Monday, January 29, 2007

Audience-Oriented Links - "Prospective Students"

Part 1 in a look at what's behind audience-oriented links.

In my Analysis of Navigational Links on Top 20 Home Pages, I discovered that 75% of the sites had a navigational menu devoted to audience groups (e.g., prospective students, current students, faculty, alumni, etc.) and 90% at least had a link for at least "Alumni".

Obviously, audience-oriented navigation is popular. But what is behind those links? What services and information are sites directing these audiences to?

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the links behind the audience-oriented menus.

Prospective Students

As I discovered in a previous post, "prospective students" is not a universal label. Of the 12 sites with a link to this audience group, 9 used the label "prospective students" and 3 used "future students". I personally like "future students" better, but mostly because it's shorter and would fit in a smaller space.

Methodology and Results

I clicked on the "Prospective Students" link and inventoried the links unique to that page, ignoring global navigation links that were also found on other pages. Here's the results (links that appeared on 3 or more sites):

Link Total Percent
Graduate Admissions 11 92%
Undergraduate Admissions 9 75%
Financial Aid 7 58%
International Students 7 58%
Visiting/Visitor Center 6 50%
Continuing Education 5 42%
Distance/Online Learning 5 42%
Transfer Students 5 42%
Academics 4 33%
Apply Online 4 33%
Campus Map 4 33%
Freshmen 4 33%
Summer Academic Programs 4 33%
Directions 3 25%
Housing 3 25%
Campuses 3 25%


Eh. Mostly pretty boring and typical stuff. Come on people! Do something engaging and interesting! This is the page where students who are shopping for a university go first. This page should really grab them and offer a persuasive argument why your university is THE ONE they want. After all, these students may be looking at dozens of other university sites. You have to do something that stands out.

And honestly, for the most part, none of the 12 sites that I looked at did. But a few are doing some vaguely interesting stuff.

Utah State has a link to campus webcams (though the image is lame).

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and the University of Colorado both had links to virtual tours. Unfortunately, UIUC's wasn't even an actual virtual tour. UC's was better, but used pop-up windows (annoying) and only featured a few locations. I'll do an entire post on virtual tours some time soon.

Today's prospective students are pretty technologically savvy and used to social networking applications like MySpace and Facebook, as well as self-publishing tools such as blogs, photo sharing sites, as well as video-sharing sites like Youtube. Today's universities need to be making good use of these technologies, particularly on the pages that prospective students are most likely to visit.

Recommendations: Stand out from the Crowd

So what things can you do to attract prospective students and stand out from the crowd?

  • Use student blogs to personalize your school
  • Use videos to communicate your people and your place (post them on YouTube as well)
    • Campus Tours
    • Student Life
    • Community Attractions
    • Lectures and seminars
    • Concerts and performances
  • Used geotagged photos in Flickr or Panoramio to show the beauty of your campus or location
  • Create virtual tours in Google Earth to familiarize people with your area (Here's an example - you'll need Google Earth installed. Choose "Tools", "Play Tour" to play the tour. You may have to adjust your tour settings to slow it down a bit. All place marks in the tour have photos attached.)
    • Campus Tours
    • Restaurants, Cultural Attractions
    • Local Landmarks
  • Use podcasts like blogs and videos to personalize your school and to communicate the people and place
  • Use Facebook groups and online forums to personalize your school and to reach out to prospective students
  • Use IM to chat with prospective students live

Not all of these might be appropriate for your campus, but prospective students are going to be using these tools to learn about your campus. Even though you can no longer control the message, at least you can be part of it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Perfect Home Page Photos - Part 2

An excruciating examination of each of the photos I chose for my mock up site.

In Perfect Home Page Photos - Part 1, I discussed tips to effective home page photos and provided a link to a mock up home page where you could view a variety of different photos.

Please view the Hypothetical State University mockup to see the photos in action.

In this post, I'm going to discuss the choice of photos in a bit more detail. First, I'd like to break down the photos into several categories:
  • Scenic Photos
    • Campus Buildings & Environment
    • Campus - Past & Future
    • Local Natural Environment
  • People-oriented Photos
    • Local Community & Activities
    • Academic Programs
    • Faculty Accomplishments
    • Student Accomplishments
    • Sports
    • Students Engaged in Activities
    • Diversity
I was able to find effective, high quality examples of most of these types of photos.

Scenic Photos

Campus Buildings & Environment
Effective photos of campus buildings and the natural environment of the campus serve the purpose of highlighting the beauty of the campus setting and the uniqueness of its buildings. Many campuses have outstanding old buildings in park-like settings, and this can be exploited to communicate a beautiful and secluded academic environment.

Text associated with such photos should stress the outstanding characteristics of the campus plant, such as the number of acres the campus comprises, the age of the buildings, the age of the plantings, any awards or recognition the campus or its buildings have received, notable architects, unique buildings or building characteristics, etc.

This photo shows off the nice architectural detail of the campus. Coming up with a story to link to might be difficult, but a page of photos of the building wouldn't be inappropriate.

This photo shows off the beauty of the campus's natural environment. Linking to a story about Big Hypo Creek would be appropriate.

This photo gives a wider view of a campus building. This isn't my favorite photo, but it was the best I had. Linking to a story on the history of the campus wouldn't be completely inappropriate.

Campus - Past and Future
Past and future images of the campus can serve to place it in context. Older campuses in particular can benefit from highlighting their illustrious past. Photos of original buildings, the first graduating class, etc., can be effective. However, students tend to be less interested in the past and more interested in the future. Computer-generated images of planned buildings, if of high quality, can be effective in communicating how future-oriented the campus is.

Text associated with photos of the past should focus on generalities like how long the campus has been in existence rather than on specific past events (which may be of little interest to anyone).

I'm not very fond of this photo, but it was one of the few that I could find that would fit into the photo space. A link to a history of the campus would be appropriate.

This high quality 3D CGI works well on the home page and shows the future direction of the campus. Linking to a story about the new building or to a web cam showing the construction of the building would be appropriate.

Local Natural Environment
Almost all students are interested in the local natural environment of their potential new home. Images of state and national parks, unique natural features, rivers, mountains, forests, etc., can give them an idea of the beauty of the area.

Text associated with the photos should focus on the outstanding characteristics of the local natural environment, such as national parks, acres of public forest and recreation facilities, outdoor activities, etc.

This photo shows off the natural beauty of the region. Linking to an article about the preserve would be appropriate.

Another photo highlighting the natural beauty of the region. Linking to an article on the National Park would be appropriate.

Yet another photo. Linking to a photo essay on local wildflowers would be appropriate.

People-Oriented Photos

Local Community and Activities
As with the local natural environment, students are very interested in the local community where their prospective school is located. Photos of local events and locales such as art galleries, arts performances, farmers markets, city scenes, nightlife, etc. can be effective tools for communicating a lively and involved community offering lots of activities to students. Rural campuses may need to stress more outdoor activities instead of nightlife and arts.

Text associated with the photos should stress the number of activities available in the community and any unique activities that may exist.

This photo shows a scene of a community activity. Linking to an article on the farmer's market would be appropriate.

Academic Programs
It's perfectly acceptable to try to stress the outstanding nature of a university's academic programs, but unfortunately, it's a subject that does not lend itself easily to dramatic or interesting photos. Most photos will tend to be rather generic images of faculty teaching or students looking on intently.

As a result, most of the interest will have to be generated by the text. Focusing on specific programs that have received some sort of recognition, or that have some unique characteristic is probably the best approach. Generic references to a university's program will garner little interest from students (e.g., "HSU's outstanding academic programs are known throughout the country."), instead focus on specific, quantifiable measurements of academic quality (e.g., "Forty-seven percent of HSU graduates go on to pursue post-graduate degrees.").

Though this photo doesn't include people, it does have the potential to generate interest, partly by being so unusual for a university home page. A link to a story about the program would be appropriate.

This photo generates interest primarily because the people in the photo are attractive, smiling young women, looking directly at the camera. The story is mostly an excuse to include "smiling women" type photos. Obviously, a link to a story about the post-graduate educational habits of students would be appropriate.

Faculty Accomplishments
Highlighting faculty accomplishments, research, awards, and publications can be an effective tool for highlighting academic excellence on campus. Of course, research universities are more likely to have a lot of faculty accomplishments to focus on. Internal awards, such as "Faculty of the Year" should be avoided. Students are comparing your school against others, and as a result, internal awards become meaningless.

As with academic programs, the photos themselves may tend to be rather bland - photos of faculty staring at the camera or engaged in their research. Again, most of the interest will have to be generated by the text. Text should focus on specific accomplishments (e.g., "Professor Tom Jones received a $5.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control to study the spread of West Nile virus", not general statements like "Professor Tom Jones is one of the most published faculty on campus".

I had a difficult time finding faculty photos that were interesting and that would fit in the space. This is a location photo, showing the faculty member in class, is probably more interesting than a straight studio shot. A link to the American Studies program or a link to a story about the program would be appropriate.

This photo, though a studio shot, is interesting because of the pose and the fact that the person is looking directly at the camera. A link to an article on the faculty member would be appropriate.

Student Accomplishments
Student accomplishments are plentiful at virtually every university, but too often go overlooked. Everything from academic achievements (prestigious scholarships) to competitions are good subjects for photos. Of course, action-oriented subject like solar car races are preferable, but that isn't always possible.

So again, the text may have to generate the interest in the topic. And, as usual, the subject should focus on specific, quantifiable accomplishments like "Student newspaper received Best of Show award at the 2006 National College Media Convention".

Another smiling coed shot. Smiling students are always a plus, as long as you can tie the photo to something specific. In this case, a story about the sorority and its award would be appropriate.

A somewhat nice studio shot - oops! - cut someone out of the photo. Oh well. I would prefer a different kind of photo than this, but once again, smiling students looking at the camera are effective. A link to a story about the "Weekly Potato Bug" staff and their award would be appropriate.

This was the only photo I actually stole from the Internet. I like this one because the abstract is so dynamic, high tech-looking and attention-getting. And it fits well with the story. Dynamic, interesting photos like this are the key to getting people's attention. And, yes a story about the solar car would be appropriate.

For some universities sports provides a fertile ground for showcases the campus's accomplishments. As with other areas, sports photos should focus on specific, measurable accomplishments, such as winning a regional or national championship, breaking specific records, etc.

I didn't have access to many good sports photos, but this one is dynamic and effective. Sports are popular, but shouldn't be over done.

Students Engaged in Activities
These could be anything, from on-campus life to off-campus recreation (hiking, rafting, etc.). The point is that these should be action-oriented photos of active students.

I didn't have any good photos of students engaged in activities, but you can find several on the Humboldt State University home page.

Racial and cultural diversity are important issues at many universities, and some make sure to display that diversity on their home page.

I didn't have access to any good photos showing racial or cultural diversity.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Instant Gold Mine

A list of University "Web Services" pages.

I'm beginning to look into processes and infrastructures for conducting university home page redesigns. Out of curiosity I did a Google search on "web services".

One page that came up was this one:, which lists dozens of university web services home pages, as well as style guides, mission statements, policies and other goodies.

This alone will keep me busy for quite a while.

I love those instant Internet gold mines!

I'll add a few to that list, some good, some not so good (and some that are updated links to universities in that list):

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Perfect Home Page Photos - Part 1

Some tips on making the best use of photos on your site's home page.

In one of my last posts, I talked about what I liked in the way of photos on a university home page. Not just what kinds of photos, but their quality, usage, purpose, what they communicate, whether or not they tell a story, link to a story or say something unique about the campus.

In that spirit, I've decided to put together a list of characteristics of the perfect home page photo implementation.
  1. All photos will be of uniformly superior quality, and taken by professional photographers
  2. The photo space will be large enough to catch and hold the viewer's attention
  3. The photo space will have an interesting and/or dynamic shape, and it will be integrated with the home page's graphic design
  4. All photos will have captions that describe the image and provide context
  5. All photos must communicate something unique about the university. Generic photos of students studying, faculty pointing to a white board, etc., say nothing about the unique nature or character of the institution if left without a context. Play to your strengths; pick out things that make your university unique, like:
    • The natural setting, local community and regional environment
    • The physical plant (building, facilities, labs)
    • Notable faculty (Nobel Prize winners, award winning authors, etc.)
    • Unique research
    • Student accomplishments (sports, academic achievement, other honors and competitions)
  6. Photos should focus on the specific, not the general. For student and faculty accomplishments, the captions/stories should focus on specific, quantifiable accomplishments.
  7. Photos should provide a mix of subject matter; approximately 50% scenic (campus buildings, local environment) and 50% people oriented (faculty, students, research).
  8. Photos should link to stories providing further information on the subject of the photo.
  9. Photos should randomly change with each visit to the home page, or
  10. If an animation is used, viewers should have complete control to stop, go to the next photo or go to the previous photo (see the FSU site).
  11. There should be a sufficient number of different photos to catch the viewer's interest and provide variety.

The perfect home page photo might look something like this (design stolen wholesale from the University of Michigan Web site):

Go to this page and refresh to see different photos. Note that I worked with the photos I had; many other potentially better possibilities exist.

In my next post, I'll talk in more detail about the photos I selected and why.

Home Page Photos: Some Sites That I Like

A few sites that are using photography effectively on their home pages.

In my life outside of Chico State I'm a professional photographer. My work focuses on landscapes and some architecture, so obviously I have a bias toward scenics. But my work as a web developer and information architect forces me to look a little beyond that at not only the quality of the photography, but also at how well it is used and how appropriately it communicates.

In a previous post, I looked at the types of photography used on campus home pages. In this post, I'm just going to talk about what I like as both a photographer and as an information architect.

Humboldt State University
Humblodt State has done a great job on their home page photos, and I like them for several reasons.
  1. The photos are all of professional quality and very clean
  2. Many photos feature people in the environment and focus on the environment - a big draw at Humboldt
  3. All photos have captions/teasers that are designed more to pique the interest than to provide information
  4. All photos link to short stories building on the photo's teaser
  5. Each story has a link to display all photos and stories
What I don't like:
  1. No photos of the campus. I have no idea if the humboldt campus is great or a dump
  2. Some photos feel a bit generic since most photos aren't about specific people
University of Wisconsin
I like the University of Wisconsin home page for a number of reasons.
  1. The quality of the photos is superior
  2. The photo space is large enough to catch and hold the attention
  3. The photos are captioned, so you know what you're looking at
  4. The photos provide a good mix of environment, people and academics
  5. The photos give a great feel for the environment of the UWisc campus
  6. Most of the photos are unique and relevant, telling a bit of the story of the campus through the environment and the people
What I don't like:
  1. The photos don't link to stories about the photos
  2. Some of the photos (e.g., dorm life and graduating students) are too generic and could be from any university
University of Michigan
I like the University of Michigan for somewhat different reasons.
  1. The panoramic photo space almost becomes a graphic design element
  2. Quality of the photos is excellent
  3. The abstract quality of the images provides a strange sense of intimacy, like looking at the campus through a peephole.
  4. Most of the photos manage to convey a sense of uniqueness in the environment
What I don't like:
  1. Not enough photos
  2. No links to stories or links to a greater view
  3. No people in the environment
  4. No captions describing what we are looking at
Utah State University
I also like Utah State University, though at the time of this writing they've replaced their rotating photos with a single photo congratulating Fall graduates.
  1. Interesting photos on a variety of topics, from research (Cool! The space shuttle!), to students to the campus environment.
  2. Photos have captions/teasers and link to stories
  3. the photo space is large and prominent
  4. Most photos convey something unique about USU or its environment
What I don't like
  1. Photo quality varies
  2. Not enough different photos
University of Connecticut
The University of Connecticut has some great photos.
  1. Superior photo quality
  2. Photos have captions
  3. Most photos show something unique or tell a story about the school
  4. Nice mix of campus, and people photos
Things I don't like:
  1. Users have no control over the animation to stop, speed up or go back
  2. Photos aren't linked to stories
Here a few that are OK, but have specific things I don't like.
  • University of Montana: Incredible location, some great photos, but photo quality varies widely, photo space is a boring square that has not been integrated into the graphic design.
  • Washington State University: Good photos with captions, but too small; photos clash with bright colors in the design.
  • University of Wyoming: OK photo quality, good captions, but too small.
  • Vanderbilt University: Generic photos, indifferent photo quality, awkward boxy photo space.
  • New York University: Too many photos, mostly generic, no context or story with any photos.
  • Duke University: Boxy, generic photos of indifferent quality, and you don't know that there are actually captions until you click on them.
  • Cornell University: Superior quality photos, plenty big; the only problem is that clicking on any of them takes you to the university mission statement. Huh?