Archive for March 2010

College Homepage March Madness: First Round, Part IV

Wow, I had no idea there were so many first-round games. :)

On to the last eight matchups; let’s see who’s homepage is the top seed, and who’s is at the bottom of the bracket.

Marquette v Washington
Kudos to Marquette for having a link to “Majors and Programs” right in their top navigation. However, that top navigation is locked inside graphic buttons. And the bottom two thirds of the page are very text-heavy, including one of the more wordy presentations of a  calendar I’ve seen. The U-Dub page also links to their departments from the homepage and also has lots of text-y news , but features a nice student-friendly photo essay up high as well.
Winner: Washington

Montana v New Mexico
Both homepages are oddly similar: they both have a very narrow photo near the top, with menus above and below. In both cases, the presentation feels a bit wimpy. I’ve never been to either campus, but I have to believe they must be gorgeous being, as they are, in Montana and New Mexico. New Mexico’s site though has an audience-focused navigation with the Future Students tab on top and easy links to Admissions. Montana’s site features a link to something called “Enrollment Management;” I have no idea what that is.
Winner: Montana

Clemson v Missouri
This is going to be a tough one as both sites are instantly impressive. Mizzou has the best of the rotating feature sliders I’ve seen yet, with clever art and headline writing. It also validates XHTML 1.0 Strict. Clemson presents lots of information while still feeling airy and graphically interesting. And I like the clever use of little factoids in the footer.
Winner: Clemson

West Virginia v Morgan State
Morgan State’s site has its issues, I think. Chief among them being that I found it a bit challenging to find what felt like the correct “front door” for the undergraduate admissions process. You’re also dropped into a login screen pretty quickly. West Virginia does have a link to Majors and Programs on the homepage, though it’s buried in the Quick Links dropdown. The West Virginia site also makes better use of photography, though neither site comes close to validating.
Winner: West Virginia

Duke v University of Arkansas Pine Bluff
Arkansas’ site has one of the more creatively presented rotating feature sliders, all with a student focus, plus a link to majors right in the Academics dropdown. But it’s also pretty densely packed with text that manages to take up a lot of space without actually explaining much. Duke recently underwent a redesign (I think) and it is definitely “on trend” — clean, WordPress-y, magazine-syle layout; top-image slider. Unfortunately, the Admissions site looks like it’s been left behind.
Winner: Duke

California v Louisville
Louisville’s site is lovely: simple photography and a pretty complete set of grid-based headings and links, followed by more details on news, events, and video. Plus — sing it with me! — a link to majors in right on the homepage. The Cal site is looking a little long in the tooth, I’m afraid. It presents less information in a more cramped package.
Winner: Louisville

Texas A&M v Utah State
The Texas A&M site has a rather squished looking slideshow at the top and some uninspiring news and events below. However, Utah State has three columns of links headed “Welcome,”  ”Information,” and “Featured Links.” Umm…
Winner: Texas A&M

Purdue v  Siena
Siena College continues the trend of simple columns of text links to great effect. Purdue also presents a ton of links, but in crammed dropdowns that are a little harder to scan. Both Purdue and Siena have a top rotating slider, but Siena’s is a little more polished. And Purdue has a link to a President’s Message and something called “Sustaining New Synergies.” Umm…
Winner: Siena

So that’s it for the first round! Next, we’ll see how the second round shakes out.

–lori

College Homepage March Madness: First Round, Part III

The race for the homepage championship marches madly on. The next round of first-round contests:

Syracuse v Vermont
Syracuse goes with the “big picture,” while Vermont tries to get two bites at the cherry with two photo features side-by-side with the result of a loss of impact for both. Syracuse is one of the longer pages I’ve seen, but it’s clean white-and-grey grid layout looks infinitely flexible. Vermont’s page seems a little land-locked, but Vermont mounts an impressive late-game run with its link to “Majors, Minors, and Graduate Programs” right on the homepage. Syracuse featured links to both “Academic Departments” and “Departments and Offices.” I think I know the difference, but that’s ‘cuz I work in higher ed.
Winner: Syracuse

Gonzaga v Florida State
Gonzaga is one of the more navigation-focused homepages I’ve seen. Beyond the narrow photo feature “banner” at the top, the rest of the page is given over to a neat and tidy grid of headings and links. One issue: two slightly different  ”Programs” links go off to different pages with different lists. Is there an Advertising major or isn’t there? Florida State on the other hand has precious little in the way of navigation — six links on a left-hand menu — and it doesn’t really work. A ton of stuff has been crammed into a “Key Links” dumping ground, and the large area of real estate given over to text stories about faculty and student honors is in my view wasted.
Winner: Gonzaga

Xavier v Minnesota
This was a close match. Right off the heals of Gonzaga, Minnesota presents a very similar top-photo-then-grid-of-links approach, and again it’s very effective and flexible. Both schools have a link to majors and minors right off their homepage, and Xavier’s top links are obviously aimed at prospective students with prime real estate given over to financial aid and campus visits. But I found Xavier’s Flash top-third feature slider is a little jarring; the features zip by pretty fast with no way to control them that I could find. And Xavier doesn’t come close to validating, where Minnesota falls just short (pesky ampersand!)
Winner: Minnesota

PIttsburgh v Oakland
I don’t mean to pick on Pitt, but my first thought when looking at their site is that it’s a pretty good microcosm of everything that is wrong with conventional higher ed homepages: tiny graphic buttons for links, text-y news sections heavy on the faculty awards, multiple postage stamp-sized photos. And riddle me this: I’m a 17-year-old in Erie; why exactly do I care about your chancellor’s speeches or your provost search? Oakland’s page has its issues — a clunky top feature slider and no real list of majors that I could find — but the focus is obviously on an external audience. I especially like the timely link to info for admitted students.
Winner: Oakland

Kentucky v East Tennessee
Kentucky’s is the first homepage with marketing intro text that I actually read. Must have been the combination of clean typography and honesty that drew me in. They also make heavy use of video on their homepage, and I’m not sure that works. I think video should be supplementary, not primary. It’s asking a lot of users to expect them to watch multiple videos when a simple scannable Web page would do. Over on East Tennessee State, I could not two, not three, but four different navigation schemes each competing for primacy.
Winner: Kentucky

Texas v Wake Forest
Texas and Wake Forest present an opportunity to compare two different approaches to presenting lots of information on a homepage: put some “up front” and let the user click through to see the rest (Texas) or just put it all up front to begin with (Wake Forest). With the first, you run the risk that the user never bothers with the “hidden” stuff; with the second you run the risk of creating a busy overloaded page. The Wake Forest site is not busy or overloaded.  It’s a lot cleaner and simpler to parse than the Texas site because it’s not trying to do too much at once.
Winner: Wake Forest

Cornell v Temple
Cornell’s homepage is a solid if conventional grid layout with lots of info wrapped up in a tidy presentation. The focus is a bit institutional for my taste, but the pages and navigation are remarkably consistent and the admissions process feels friendly. Over at Temple, the homepage is also fairly conventional but a bit less solid. The rotating feature slideshow doesn’t allow me to click through to any additional info if I were interested in learning more. And clicking through to the Admissions site on Temple, my first reaction is that the process looks scary.
Winner: Cornell

Wisconsin v Wofford
Ok, there is a lot going on on the Wofford homepge, but not any more than there is on the Ohio State homepage, for example. It’s just that nothing is given any space to breathe and so a similar amount of content is made to look dense and daunting instead of parsable and compelling. Wisconsin’s site is pretty standard higher ed fare, but the navigation is clean and atleast my eyeball can focus enough to find the links to the list of majors, housing, etc. And it validates to XHTML 1.0 Strict!
Winner: Wisconsin

One more set of first round match-ups to go. Will my alma mater Washington upset Marquette like it did on the court? Stay tuned…

–lori.

College Homepage March Madness: First Round, Part II

Here’s my second batch of first-round picks in the NCAA bracket of homepages. Will the crazy run of upset wins continue? Let’s take it to the paint and find out!

Kansas v Lehigh
I suppose it would be folly to ask why the University of Kansas is called “KU?” No matter. The #1 seed does have a lot of great content on its homepage. I especially like the March Madness fan banners available for easy download. But the site suffers from a bout of “squished-itis” with lots of tiny photos and graphics competing for scarce breathing room.  The condition is even more pronounced over on the Lehigh site, with all the navigation text rendered as tiny graphic buttons. Lehigh’s site does not even try to validate to its declared HTML 4.01 DOCTYPE; KU does validate to XHTML 1.0 Transitional.
Winner: Kansas

UNLV v Northern Iowa
These two schools are pretty evenly matched. Both schools employ the rotating features in the top third — UNLV’s is a little more polished looking, but both a run too small to have much impact in my opinion (sensing a trend: maybe I just like big pictures). Northern Iowa has a very nice presentation of its majors right off its Academics page (both an alpha list and organized by interest area) but UNLV’s list is easily found and scanned, too. And both schools employ one of my pet peeves: links to both “Prospective Students” and “Admissions” on the homepage that take you to two different places. The UNI page is a lot friendlier though, with slightly cheesy but endearingly earnest videos from students acting as guides to different aspects of the process.
Winner: Northern Iowa

Michigan State v New Mexico State
Michigan State seems to be playing homage to Cornell with their homepage design, but doesn’t quite pull it off. There’s way too much text on the page; text that isn’t given enough room to stand on its own (that’s the key, I think. I’m not so much “text is bad” as I am “text needs space.”) New Mexico emphasizes the “big picture,” has a lot less in the way of news on its homepage, and a much simpler navigation structure.
Winner: New Mexico State

Maryland v Houston
My immediate impression when looking at the University of Maryland site is that they don’t seem to have prospective students in mind as their primary audience. As someone who knows nothing about the University of Maryland, I don’t even know what some of the features in their top feature slider are about. Maybe they have more meaning for an internal audience?  The features on Houston’s site are a mix of student and alumni profiles. The Houston site has a list of majors in its dropdown navigation, and it’s the first school I’ve seen so far with a list of required high school courses prominently featured on its Admissions page.
Winner: Houston

Tennessee v San Diego State
The UT site is very clean looking and consistent when clicking through several top-level pages. SDSU is a little less polished looking, with several small images competing for attention. Both schools’ Admissions sites commit some flagrant fouls. UT still prominently features a link to a 2009 open house event, and SDSU has a link on its Freshman page for those who seeking admission in Spring 2010 that returns a page with this message: “San Diego State University’s is not accepting first-time freshmen undergraduate applications for spring 2010.” Um, thanks.
Winner: Tennessee

Georgetown v Ohio
I don’t mean to be unkind, but I really hope there is a redesign effort afoot at Georgetown. The site is a blast from the past: a 750-pixel wide table with tiny tiny tiny rollover graphics as navigation buttons. The Admissions site manages to look both spare and complicated, with not much in the way of guidance, friendliness, or specifics. The Ohio site on the other hand does a great job I think at presenting a lot of information while still looking clean and streamlined. The top rotating features are both photo- and student-friendly. My one issue: The “Future Students” page is nice and succinct and direct, but most of the links take me off to another “Undergraduate Admissions” site that was obviously *not* included in whatever recent redesign process Ohio went through.
Winner: Ohio

Oklahoma State v Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s site is pretty sweet! It’s another example of a site that manages to pack a big punch in terms of sheer amount of content without feeling heavy and confused. They use a rotating feature area — which I think is the new “girls under trees” in terms of its ubiquity — but they make the smartest use of headlines and photos that I’ve seen. I actually clicked on a couple! Also nice: a list of degree programs is one of the main links off the homepage. Oklahoma embraces the “big picture” idea — which initially gives the homepage a clean, dramatic look — but their drop-down menus are crammed and confusing. I looked around for about seven minutes and never found a list of majors. And why does the freshman admissions page feature a story about the “Campaign for Oklahoma State” right at the top?
Winner: Georgia Tech

Ohio State v UC Santa Barbara
UCSB’s fixed width table optimized for 800×600 screen resolutions and its PDF summaries of its majors just did not stand a chance. Wow, Ohio State! Such a variety of content in such a smooth and multi-faceted presentation. Love love love the tag clouds for most popular sites by audience — gets me to the list of majors right away. Love the user-generated content, the image of the day, the simple and consistent top-level navigation.
Winner: Ohio State

So we’re now halfway through the first-round games and we’ve already seen some stunning upsets and some solid performances. More March Madness (Web Weirdness? DOCTYPE Dementia?) to come.

–lori

College Homepage March Madness: First Round, Part I

It’s March Madness, baby! Like millions of my fellow Americans (hi there, Mr. President!) I happily filled out my NCAA bracket, even though I know exactly nothing about college basketball. Then I thought, what if I filled out a bracket based on something I know a little more about: homepage design? What if the tournament schools went head to head with their code, rather than on the court?

Here’s my take on the early rounds. It’s based on a quick two- to three-minute look at each school’s homepage and is purely subjective — and occasionally whimsical. But there are a few basic criteria. How easy is it to find thinks like a list of majors? Is the undergraduate admission process presented in a friendly and straightforward way? Does the presentation of the content on the homepage make me want to take the time to learn more? Does it validate?

Let’s check the scores:

Notre Dame v Old Dominion
Notre Dame’s cover flow-style features are more flash than substance in my opinion, though the photography is often fantastic.  Both sites attempt XHTML 1.0 Strict and both fall *just* short. Navigation is a lot simpler on Notre Dame; I can find a list of undergraduate majors in two clicks. Old Dominion takes me to something called “Curriculum Sheets” and I have no idea what those are.
Winner: Notre Dame

Villanova v Robert Morris
Both sites embrace the “Flash top third” model of higher ed homepage design, with rotating photo features or student profiles. Robert Morris’s version is much more polished, though the “click and drag” navigation took a second to figure out. Villanova’s drop-down menus are pretty clunky, not letting you click on the main heading itself. And the “Apply Now” link drops you right into the Common App — frightening. The Robert Morris admission site is a little text-heavy but a lot friendlier.
Winner: Robert Morris

Florida v BYU
The Florida homepage is pretty squished: tiny photos, crammed research news, and some odd pop-up menus. Fallen victim to the “everything must be above the fold” syndrome, maybe. Oddly, there’s also no evidence of a certain basketball tournament to be found on the homepage.  It does validate to XHTML 1.0 Transitional, though. Brigham Young has a rotating Flash feature box and a nice quick look at an events calendar in the footer. The site doesn’t come close to validating, and the drop-down menus again don’t let you click on the main item. But a list of majors in one click away.
Winner: BYU

Vanderbilt v Murray State
OK, Murray State — I confess I’d never heard of you before this tournament, but color me seriously impressed! The homepage has a fun, lively feel (with coverage of their win on the court from earlier in the day front and center) vibrant typography, the coolest view of a calendar that I’ve seen in a long time, and an alpha sorted list of majors right on the homepage. And yeah, you have to scroll. But so what, with content this compellingly presented. Vanderbilt’s page is solid, but conventional: a Flash top third, a nice presentation of social sites, but the list of majors took quite a while to track down through the lists of decentralized schools and offices.
Winner: Murray State

Butler v University of Texas El Paso
UTEP validates to XHTML 1.0 Transitional; Butler falls short on XHTML 1.0 Strict. But that may be the only criteria by which the Miners trump the Dawgs. UTEP offers three separate search boxes (“Faculty/Staff,” “Students,” and “Departments/Programs”) and several different navigation structures that end up feeling more complicating than helpful. The majors are quickly discovered, but the same is true over on the Butler site, which has a nice clean grid layout
Winner: Butler

North Texas v Kansas State
Not overly impressed by either page, I’m afraid.  Both fall short of validation, and both say they are going to send me to a list of majors but make me click though one or two more times before I actually get there. But North Texas has news on its homepage that is actually new, and Kansas State has a welcome message from its president on the homepage, which is an automatic technical foul.
Winner: North Texas

Baylor v Sam Houston
Both schools have a variation on the Flash top third (“rotating Flash feature photos in the top third of your site” is the new “three under a tree” it seems) but Baylor’s is more successful I think because — as a simple photo slideshow — it was less demanding. I’m sorry, Sam Houston, but I don’t know what would compel me to sit down and read your six no-doubt-well-written-and-lovingly-presented “stories.” Sam Houston actually has a link to “Majors & Programs” right in its persistent navigation (yay!) which takes me to … a page that describes its programs with a link to two *other* pages that actually list them (boo!) Oh, and neither site validates to nuthin’.
Winner: Baylor

Richmond v St. Marys College
Hmm, Richmond’s customizable homepage widgets for RSS feeds, weather, and other college news services look really useful for faculty and staff who use the Richmond page as their homepage. And the homepage and second-level pages are extremely lightweight on the text front, making them very scannable. On St. Marys, I like that the principal navigation structure is so spare (six items) but the biggest piece of real estate is given over to a Flash presentation with tiny greyed out type that made it nearly impossible to read (I know graphic designers often lean toward “subtlety,” but this may be taking it too far). Click on the Academics page through, and you’re dumped into a pool of text.
Winner: Richmond

I’ll tackle another chunk of first round schools tomorrow. Will there be another Murray State or Robert Morris in the early going? Who will take home the homepage design championship? It’s March Madness — anything can happen.

–lori