February 7, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 9

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    Digital face of University evolves with new design, more storytelling

    By Laurie Davis
    News Office



    When visitors come to the University through its virtual front door at www.uchicago.edu on Monday, Feb. 18, they will get a new introduction to the people inside these Gothic halls. Internet users connecting to the University’s homepage will be welcomed to engage with Chicago faculty and students through their stories of intellectual inquiry and activity.

    The University’s homepage will be making its mark on the Web with a much larger footprint—an expanded use of page space that has been redesigned to make visitors welcome and better convey the accomplishments and scholarly explorations of faculty, students, staff and alumni.

    When the University’s redesigned central Web site, in its beta test state, goes live, some changes will be obvious to Web users, while others are more obscure—but all are the result of data analysis, surveys, interviews with stakeholders, solicited community feedback and even a bit of reconnaissance of peer institutions.

    “This is certainly an evolution of the Web site, or Web sites,” said John Mohr, Director of NSIT Web Services. “Rather than taking all of the content that’s on the current site and figuring out where it goes, we took a step back and asked, ‘What is the content we need—driven by usage, driven by interviews, driven by meetings with a range of users?’”

    During the initial research for the Web redesign—the requirements-gathering and analysis phase that began in 2005—NSIT hired a consulting firm, information methodologies inc., to assist. The University’s method of disseminating information through the Web was about to undergo a major overhaul.

    The evaluation was systematic and involved a committee of University administrators, directors and Web managers across campus who guided the project.

    The homepage committee served as NSIT’s client until July 2007, when Julie Peterson, Vice President for Communications, joined the University. Peterson then became the main client for the project and has helped guide it to its upcoming beta launch, with the original members of the homepage committee serving as advisers.

    “The University’s Web page has served us very well, but it has remained substantially unchanged since 1999,” said Peterson. “There has been a lot of interest across the University in revising and updating the page in order to better convey the range of extraordinary activity that is taking place here.”

    Data was gathered through an online survey of nearly 1,000 Web users and interviews with 75 members of the University community, from deans and students to faculty members and department administrators. The consultants also evaluated the current site and conducted “reconnaissance tours” of Web sites of several peer institutions, which included Brown, Notre Dame and Cornell universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Mohr and other NSIT staff members, including Senior Web Designers Stacey Shintani and Jack Auses, who co-led the project, have managed the data that informed Phase II, the site architecture phase. The research results collected in Phase I covered a wide range of requested improvements such as consistent University graphic identity, accessibility based on current Web standards, improved search tools, an updated design with well-organized information, and new, vibrant content that includes bold photography and multimedia.

    “Quite a long time ago, when the Web was still new and shiny,” said Shintani, “there was what we call brochure-ware, where people were just putting print materials and brochures up online. But that was a long time ago, and our department has evolved to do a lot more sophisticated work to create online applications. And now I think the next step, and this is a really good example of it, is considering our messaging on a Web-specific level.”

    Extensibility, for viewing in multiple formats; accessibility, which incorporates standards for today’s Web browsers; and maintenance of the site all have been built into the new architecture. “What’s important to a site that works effectively are the things you can’t necessarily see immediately when you look at the site,” said Mohr.

    The Web Services team also developed a set of user profiles based on the Phase I feedback to determine how to structure the site and organize its information. Some of the potential users included prospective international, graduate and undergraduate students, prospective faculty members, parents of prospective students, members of the alumni and residential communities, and faculty and staff members.

    “We were trying to think very broadly about who is going to be using the site,” said Auses. In order to focus on the users’ needs, as the team brainstormed and fleshed out their ideas, they created visual identities of typical users and hung their photos around the room.

    “The homepage has developed from the idea that ‘this is what we think people need to know about us,’ to a much more user-centric design: ‘This is what users want to know about the University, and let’s help them find it,’” said Shintani. “That helps us make decisions about the architecture and about what needs to be on the homepage.”

    The new Web site has been developed to accommodate a broad audience in search of valuable, yet varying, information. “One of the things that came up during the requirements-gathering and analysis phase was that people thought it took too many clicks to navigate to the academic programs,” said Shintani. Quicker access to those programs has been implemented, with all of the main academic programs now visible on the central homepage.

    “One guiding principle we have worked with is that this site is primarily for an external audience,” said Mohr. “In so many different instances, it may be the first impression someone has of the University. So that changes the orientation and helps us answer some important questions that guide us in developing the design and structure,” he said.

    What they asked was, “Through the Web, how do we communicate what a special place this is? How do we convey those stories about the University?” Those and similar questions were answered during the project’s design and content phase.

    Mohr noted that targeting an outside audience was a major philosophical shift, and one that has prompted a whole new way of giving Chicago a voice and a face for those looking inside—through the very people who live the life of the mind. “Storytelling is a huge change,” said Mohr. “The five main feature stories are about the things that are happening now.”

    Once logged onto the beta site, viewers will notice the new content—bold pictures and engaging stories that illustrate the challenging research and scholarship faculty members and students pursue. “Our redesigned homepage will provide more avenues for communication about the University, allowing us to include more content and storytelling about the work of our faculty, staff, students and alumni,” said Peterson. “It will have a greater amount of fresh and changing content, including more multimedia content.”

    Shintani noted that the addition of the University’s Latin motto, “crescat scientia; vita excolatur,” is a subtle example of conveying the University’s identity on the homepage, and the new search function is a useful tool for exploring other pages on the site. Auses, the lead technical designer, created the new search function to offer popular searches that appear automatically in a drop-down menu once a cursor is placed in the search field.

    “Taking advantage of more recent or modern technology is, I think, inherent throughout this in any number of ways, and that’s certainly one of them,” said Mohr.

    Many technical aspects are driving the new architecture, including those that make the site user-friendly for people with vision disabilities. People who need to use a screen reader or increase the font sizes on their monitors will be able to do so with favorable results.

    “A lot has changed in 10 years as far as Web technology,” said Auses. “We’re certainly trying to create a richer experience for users, but at the same time, build a site that is accessible for folks who are browsing on a PDA or an assistive device so the content still makes sense for them. One thing that kind of goes hand-in-hand with that, at sort of a basic level, is when you build sites that way, then they become better in terms of search engine results. So those kinds of under-the-hood improvements are issues we’re trying to address.”

    And he added, “We don’t have to maintain six versions of the site. Depending on the device someone is using to browse the Web site, we can serve that content in a way that’s optimized for that person,” said Auses.

    The usability testing of the site on iPhones, Blackberries, Palm Pilots and other handheld devices will begin during the beta phase of the project. “The site is built in such a way, that we’ll be able to provide that,” said Auses. He expects that type of usage to be operable when the new Web site is launched in April and the old homepage is officially retired.

    “We know there are going to be changes,” said Mohr in anticipating the beta-phase feedback the Web group is soliciting from the University community. “With any redesign, there’s a bit of a familiarization process for the user,” noting that an NSIT support group will be deployed to assist users and answer their questions.

    Shintani and Auses have been giving guided tours of the new site to different groups at the University, including staff members who recently attended a Campus Communicators meeting led by Peterson and a student group coordinated by Celia Bergman, Associate Dean of Students for Health and Administrative Affairs.

    So far, the feedback from the community has been mostly positive, said Shintani. “The design is universally beloved, so far. I think people are really intrigued by the new storytelling opportunity, and it’s certainly not anything we’ve gotten any negative feedback about. But it’s going to be a sea change from the way we do things online.”

    The people working throughout the University’s divisions and departments will now have a new place online to tell their stories. When the site goes live, NSIT Web Services will have a Content Coordinator in place, who will vet stories for the homepage’s main feature and secondary features, and coordinate with University departments and units across campus to ensure their stories are told.

    “This project is a really good example of one that is not a technology project,” said Mohr. “The participants, the messaging and the people part of it are what will make this successful or not. At the University, that means talking to the right people, in the right order and coming back and talking to those people again.”

    The beta site for the University homepage will be available Monday, Feb. 18 at http://www.uchicago.edu. In April, the redesigned Web site will replace the old, tiny footprint, which will disappear into retirement.