Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Part 1 - Humboldt State University

Part 1 in series analyzing the good and bad things about a variety of university home pages.

As I've mentioned before, we at CSU, Chico are just beginning the process of 'redeveloping' our top level pages (I hate the word 'redesign' because it doesn't convey the entire scope of the process - which encompasses a lot more than a new graphic design).

As part of that process, it's vital to understand what works and what doesn't on other university Web sites.

I'm starting with Humboldt State's Web site because it does so many things so well.


Consistency is a big issue with any university Web site, due in large part to the inherent autonomy that university's grant their colleges and departments. At many schools, each department has complete control over the design and organization of their site, and they may even maintain their own Web servers. Lacking central control and branding authority, university sites tend to devolve into a mishmash of designs.

Humboldt State's site is no different, but they've managed to at least create a top tier of pages that present a basic design and organizational consistency.Even though the main navigation moves around a bit, all pages have a similar simple layout and design that clearly communicates that you are on the Humboldt site.

Navigational Grouping

The worst kind of navigation is the kitchen sink kind, where everything is just randomly dropped into a long list, with no grouping of similar items or any thought to organization.

Humboldt has clearly thought out their navigation with the goal of keeping it simple and clean, without overwhelming users with too many choices.

There are four navigational regions on home page:
  1. Alphabetical Index
  2. "Main" navigation
    1. Admissions
    2. Majors & Programs
    3. About Humboldt
    4. Living Here
    5. Athletics
  3. Audience-oriented navigation
    1. Future Students
    2. Current Students
    3. Parents & Families
    4. Faculty & Staff
    5. Alumni & Friends
  4. "Recruiting" navigation
    1. Explore
    2. Inquire
    3. Visit
    4. Apply
Each navigational area is clearly defined by its position on the page, the white space around it and even by using different fonts and font sizes for each region.


One of the things I think that Humboldt's home page does best is communicate a clear message to users, particularly prospective students. This is done through the photos and stories on the home page.

As I've discussed in previous posts (here and here), home page photos should communicate something specific that is different or special about your school, and ideally, they should have a context (like a story). Humboldt's site excels at this.

You can see all of their home page photos and stories on this page. Of the 14 photo/stories:
  • 4 relate to outdoor activities
  • 3 relate to environmental issues
  • 3 relate to social activism
  • 2 relate to art
Those are clearly the main selling points of Humboldt State and it's region, and the message is clear: if you're interested in the environment, outdoor activities, social activism or art, Humboldt is the place for you.

Audience Prioritization

40% of the entire home page is dedicated to the photos and the links designed to grab the attention of prospective students. If you include the main navigation (which is aimed primarily at prospective students) and the News and Events sections (which might be of interest to prospective students), 64% of the home page is directed toward prospective students.

Is this good or bad? I guess it depends on how you define the goals of your home page, but recruiting new students has to be one of your top priorities.

Dedicated Temporary Content Region

One issue CSU, Chico's site has is dealing with temporary content or links that need some prominence. Though we have a space for announcements, we don't have a place to highlight special news or events. Humboldt dealt with this issue by dedicating the lower right-hand corner of the home page to eye-catching graphical announcements that change periodically.

The Bad and the Ugly

I don't have a lot of complaints about the Humboldt site. Most of my criticisms are minor nit picks like moving the navigation on interior pages, occasional pages with excessive chattery text (example), moving the search box to the bottom of interior pages, etc.

Final Score

I love handing out grades. I makes me feel like I know what I'm talking about.

1-10 scale

Design 9
Usability 9
Branding 8
Messaging 9
Organization 8
Navigation 9