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UB Student Association spent $9,000 on 'new, outdated confusing' website

Some students question cost, design, hiring process of SA’s new site


by Harumo Sato The Spectrum

The Student Association launched a new, roughly $9,000, website and some students aren’t too impressed, saying the design and aesthetic doesn’t match the price tag.

Students who spoke with The Spectrum had concerns with the website’s cost and design – which some called “outdated” – the hiring process of SA Entertainment Coordinator Marc Rosenblitt as the site creator and a lack of consultation with students from the computer science department. There have also been negative critiques of the site on social media, including a post on the UB Reddit page entitled “UB SA launches new outdated, confusing site after years of outdated, confusing site” that currently has 24 comments.

The website was funded by SA’s budget, which is made up from the $94.75 mandatory student activity fee each undergraduate pays every semester.

“It makes me wonder how much I can trust the SA to make decisions regarding technology,” said Nick DiRienzo, a senior computer science major and a member of SA club the Association for Computing Machinery. “To know [the money] went to someone internally, do we know that that was a fair market price? Did we search hard enough, because there are web developers in Buffalo, at UB, who I know were qualified. … It’s kind of sad that we didn’t have the chance to provide input there.”

In an interview with The Spectrum on Thursday, SA President James Ingram said the website would cost around $9,000. In an interview Tuesday, Ingram said the price of SA’s site is still being finalized and could be anywhere from $7,500-9,500. Of the total cost, $800 will pay for software add-ons and for having content rewritten. The rest will go to Rosenblitt for labor costs.

Ingram said students should understand that it was the first release of the site, that other candidates beside Rosenblitt were considered and that SA is willing to work with students on improving the website in the future.

“I had wanted to start out with something that would be really simple and easy to navigate,” Ingram said. “Are there ways to improve it? I’m sure there are and I’m sure people have good input on what would look better. That’s something I’m totally willing to work on.”

Ingram said although students may not think the site is perfect, it does everything the SA needs it to do, like posting events and budget information and allowing clubs to update their contact information. The site uses Joomla, a free template that has been downloaded 50 million times and is the template for Harvard and Citibank’s websites.

“In my opinion, the website has everything that SA needs as an organization in a website,” he said. “There will always be room for improvements.”

Students have issues with the design, cost and Rosenblitt’s hiring, but some have called for a more transparent process and communication between the SA and student body when dealing with matters such as a new website.

“It’s a hard problem and I commend them for trying but I would like more transparency,” DiReinzo said. “I think that’s been a general theme the past few years in SA. A lot of platforms have voiced for more transparency.”

Issues with design

The SA was unable to update its old website because it was managed through a local company with proprietary software the company had stopped supporting. SA members had to go through the company every time they wanted to update the site. The current website now features up-to-date club contact information and an events calendar.

While students who spoke with The Spectrum commended Ingram and the SA for these improvements, they also criticized the design and reported issues with certain links, the SA ledger and the search tool. Daniel Giles, a SA Senate member, said the Senate was unable to access some figures on the ledger during Sunday’s meeting.

Ingram said “kinks” in the site happen when new software is released and that SA won’t know all the problems until users are actively using the site and reporting issues. He said SA will make the site more functional as problems arise and can be addressed.

“It was a really good that the president actually took the initiative to update the website so we have all the updated information; however based on the design, I’m not really that impressed,” said Rohan Shah, a senior computer science major. “I was totally taken aback by the design. It was really ’90s and early 2000s.”

DiRienzo said when he first viewed the site, he thought a student who was just learning HTML had designed it. Geoffrey Challen, an assistant computer science and engineering professor, sent The Spectrum an emailed critique of the SA website broken down into the categories “ugly, slow and broken.”

Challen said in his email that the SA site features “a variety of unnecessary and visually confusing elements, including large icons with small text, a bright and rapidly changing backdrop which partially pokes through even elements that should be solid, and unnecessary animations.” He also said the site makes no attempt to establish a color scheme, which Challen said is common to provide “visual cues” and “some sense of coherence.”

“This makes the site hard and unpleasant to use,” he said.

The Google Developers' PageSpeed Insights tool rated the SA website's speed as 54 out of 100 and stated the site should leverage browser caching, optimize images, enable compression and eliminate render-blocking JavaScript in above-the-fold content. 

“Google’s PageSpeed results show that there are obvious and fairly simple opportunities for performance improvements, including things that would have been done by default by a professional developer,” Challen said.

Hiring process of site creator

Students have voiced concerns that an SA employee, Rosenblitt, was hired to create the site, that Rosenblitt was not experienced enough and that other professional web developers were potentially not considered.

“What seems odd here is that the SA decided to hire an inexperienced developer who charged a professional price for the opportunity to learn how to do something new while delivering a very inferior product,” Challen said.

Rosenblitt got his undergraduate degree in information technology integrations and has maintained SA’s information technology systems for the past 15 years. He said he has created websites for several different local law firms and usually makes one website per year.

Ingram said he hired Rosenblitt for the site because of Rosenblitt’s experience with SA’s information technology, accessibility if something came up with the site and “intimate knowledge of what a good SA website should contain.” He also said Rosenblitt would have time to work on site because the SA office is not open as much during winter break, when the idea for the new site was proposed.

Ingram said he looked at Rosenblitt’s past work and compared his asking price to other local web developers.

“It’s a valid concern and all I can say to [students] is when I weighed all of my options for the website, I really thought the best decision I had in front of me was having Marc do it,” Ingram said. “It was never just a blind thing like, ‘Yes, it’s going to be Marc because I know him because he works for SA.’ The first thing I said when Marc was considered was, ‘Well how much are other companies charging in the area?’ And that’s what we looked into.”

Ingram said most companies and web designers charge hourly. He said Rosenblitt started his offer at $75 an hour, which was “really competitive” with the other companies being considered.

Isaac Reath, a junior computer science major and president of Association for Computing Machinery, said that SA could have created the new website with a content management system like Squarespace that charges monthly and provides costumer support. Although, he said he can understand SA’s decision to not go that route because of its difficulties with its old company.

“They did work with a third party in the past, and got burned. I can sort of see where they’re coming from,” Reath said.

Ingram said SA wanted to avoid going through a third party website because in the past SA members could not update the site themselves. He said going through the Joomla template designed by Rosenblitt will more easily allow SA members to control the site in the future.

Challen said content management systems like Joomla “aim to make it easy for non-tech-savvy people to help update a website,” which he admits is probably important for SA.

“I know we went with Marc to design the website, but I think it sets us up well in the future to have students run the website,” Ingram said “Which I like better than having to go through a third party.”

Ingram said SA’s ability to update the site allows it to more easily post events and for clubs to more easily update contact information for students interested in joining.

Cost and cheaper alternatives

Students and professors who spoke with The Spectrum said that $9,000 was a typical price for a professional freelancer to build a website, but that the quality of the site does not appear to match the cost.

“You would get quoted $9,000 from any really good freelancer,” Reath said.

“[SA] spent $9,000 but it doesn’t really appear like [it] spent $9,000 … If it took 100 hours, it would be $90 an hour. A $90-an-hour developer would give you a better product.”

Some students like Shah said a cheaper option would have been asking students in the computer science department or in SA computer engineering clubs to build the site.

“If you’re not really into that business, people are going to say $10,000 and you’re not going to do much about it. A little bit more digging would have solved the problem,” Shah said.

Reath and DiReinzo said that there are computer science students who would have wanted to create the site for their professional portfolios. And although they admit they could not guarantee a student would have done a better job than Rosenblitt, it would have been done at a cheaper cost.

DiReinzo said SA clubs like the Association for Computing Machinery would have created the site for an increase in its budget, which would have been less than the cost of paying a freelancer.

“The communication just needs to exist because I know clubs that are capable of this kind of work and I think they would do it for much less, like, ‘Hey, now we can buy pizza for the rest of the year,’” DiReinzo said.

Ingram said he originally considered contacting students to create the site in the beginning of the year, but ultimately decided to go the route of hiring a professional developer. He said the reason SA did not reach out to students for feedback in creating the website was because of feedback they had gotten about what was wrong with the old website.

“I really felt we had so much buildup with feedback about the old website that we could design a new website that would really meet the needs of students that they would be happy with,” Ingram said.

DiReinzo said he understands not everything can to go to a vote, but that it would have been “a nice gesture [for SA] to say, ‘We’re redoing our site. We want you as a student body to be a part of this change.’”

Ingram encourages students to apply for the position of maintaining the website next year. He said applications would be coming out shortly after the new e-board is elected April 16. He said the new e-board will want “to hire someone who can make changes with the website.”

He also encourages students to contact him about their ideas for the website and how it can be improved.

“I still certainly would appreciate any feedback whether it’s on functionality or looks,” Ingram said “I understand we didn’t ask students for the design but that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity for them to be involved with it in the future and take it and really run with it in the future.”

Ingram said he wouldn’t be surprised if the website looks completely different year after year as new e-boards come. He said the current template allows SA to do so.

DiRieinzo said instead of debating the steps taken to create the current website, the focus should now be on improving it.

“We’ve already spent the funding, so what do we do now?” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve already spent the money. What we can do is be open-minded for the future. I think if that’s all that comes of this, that can be helpful.”

Tom Dinki is the senior news editor and can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com


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