Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Purpose of the University Home Page

A very high level overview of the purposes of a university home page.

Why have a home page? I mean, really, who uses it? There's nothing important on it that can't be found elsewhere, and it's just a big political football. Why not just put up a nice 404 page and leave it at that?

OK, OK, I was just kidding (sort of). Your home page is more than just a huge political nightmare. It serves, in fact, a large number of audiences, a large number of purposes, and takes on a lot of different roles.

Let's start of easy with large-scale types of purposes. We can work down to more detail from there.
  1. Branding
  2. Marketing
  3. Communication
  4. Navigation
In his article on Home Page Goals, Derek Powazek echoes some of these four purposes in his four goals:
  1. Answer the question, “What is this place?”
  2. Don’t get in the repeat visitor’s way
  3. Show what’s new
  4. Provide consistent, reliable global navigation
Of course, these four purposes don't exist in a vacuum:
  1. Branding for whom?
  2. Marketing of what to whom?
  3. Communication of what to whom to what end?
  4. Navigation to where for whom?
You have to answer these questions before you should even think about having a home page.

If you have other gross-level purposes, I'd like to hear them.

University Web Services Infrastructures

A review of how some universities manage their web services organizations.

About three years ago I did a presentation at EduCause about the organization of Web Services and Web Development departments at a variety of universities. Though the examples in the PowerPoint from that presentation may be a bit dated (read: some of the links no longer work), the points and issues I raised in the presentation are still valid.

Here's a link to that original PowerPoint.

The top issues campuses are facing with regard to their web presence:
  • Identity, Branding & Consistency
    • #1 issue at virtually every campus I spoke with
    • Greater even than content management
    • 87% said visual consistency very important
  • Decentralized Web Presence
    • Even the best campus would rate “poor to hopeless” compared to the worst
      e-commerce site
    • SLO
      • Two-year redesign process only affected top two levels of pages
      • Can only “recommend” use of new template to departments
    • CSUDH uses “stick” approach
      • Buy-in from the very top
      • “Conform with new template by Dec 15th or have your link pulled from
        the site”
  • Content Management & Other Systems
    • The most consistent campus sites all use an enterprise-level CMS

Based on what I saw being done at other universities, I developed a basic infrastructure outline that could be implemented at most universities, including CSU, Chico:
  • Permanent advisory/planning committee
    • Advises on priorities, future direction, messages and policies
    • More strategic in focus than day-to-day
    • Typically no specific design authority; may set university branding standards
  • Administration
    • Coordinates between departments
    • Runs servers
    • Often enforces standards, sets technical standards
    • Provides staffing & expertise
  • Implementation team
    • Designs and implements websites and services
    • Provides technical expertise
    • Enforces standards on sites it implements
    • Designers, programmers, developers, information architects, project managers
  • “Web Users” group
    • A way for departmental webmasters to keep up with standards
    • Provides an avenue of communication between editors and Implementation Team, Administration and Advisory Committee
    • Support group for web editors
    • Provide training, troubleshooting

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What I think of Our Own Home Page

OK, now that I've published my home page rubric, how does the Chico State home page measure up to it?

First let me start by saying that I didn't design this page and I'm not responsible for this page.

So here it is:

Standards: 1
Accessibility: 2
Design: 2
Organization: 2
Identity and Branding: 2
Message and Purpose: 1.5
Total Score: 10.5

Considering that these should all be threes, not so good, but not as bad as I imagined.

How about the University of Tennessee at Knoxville home page, which I recently discussed...

Standards: 3
Accessibility: 3
Design: 3
Organization: 3
Identity and Branding: 3
Message and Purpose: 3
Total Score: 18

That's a little more like it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Home Page Rubric

An example rubric for evaluating university home pages.

OK, I admit, I work in an environment where I'm surrounded by instructional designers. I live with a teacher. And I have a Master's degree in Instructional Technology.

And I hate the word "rubric". But teachers and instructional designers love rubrics. They have rubrics for everything. They even have rubrics for evaluating breakfast:

EggsSoft and moist without being runny. Not over or under cooked. May be lacking slightly in flavor. Somewhat dry or runny.Completely dried out or barely cooked. No flavor at all.
BaconNice and crispy, but not burnt. Incredible flavor. Good flavor, not overcooked, but perhaps slightly soft. Somewhat dry and overcooked or too soft and chewy. Burnt or nearly raw. Poor flavor.
ToastA nice goldern brown, with a generous layer of melted butter. Slightly over- or under-cooked. Toast too dark or too light. Too little butter. Burnt to a crisp.

Truth to be told, rubrics are very useful, and I'm working on a rubric that I use to informally evaluate university home pages. It uses the following criteria (in no particular order).

StandardsComplies with web standards (CSS layout, XHTML, etc.) Mostly complies with standards (may have some validation errors)

Does not comply with standards (table-based layouts, etc.)

AccessiblityPage is designed for accessibility and includes accessibility shortcuts like accesskey and skip to content linksPage meets basic accessibility standards but does not display awareness of real accessibility Page does not meet basic accessibility requirements
DesignDesign is professional and clean and current-looking (Fresno State)Design is professional, but looks dated or static (San Francisco State)Page does not look professionally designed (Duke University)
OrganizationPage is organized into clear areas, excellent use of white space, callouts, sidebars, etc. to delineate different areas of the page (Virginia Tech)Page is somewhat well organized. May be somewhat clutteredor empty-looking. Page is poorly organized, and probably extremely cluttered. May have multiple poorly delineated navigation areas. Page is muddled and 'organized' without clear rhyme or reason.
Identity & BrandingPage communicates a clear and consistent identity and branding of the institution that carries through to other pages. Identity and branding are present, but may not be consistent through the site or even top level pages. Branding and identity are not clear or not present on the site. There is little to distinguish the institution from others.
Message and PurposePage communicates a clear focus of message and purpose. Content and links relate clearly and directly to that focus. Extraneaous content that does not fit within the purpose of the page (often motivated by politics) is not present. Page communicates some focus of purpose and message but may contain extraneous or politically motivated content. Page is a hodge-podge of content with no clear purpose or message. User comes away not knowing what the site is trying to say or who it is directed to.

Please feel free to write be with your ideas or comments. I think there are probably a few things that could be added to this rubric, or at least some refinements. I'd like your input.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has a very nice home page. At least, I think so.

What makes it successful to me?
  1. Very clean, up-to-the-moment design, with good use of white space to chunk the page.
  2. Prominent navigation area. Main navigation components are not spread around the page.
  3. Relatively unobtrusive use of Flash that provides a level of interactivity.
  4. Nice, relatively engaging people photos in prominent location. Not too big, but eye-catching. Unfortunately, they seem a bit generic to me. I can see pohotos of college students anywhere. Show me something unique about your school.
  5. Clearly deliniated audience-oriented navigation. It's part of the main navigation but effectively set apart by the orange background. Smart and effective.
  6. Effective use of news and events. I like the RSS feeds and even (gasp!) the icons they use on the home page.
  7. The design and layout are all CSS and web standards-based. Very clean.
  8. Nice use of access keys. A very accessible page.
  9. All of the top level pages stick to the home page template. Maybe a bit too slavishly for my taste, but much better than the usual alternative of total design chaos.
What don't I like? Not too much.
  1. The Top 40 University and Apply Now! sections don't stand out sufficiently. I'd suggest getting rid of Apply Now! and increase the size and prominence of the Top 40 University section. Use colors or a callout to make this section stand out more.
  2. I like the idea of a "Future" section on the home page. We've had that discussion here, and I think showing the direction that the university is headed in the future is a great idea. Oh, wait, that isn't what this is. This is only a bunch of links to the UT system. Pffft. We're wasting space on the home page for this?
You could do a lot worse than this as a home page.

This redesign was implemented in February 2007 and had five goals (thanks for a. - having goals, and b. - sharing them with us!):

  1. To bring the site into conformity with the recommendations of the W3C, making the site more accessible
  2. To better leverage dynamic content through the use of RSS feeds and an events calendar
  3. To improve navigation based upon data collected by tracking actual use of the site
  4. To better represent, visually, the vitality of life on the UT Knoxville campus
  5. To build a clear and compelling brand identity for the University of Tennessee
Interesting mix of user-oriented and marketing-related goals. Good job folks!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

University Home Page Audiences

In this post, Georgina Hibberd states that the first step to an effective university home page is to "identify your audiences and place them in a hierarchy of importance."

OK, I'll buy that. So who are your potential audiences? I'll start a list, and then the three people who read this blog can pick it apart. Most of these audience groups are obvious, but it's always good to put them out there.

  1. Prospective students
  2. Current students
  3. Former students (mostly alumni)
  4. International Students (important for some campuses)
  5. Faculty
  6. Staff and Administration
  7. Faculty, staff and administrators from other universities
  8. Job seekers (both faculty and staff)
  9. Parents (of current and prospective students)
  10. Community members (town residents, local businesses, governmental, etc.)
  11. Prospective community members (people thinking of moving to the area)
  12. Partners (business partners, granting organizations, etc.)
  13. Media (you don't think that Virginia Tech's home page wasn't pounded by the media?)
  14. Donors
  15. "Friends" and "Visitors" (whatever that means) - from this post
  16. Web developers from other universities looking for inspiration for their own home page redesign
These aren't in any specific order, though they generally get less significant as you go down the list. Different people on campus will definitely rank these groups differently in importance. Personally, I don't think that it's important to fight over whether community members are more important that business partners, but I do think that it's important to rank the top 4 or 5 audience groups and state specifically why they are so important to you.

Got any significant audience groups to add? Let me know. But I think I've covered the main bases.

University Home Pages: A Thankless Task?

I enjoyed this blog about what makes a good university home page and what to look at in designing it: University Home Pages: a thankless task?

To summarize:

What makes a good university homepage?

  1. Clear pathways to further information
  2. An uncluttered interface that serves only the users, not the wishes of every group on campus with a website that wants a link.
  3. Clear and consistent branding
  4. Pleasing graphic design that appeals to the largest target audience group of the page without alienating other groups completely

How to design a homepage:

  1. Identify your audiences and place them in a hierarchy of importance
  2. Develop a clear idea as to why these audiences are coming to the site and prioritise their tasks
  3. Reflect the strategic goals of the university while illustrating an image of the University
  4. Wrap it all in a graphic design which appeals to your largest user base, while not alienating other small user groups