Sunday, May 18, 2008

There are modifications and there are issues

Arts & Sciences departments represent a major portion of the College - both in practice and within the W&M web presence. For the past nine weeks, I've worked directly with Carl Strikwerda (Dean of the Faculty), Sue Peterson (Dean of Undergraduate Studies), and Steve Otto (Director of Communications) on the unique page layouts and designs proposed for Arts & Sciences.

There are modifications!
After three rounds of design revisions and enhancements, we now have two home page options to offer to Arts & Sciences departments. At the request of the dean's office, we've also changed many other design aspects like font color, icons, background colors, images, and logo placement. All along, we've planned for flexibility and the widgets in the new designs can be turned on or off - and reordered - to suit. Widgets? The functional elements like the Events box, the stacked news items, and the departmental special interest features (e.g., Footnotes).

There are issues!
The more the Arts & Sciences designs change, the more the issue stays the same. From the beginning of our discussions, Carl Strikwerda, Sue Peterson, and Steve Otto have consistently requested that the global navigation bar be removed or relocated to the top of the designs used for Arts & Sciences sites. From their perspective, the global navigation bar (About, Academics, Admission, etc.) is unnecessary and confusing for visitors to Arts & Sciences sites. A number of A&S department chairs share these concerns - many of them spoke about this at presentation/feedback sessions we hosted. I've heard from many chairs and many faculty through email messages, phone calls, and casual conversations on the paths around the Sunken Garden. Most have offered constructive opinions and feedback - some have been less than civil.

In my professional judgment, global navigation must be obvious and in the same location on all web pages. Consider the global navigation on these familiar sites. In my view these websites represent the current best thinking on interface design and web navigation.

We have used experts to test our design and navigation choices. During usability testing, we included three tasks proposed by the dean's office. The dean's office chose tasks that were intended to get at possible confusion between global navigation and departmental navigation. All of the prospective students we tested were able to accomplish the tasks proposed by Arts & Sciences - 87% (13 of 15 testers) used the navigation offered by the A&S menus and 13% (2 of 15 testers) used the global navigation. The two testers who used the global navigation made a navigation choice that A&S viewed as not ideal; but still, the link the testers chose led to what they were seeking. In my professional judgment, the global navigation bar in the new W&M design works - even within an Arts and Sciences site.

Many faculty have pointed to numerous other college and university sites that do not employ global navigation within their web presences. Unfortunately, there are all too many examples of higher education web sites that are constructed like organizational charts. In my professional judgment, there is much to be gained from a navigation scheme and information architecture that allows our website visitors to find what they seek without understanding the complicated structure of W&M units and departments.

posted by Susan Evans


collegewebguy said...

Wow. You've just outlined an "issue" that all university web developers struggle with. Whether you're talking about branding and design choices or top-level navigation elements. Whats best for the university as a whole? Whats best for a department or college? Those two interests have to meet somewhere. Ultimately it comes down to what the site user/visitor wants and expects. This article is talking about branding but it applies to this conversation.

Andy DeSoto said...

It's certainly a prominent navbar, so I can see where some folks are coming from. It draws your eye and sits a bit nearer to the page than most do.

I don't think it's a big deal at all though, especially given the reasons for keeping consistency throughout the site. Hope everyone is able to negotiate!

Anonymous said...

So the A&S folk think that having two global navigation bars separated by a department-specific graphic might be confusing?

I agree.

It isn't like a org chart, it's more like the university wants 40% of all first impressions and gets there by adding the department's name to their logo's graphic.