You might call 2006 the year of the redesign for institutions of higher education. Duke University (N.C.), Brown University, Ball State University (Ind.), Humboldt State University (Calif.), Virginia Tech, and Centenary College (N.J.) are among the group of IHEs who redesigned their sites. Over the past few months, many other new website looks have been announced or unveiled.
Expect some opposition and criticism from staff, faculty, students, alumni, and even donors for changing "their" website.
If you haven't redesigned your site yet, chances are that process will come your way soon. Selected from the suggestions of a few higher ed web professionals behind recent successful website redesigns, the following tips should help in the endeavor.
Don't embark on a website redesign only to keep up with the neighbors. You should expect some vocal students, upset faculty and staff members, angry alumni, and even puzzled donors to criticize, oppose, and fight you for messing with "their" website. That's why you need to come up with quantifiable goals for your redesign. "Clearly define the purpose of the redesign, and put it in writing," advises Andrea Arbogast, web manager at Humboldt. She rolled out a redesign this August. "I have found a short document with the redesign's purpose to be invaluable. There is usually a very concrete reason for taking on a redesign, and being able to articulate it easily has saved me a lot of grief," adds Arbogast.
You wouldn't renovate your house without researching the city code, thinking about the needs of your family, or browsing magazines for inspiration. So, do your homework as well before jumping into a web redesign project. Find out as much as possible about the current state of your website by analyzing web traffic data and feedback from users. Also take the time to learn more about your target audiences' needs and expectations by setting up online surveys, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, or usability tests.
"Before we began any work on site architecture or design concepts, we devoted several months to research," explains Michael Dame, director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech. "We interviewed members of our primary audiences-students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni-to find out how they use the university's website. Our findings informed later decisions regarding site architecture, navigation, and design."
If you plan to tear down the walls of your website, make sure you rebuild a compliant and functional web presence for your institution. Technologies, standards, and user expectations have changed a lot over the past few years. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines ground rules to assure your website is accessible to disabled users. Make sure your redesign is compliant.
A website redesign is a project and should be managed as such with a defined scope, a given budget, and a defined set of resources. Set up a realistic schedule and manage expectations. Aggressive timelines will force you to cut corners or bypass necessary consultation. "You need at least one person who is a wizard at organizing people, details, and workflow," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, program manager of developer relations for the Office of Web Communications at Cornell University, who worked on its 2004 web redesign.
A website redesign is the best time for a content audit. Once you know more about your users' expectations and needs, start to review and reorganize your website content. After auditing your web content, you'll be able to assess the gaps between the current state of your website and the information architecture that will best serve your users.
Any change in the design of your institution's website will get noticed. That's why it's so important to get as much buy-in as you can before and during the process. "Real transparency is key," says Ben Riseling, web operations manager at Duke. "Was this audience group consulted?" is the question that he heard repeated the most.
While communication and buy-in are critical to the success of these projects, redesigns by democracy or by committee should be avoided. They don't work most of the time. "Our redesign blog was a crucial tool in showing our audience what was in the works and establishing a conversation about the new site. You have to be careful to set the tone of such a blog, though. We made sure it was very clear that we would listen to all ideas, but that the site was not being built by a democracy," says Cameron-Norfleet.
Make sure that the new design works by having a few members of your target audiences test your ideas and layouts as soon as possible. Test your paper or interactive wireframes (the documents showing the information skeleton of your pages) before picking the fonts or the photos. Try to launch your redesigned home page in private or public beta first. "About six weeks before launch, we posted a 'sneak preview' section on the university's website to inform and solicit feedback. And, a month before launch, we opened up the staging site to all faculty, staff, and students for testing and further feedback," says Dame.
If you plan to fix your website information architecture, navigation, design, and content, you might want to kill two birds with one stone and couple your redesign with the implementation of a web content management system. "Getting a site on a good CMS makes it easier to maintain and also enables it to seamlessly syndicate content," says Riseling. Beyond the power of syndicated content, a good CMS will make your next redesign implementation a breeze by separating content from design. Next time around, you will be able to focus only on redesigning the templates used by the application to produce on the fly the thousand of pages composing your website.
When it comes to redesign, bigger isn't always better. Major overhauls often generate a lot of resistance from constituents and can even upset your most fervent users. That's why some major names on the web, such as Amazon and eBay, don't redesign their websites anymore. They prefer to roll out any major changes slowly. Small changes prevent these companies from disorienting or losing their customers. Another benefit of the incremental approach lies in the eyes of your budget holder: Most of the time, small changes can be implemented quickly by your team and cost less.
If you're looking for more tips, you can read all the information and advice gathered in preparation for this column at www.collegewebeditor.com/redesign.