items pulled in from various places including Twitter and blog posts. Probably cost a fortune (by academic standards).
Focus on Function
Of course, design really is the extra mile. First one must have an audience in mind and then figure out how to serve that audience well. What's the purpose of the website? Scicomm? Outreach? Software and data distribution (don't do this)? Personal promotion in pursuit of a post-doc or tenure? If a mixture of different goals, how do you balance them? These are all super important questions.
When I visit an academic website, I'm usually there for one of two reasons: (1) I want to find out more about this person's background and research or (2) I want to find their publications and collaborators. I want to know more about who they are as a researcher or I already have a grasp of that and I want to see their science products.
My favorite example of a website that serves up these functions really well is Andrew Rambaut's lab website. There's updated news, short descriptions about research topics that lead into longer descriptions that link out to project sites, there's an updated publications list, and then an excellent list of software. I don't think this is a great example of design. It used to be—in 2008. But in 2014 the website feels dated and unprofessional even if the function is still great.
The Apogee: Design & Function
I could point to the Dunn lab website again, but I'll provide another example. This is cheating because it's not exactly a lab website, more a project website, but I point to this as having excellent function (identifies and serves an audience well) and design (responsive web design with clean interactive features): Epidemic: Emerging Infectious Diseases, also from Andrew Rambaut. I feel like aspects of the design could be better, but I think this is truly a great academic website. If you're looking at the website on a desktop, drag the browser window to make it thinner; observe the awesome responsive design (you can do the same to this very blog). If you're looking at it on a mobile device, it already looks good. More and more web traffic is via mobile (think about how researchers visit your site when at a conference) and the mobile experience should be considered when making a Great Lab Website.
On a similar note, any of the Zooniverse websites point to the level of function and design that I feel academic websites could aspire to. I really like Notes from Nature and The Milky Way Project. There is a complete expression of a design vision coupled with effective delivery of content and function—and damn do these websites function well. This is indeed rare in a lab website, thus the need for examples of great lab websites. If academics aren't ready yet to partner with designers and software engineers for their lab websites (which I'd love to see), then the Design by Template approach is one that more academics would be well served by.