Design Challenge: The .edu Homepage
Mindy Wagner, Former Design Director
Viget has been working on some great .edu projects lately, including sites for Duke, Georgetown Qatar and Lafayette. Combine that with some exciting new client work and a few recent launches -- including Happy Cog's redesign of Georgetown.edu -- and it's hard for me not to think about this particular design challenge.
A Little Back Story
Before I was lucky enough to land a spot at Viget, I spent five years working with a small but awesome web team at Syracuse University. Part of my job was to act as "webmaster" (ick, I know) for the university homepage, making daily updates and answering the often ridiculous questions that came through the main contact form. When people wanted a link on the homepage, I was the first point of contact. A few years in I gave the design (at that point 7+ years young) a temporary facelift to patch things up until something more comprehensive could be done. Once the redesign ball got rolling I sat on a small committee tasked with choosing a CMS for university-wide adoption and another small committee that worked closely with a large consulting firm to launch a much-needed redesign of syr.edu.
When not working on the homepage, my team was tackling sites for campus clients from every corner of the university. Our projects included large redesigns for schools and colleges, microsites for Homecoming and Reunion, holiday e-cards, promotional sites for Chancellor initiatives ... Sites at every level and for every type of audience.
Over the course of those five years, I came to know and understand the struggles of university websites (and homepages in particular) from many different angles.
.edu Homepages Make Everyone Sad
It's no secret that university homepages are, as a whole, pretty lousy. Many haven't been redesigned in a decade and follow cookie-cutter layout formulas that are void of personality. They have heavy doses of competing navigation and endless lists of links. You'll find boring mission statements and/or a photo of the President atop a generic welcome message. And of course there's the hodge podge of unrelated callouts jumbled together in a catch-all area. The content and navigation are clearly being guided by internal forces, full of jargon and information for which no one visiting the site is actually looking. They feel disconnected from the campus experience and don't convey a real sense of what it feels like to be a part of such a complex and dynamic environment.
It's easy to look at these pages and say, "These sites are really lame. What could they be thinking?" It makes everyone sad, especially the people who have to maintain them every day. But, the truth is, finding successful solutions for a university homepage that hold up long-term is one of the toughest challenges I can think of.
Why So Difficult?
Take the simple exercise of defining your audience. Who are you trying to please? First and foremost, it's prospective students -- the main website is primarily a marketing vehicle to communicate with them. But, it's also a gateway for current students, international students, alumni, parents, donors, trustees, faculty, staff, administrators, businesses, job seekers, sports fans, news organizations, and the larger community ... Not to mention the internal decision makers who ultimately make the final call on both design and UX matters, receiving pressure from all directions to please everyone. How do you decide what design style speaks to anyone over the age of 15?
Another obstacle is internal resistance to change. You'll see that most homepages go relatively untouched for years and years. That's because the minute you move a link or change a photo, you get a pile of emails wondering what type of crazy juice you were drinking that day. For whatever reason, people feel very strong ties to the homepage -- even if it's horrible. When something changes and they weren't asked about it, they revolt. We all know that neglecting a site for more than a few months leaves it feeling outdated, but at universities the problem is so sticky it's often ignored until the site is totally broken or downright embarrassing. Even then it's rare that any information architecture gets changed, because to do so opens a can of worms. Usually the university will slap on a design facelift and call it a day. Convincing the campus that major changes are a good thing is a challenge not every university is up for -- but, because most haven't kept up with incremental changes over time, it's the only way to launch something successful.
But, by far the biggest challenge I faced during my time at SU (and the frustration I heard over and over again from other .edu web professionals) was getting past university politics. Well-meaning internal folks seem to think that being on the homepage is the only way they'll ever get their event/program/service seen by the masses. That's not really the case unless you're aiming at prospective students or parents of prospectives, both of whom take the time to explore. The homepage gets a ton of traffic, but most of that traffic either leaves immediately or clicks on Search and never looks back. Even so, a tremendous amount of jockeying goes on behind the scenes to snatch a small piece of real estate. I frequently watched people take their link requests straight to the Chancellor (think: CEO) to get what they wanted. And, unlike at a large corporation where this type of behavior might be dismissed, squeaky wheels generally get greased in the name of keeping the peace. Once that person gets the okay, other people who find their sites equally compelling point to that link and say, "But he got one!" So, navigation gets piled on top of navigation, and callout areas get cluttered up and added to until the bottom half of the page turns into tile ad soup. What may have started out as a clear and organized design becomes an overwhelming mess and STILL no one is happy.
How To Make It Better
This sounds awfully dreary, but there is hope. Boatloads of it, in fact. Five years ago, many university higher-ups were still failing to understand the significance of the university website. Today it's impossible for even the least tech-savvy to deny that the web is a place where time and money should be funneled. That means more web professionals are being given the power and resources to do the job right. It's getting much easier to find a university/college site that tells a great story without sacrificing functionality. So how are they doing it?
More and more, universities are using expandable drawers in the header and footer to accomodate the wealth of links that need to be on the homepage. For users who want to see all the available options, it's there -- but it's not constant visual clutter for those who don't need it. This feels like a nice compromise between visual appeal (for prospectives and other newcomers) and utilitarian needs (for current students, faculty, staff, etc.).
Georgetown.edu combines an expandable drawer with audience-specific links, allowing them to surface up an even greater number of links without burning our retinas.
... And Carousels
Same idea here. Carousels let you surface up more content without taking up more real estate. That way it's easier to make room for the occassional not-really-important-but-politically-necessary article, event, etc.
University sites that stray from the norm really stand out because they're few and far between. Every institution is different, and the site should be able to express some of its most unique qualities. I think the Lafayette redesign is a great example of this. It's bold and friendly, with a fresh color palette and lots of imagery to show off the beautiful campus and the people that fill it. (Read more about Viget's redesign of Lafayette.edu, led by the super-talented @TheTroz.)
My favorite part of the Lafayette site is the fun incorporation of the Marquis de Lafayette and the school's motto, which you will stumble upon when you get to the footer. It's a nod to the school's history and guiding principles, done in a way that is anything but boring.
Middlebury lets their stories shine in an interactive way that breaks away from the traditional slideshow, making its homepage colorful and memorable.
Boston University skips the usual marketing-focused slideshow (pretty people milling around on campus) in favor of a single, strong, news-based image and headline. It showcases real campus people with engaging stories, and it changes frequently. BU has an amazingly well designed and consistent web presence all-around, and its online alumni magazine is a personal favorite.
University of Puget Sound has an interesting way of sharing stories, too. Clicking on any of the images at the top opens a drawer with story details and a link. It's visually rich and draws me in right away.
Adding personality to the site helps tell a story about the university's environment, mission, and values. It's that story that will differentiate one from the other and make everyone feel like they are part of the campus community when they visit online. Universities have so much to offer -- it's a shame so many aren't able to show that effectively online.
Avoiding (Some) Politics
One way to avoid some of the messy politics is to hire a consulting firm (like Viget!) to tackle the problem, an approach I championed for at SU. It's not that I didn't think my team could do the work -- I just knew it would never be received as well as something delivered by an outside vendor. Sadly, even the most talented internal groups have a very hard time getting respect or buy-in from the campus, simply because they're perceived as being less skilled than an outside firm. Plus, they've generally become discouraged over time and are therefore reluctant to try new things. Outsiders have fewer preconceived notions of what can and can't be done and are able to look at the problems from a different angle. They can provide a shield for anyone internally involved on the project and press for bigger changes that are crucial to making a web site great.
Designing for .edu has some unique challenges, but some great opportunities as well. There is a wealth of great content to work with -- spectactular photos, engaging stories, a mission and vision you can believe in, and lots of eyeballs around the world appreciating your hard work ... Not to mention the history and legacy that many universities bring to the table. So, count yourself lucky if you get to design for an .edu client!
I always love seeing examples of great university/college homepages, so I hope you'll share your favorites in the comments below.