Once you get that sweet message that your funding is granted, the project website is the last thing on your mind – you just want to get started! We understand. But that requirement for communication and dissemination is there for a reason, and we believe that a great EU project website is an excellent way of showcasing your work to a broader audience.
Even with priorities and attention elsewhere, there is no excuse for some of the horrible EU websites that we’ve seen: half empty pages, lots of jargon and no concern whatsoever for the reader. To help you get the best of both worlds – a good website with minimal effort – we have collected some best practices to help you create better, more beautiful and user-friendly websites.
Form a small team responsible for the website
Yes, you are in a consortium with many partners who all have an opinion about everything. But designing a website with five institutes and twenty researchers is exactly the main cause of badly designed consortium websites. When everybody wants something different, it will result in a compromise that does not work for anybody, and doesn’t achieve your goals. The best way to avoid this is to collect the content for the website from the partners, but to then build the website with a small group of people (most likely from the leading institute). This team will integrate the content and makes all the final decisions for the design and structure of the website.
Don’t look at other EU website for design inspiration
Take a look at the average EU project website and you’ll know what we mean: they are generally not the pinnacle of innovation and design. So, don’t look at them for inspiration! Follow the design pros and set your own standards for design. The same goes for us; we didn’t found The Online Scientist to create dime a dozen research websites – we want to create unique, innovative designs that make your research stand out! In short: make bold choices, step away from the blues and greens, and make your science sexy! (Or let us do it.)
Develop a timeless logo
Let’s be honest: you did not get that grant because of your design skills. So leave the design of your logo to a professional! We’ve made many websites and sometimes we couldn’t design the logo ourselves but were forced to use the one created by the scientist (or their cousin/little brother/neighbour). Unfortunately, this often results in tacky, cliche, and illegible logos that are not suitable for a website (or print).
Actually, a logo is often not much more than just the name of your project in a good font (think about the famous Philips, Canon or LEGO logos). Therefore, we would even suggest that you do not need a logo for your website at all. Just having your project name in large font on your website is sufficient (and much better for search engine optimization – SEO). A good example of this is the SURREAL website. Here, the overall design of the website gives a unique look and feel, but the logo itself is just large text.
Some of our own favorite logo designs are quite simple:
Create a website that is interesting to your audience
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: your research website is not for you (nor for the European Commission), it’s for YOUR AUDIENCE. So don’t just send, send, send information about who you are and what you do, but think about how you can make the website relevant to the general audience and other stakeholders of your project! Since this is actually also a requirement for EU grants, nobody should disagree with this. In fact, let this help you make decisions: if it’s not relevant to your audience, leave it out.
Focus on your expertise and your context: how will your research change the world?
Make sure that your website menu and navigation reflects your decision to create a website for your audience. Most EU consortium websites have a boring menu that focuses mostly on who they are as a consortium: Home / About us / Project / Publications / Partners / News. But ‘who you are’ is not the most interesting thing to read about – focus on the topic of your research! (This also means that you shouldn’t organize your website and/or the information on it along the lines of the work packages and the proposal, this is not interesting to anyone.)
Don’t write about who you are; write about why your work is relevant to your audience.
For example, see the website we built for the EVICT project. Here, we created a menu that explores the pillars of their research. And for the homepage we’ve written a story that explains the importance of their work for the well-being of European citizens. This is much more interesting than a list of partner institutes! Finally, it’s good to realize that once you show your relevance, your audience is much more likely to pay attention to who is behind the project.
Another example is the menu of the SODaH website we designed, which contains only one item about the consortium. This way we created more room to explain what satellite constellations are and how this research project can help bring internet to remote areas in Europe!
So, for your next website, focus on what makes your research relevant to the general public and other stakeholders, and explain how you will change their world. If you are interested in learning more about impact, we can recommend the workshop we have developed around creating impact with your research: https://www.theonlinescientist.com/workshop/impact-with-science-workshop/
Tip for thinking about your research
Usually your research is organized around three main questions that you can also use in the navigation menu:
What is the problem? (e.g. Climate change is affecting coastal areas the most)
What don’t we know yet? (e.g. Can coastal areas be saved from the effects of climate change?)
What methods are you using to research this? (e.g. How to use a combination of satellite images and local interviews to create a scope of climate change)
Keep the structure of your website simple
Nobody wants to find their way on a website with fifty pages that are hidden in drop-down menus. Fewer pages and a clear structure makes it easier to navigate your website. We always use 4-5 menu items tops. And we hardly ever use drop-down menus. You do not need a separate page for each institute. A link to the website of a university is more than enough – and saves you a lot of work in generating the content.
Looked at in another way: every menu item (and corresponding page) should be the answer to one question a visitor might have. An example of such a question is “Who is behind this project?” You can answer this on a page called f.i. Our consortium. Here, you include all the information that is related to this question: the team, consortium partners, institutes and a description of what your consortium looks like. The DRIVE website is a good example, as it displays the different countries, institutes and researchers involved on a single page.
Every menu item should be the answer to one question a visitor might have.
Put your (junior) researchers in the spotlight!
We love it when researchers are visible, share their knowledge and are active online, so we always encourage it. A project website that includes profile pages for each team member is a great way to give all the researchers a place to elaborate on their work, their vision, and their expertise. And for junior researchers especially, it provides a platform to be found on and thus a way to advance their career. Just don’t make the mistake of creating profile pages where you copy-and-paste the text from your university page.
When creating a team page, don’t make it too complex. Highlight the researchers who are actively involved, but don’t include pages for each person on the advisory board. Take a look at the EVICT project team page to see how we solved this for them.
Nobody likes to read resumes, so don’t write your biography like one.
Nobody likes to read resumes, yet we’ve seen so many biographies that read like one. What people do like to read is stories! So, when you are collecting the bios for your website, why not ask the researchers what their passion is, or what they are incredibly interested in and why? What do they want to find out? Where does this curiosity come from? Of course you can add a few lines on their background, degrees, achievements. But the reader is most interested in their personality and work.
Only add blogs, events, and news pages when they are relevant to your audience
News & updates
Think hard about whether a news section is necessary for your project before you commission or build one. Are you sure your website visitors are interested in the project’s milestones, internal meetings or media appearances? Only include news if it’s relevant, and if you do, you probably do not need an entire page – you can summarize the highlights on your homepage instead.
We usually advice against a news section, and therefore often don’t include a news section on EU websites. For the exceptions, here is one more observation: researchers often overestimate significantly how much time they have to write news items…
We always encourage researchers to write blogs. You are the expert, and writing about your expertise is a great way to reach and inform a large audience. The most effective ones are blogs that answer a frequently asked question about your research topic. For example, for the SODaH website we wrote an entire page called “What are satellite constellations?”. This is a phrase someone might search for on Google, and it connects the project to the world of the European citizen.
Write blog posts about topics and questions that someone might search for on Google.
Another approach is to explain something about your innovative research methods that other scientists can learn from.
Be aware that it takes time and effort to write a good blog. However, you don’t need to post something every week. You can also ask junior researchers in your project to write a blog about their subtopic. This is a great way to showcase their expertise and put them on the map – and to share the workload. Whatever you do: do not write blogs about the proceedings of your latest meeting or something like that. Not only does this cost you valuable time, it is also wasted time if it isn’t interesting to anyone.
The events page is usually a catch-all for anything calendar-based. Whether you’re planning to host events or showcase external events, it’s good practice to think about what kind of events you want to put on your website. Do you want to include private events such as trainings and project meetings, or events that are open to the public and/or other researchers, such as conferences and symposia? Do you want to show events that you are organizing, or also international conferences relevant to your topic that are organized elsewhere?
Don’t create an event page if you have no events to show.
Whatever you do, make sure it’s clear what the event section is about, and leave it out when you’re at risk of showing an empty page because you forgot to upload your events. The EVICT project, for example, hosts monthly events online, organizes symposia, and collects international conferences on their events page, and thus the events page reflects that.
Write simply and without jargon: you have an international audience
Most EU research websites will be in English and have an international audience. Your project itself might already be a collaboration of different countries and universities with people from different backgrounds and nationalities. The general audience is even more diverse, and this means that most people that visit your website will not be native English speakers. Therefore, you have to make sure that everything on your website is easy to understand.
Your audience is international and doesn’t contain many native English speakers!
This means that you have to ditch the academic writing style filled with incomprehensible jargon and long, passive sentences. Instead, write as if you are talking to your audience: use short sentences, an active voice and use transition words like so, therefore, but, and however.
Quick tips for better writing on the web
Write short sentences.
Write a maximum of 5-6 lines per paragraph.
Try to use the active voice as much as you can.
Write headers with the conclusion of the paragraph they are leading into.
Forget academic writing; write as if you’re talking to someone.
Take our workshop on writing for science communication!
Will your project ever end? Although it might not always seem that way, the answer is probably yes. Once that fateful day comes, what will you do with all the lovely team member profiles, the recorded webinars and blog pages full of carefully crafted information? Will you just delete the website, put the domain name on the market, and destroy many pages worth of important information? It already hurts to think about it this way, doesn’t it?
It’s worth considering what you want to do with this information! You might want to archive the page. This means that you make a fixed copy of it, which you put in a public repository like GitHub or the library of your University. The only expenses you’re left with are for the domain name. In addition to the website, also think about what you want to do with the project’s social media pages in advance. Whatever you choose, make sure you’re prepared for the choice when the funding stops. If it does take you by surprise, you’re more likely to delete the website – and we hate to see valuable content being thrown away!
Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your (poster) presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, infographics and animated videos, and regularly gives workshops about design at The Online Scientist.