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

One comment

  1. What a great concept! I’m looking forward to seeing how your Final Four turns out. Great work.

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