University of Miami's website was hailed as the nation's best education web portal in 2003 by the Center for Digital Education (www.centerdigitaled.com), an international research and advisory institute on IT in education. Evaluated on its web-based delivery of services, efficiency, economy, innovation, and faculty and citizen access, UM's site bested 260 other public-sector sites entered in the contest. Its success, in part, is due to its content management solution, Vignette (www.vignette.com).
But, is University of Miami deserving of such an accolade? While it has great potential, say many of our panelists, it is still a work in progress. Smoother navigation, a more consistent style and design, and a bolder color scheme would make the site even more efficient and user-friendly. In its favor, the site does serve a tremendous population--more than 15,000 students and close to 10,000 staff and faculty. Finding a way to meet the diverse needs of such a large user group is no small challenge.
UM is currently working on a new overall design for its site. Some of the new features include a personalized portal for faculty, employees, and students plus an online survey application.
Savvy search engine. You'll be hard pressed to find "The page cannot be found" notice on this site. The Search function is very sharp and its location (while it differs from page to page) is clearly defined and easy to access.
Alternating photos. The home page features a variety of changing photos--all of which are engaging. While one picture portrays a student with a wireless laptop on a balcony overlooking the beach, another is of a group of medical students in lab coats walking down a tree-lined path.
Emphasizing its assets. The home page prominently highlights UM's celebrity president (former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala) and accentuates the fact that it will be hosting one of the three scheduled 2004 presidential debates.
Selling location. The display of the current Florida temperature on the home page and the surplus of photos featuring palm trees and water throughout the site are very effective in promoting the school's tropical location.
Good use of web cam. The photos displayed in the web cam are inviting. They offer a nice balance of campus and people shots. It paints a nice portrait of the school and its surroundings.
Lots of money talk. The financial aid page is very thorough and spells out exactly what students can expect from the school's financial aid package. In addition, the money management page, which gives students tips for managing their expenses, is unique and very useful.
Interactive admissions. The admissions pages contain many interactive features with quick bites of information. Most notable is the "Notables" icon. Click on it as well as a particular academic unit and you'll discover college rankings, awards, and designations of honors of key faculty and administrators.
Versatile campus calendar. It can be searched quickly by day, month, type of event, intended audience, and/or location.
Bland design. This is Miami! It should more accurately reflect the style of the city. Furthermore, why create graphics that look like text links on the home page? (Notice the green buttons at the top). If you're going to go to the trouble of creating graphics, at least spruce up the text.
Dull color scheme. The toned-down peachy color offset by the green is unexciting.
Use space better. The image on the home page looks too small because of the thick borders surrounding it. As a result, the rest of the page feels scant. Plus, the name of the university is lost at the top of the page and appears as if it's being squeezed in.
Pick a logo. The site features two different logos on the home page. Why? The same logo should be used throughout the site for consistency and branding purposes.
Inconsistent quality. The design of the Admissions page looks far more sophisticated than the front-page template-like design that permeates the site. The site looks as if it's in mid-redesign. This detracts from the site's overall look and feeling of quality.
Clumsy navigation. There's no way to get back to where you came from other than the Back button. Main links are offset by different colored arrows on the left navigation bar, but one has to scroll down to see them. Some navigation on the site (the alumni page) actually moved when clicked on--more care should be taken.
Too text heavy. The "About UM" link leads to thick paragraphs of text--an unfriendly format. A visitor might lose interest while reading it, or opt to ignore it altogether.
EASY doesn't do it. The link labeled "Easy" is poorly named and doesn't give enough information as to what kind of information it includes.
Out-of-date video. While the admissions video is a first-rate production using the voices and faces of UM students, the newest production was completed more than a year ago.
404 errors. "File not Found" errors should be redirected to a search page. Visitors should also be offered the opportunity to report a missing page or document through a form.
Infuse more color. Spice up the color scheme with some bolder, more vibrant shades of UM's school colors without overstating the "beachy" colors often associated with Florida.
Reprioritize info. On the Student Life & Services page, the announcements (which are currently at the bottom of the page) should be moved to the top right of the page. This way, they will have more visibility.
Use bullets. An easy way to break up text-heavy parts of the site is to create bullets. This would be especially useful in the "About UM" section.
Rethink placement of links. On the Calendar page, the link back to "UM Home" should be placed at the top of the page. Links back to the home page should never be hidden at the bottom of the page.
Update video. Prospective students want to see an up-to-date video of the school. Colleges are constantly evolving--building new structures, initiating new programs. The video should capture all the nuances.
Needs breadcrumbs. No, not the kind you use to coat chicken. We're talking about the ones that keep track of the links you've visited so that you can see where you've been. Using the browser's Back button can be tedious. Breadcrumbs are a much faster way to backtrack.
Cathy Kushner is the parent of a prospective college freshman.
Keith Moore is the principal of Keith Moore Associates (www.keithmooreassociates.com), a marketing and communications consulting firm specializing in higher education.
Kirk Snedeker is web manager for University Business and former webmaster for Southern Connecticut State University.
Jane Sheehan is a college freshman.
Annette Jeffes is a former college counselor and director of Admissions at Excelsior College (NY).