seen + learned

Higher education: the destination site is not dead

Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 | Posted by Tania Schlatter | Labels: , , 0 comments

The pace and rate of technological change is dizzying. We are seeing and hearing many organizations become disoriented. In higher education as with any organization, when there are funds there is a tendency to want the latest and coolest. The possibilities available - cheap and fast streaming video, presentation design "skins" that change on the fly, the ability to aggregate and display content from a wide variety of sources - are tempting.

Critical thinking must be present in the higher education site redesign process. Like the dessert table at a great buffet, it is easy to over do it, and forget about providing the nutrients your body (like your site visitors) need.

Bottom line - if you are a site for a department at a college or university, your site visitors need facts. They need to know what the department is. They need to know how they might engage with you and for what. They need to know who is in charge of what and who to contact for what. They need to know how your department or organization may be connected to others or the university as a whole. Prospective and current students and their parents get a huge amount of their information from the internet. They are relying on your institution or department's site for the details they need. There are many, many sites that provide inspiration on every topic imaginable. Chances are, if you have a current or potential student on your site, or even a donor, they have been to those sites and are already inspired. They are on your site to move forward and take action - to go beyond inspiration and act.

Organizations must ask themselves - are they in the media business? If not, how cool and inspiring is your cutting edge site going to be in a few months when the content needs updating? How impressive will it be when news feeds pull in content that isn't what your audience is looking for or have already seen somewhere else?

Higher education sites are destinations. Ideally, they do both - inspire the visitor by reassuring them that they are in the right place for their interests (video could really help here), and help them engage. This takes more facts than flash, more veggies than dessert, smelling salts and a heavy dose of restraint (also known as user research).

Challenging the convention of starting with content

Posted: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | Posted by Tania Schlatter | Labels: , , , 0 comments

When we were recently designing a new site for ourselves, the effort started with content. We thought that once we had an idea about the content, we'd to do the design. We developed a rough draft of the things we wanted to say, worked with a great writer and came up with a final draft.

Visual designs were based on the content. After a few rounds, we liked the design. The problem was, we were no longer satisfied with the words. What was it about reading the words in the design that made us want to change them? Everything had looked good in Word. If we had been just the web design team and not also the client we would have probably been annoyed: "Don't they know what they want? It's about to launch!" We had fallen into a trap we had seen but not experienced, the inability to visualize something without seeing it complete.

We were reminded that it takes two to tango – content and design go hand in hand to communicate, and should be developed simultaneously (along with behaviors if designing an app) as much as possible to create a cohesive experience. We should have recognized it sooner and prescribed one of our own solutions – using schematic page diagrams (aka wireframes) from the beginning to define content and layout at a high level. Schematics show the types of content without showing actual writing, and the hierarchy of the layout without showing visual design. If we had done them, once the wireframes felt right we could have moved the writing and the visual design along simultaneously, which would have saved a lot of time.