Beyond the Usual Redesign

“Have you seen Bates College’s new homepage? You should check it out. It is really different and innovative.”

By Karine Joly, College Web Editor

Not because it uses fancy graphics or animations, but because Jay Collier and his team at Bates College have decided to make this redesigned homepage more than just a collection of the usual navigation scheme, useful links and beautiful campus photos.

So, what makes it so different?

Among other things:

  • The way stories – real stories about students, faculty and staff told through blog posts, photos and news in a section called Bates Views – are featured on this homepage.
  • The navigation scheme
  • The dynamic information architecture
  • The use of photo galleries including shots with short captions telling the full story

Really beautiful and thoughtful work, which is why I asked Jay Collier 3 questions about this project.

1) How long did it take from concept to the implementation of this first phase?

The Home 4 project took 8 months, from kickoff to final launch. It was built upon the listening sessions I convened with students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents, and a whole domain blueprint was released in September.

Concurrent with this process, I recruited and hired our first new staff member, producer/designer Ethan Dahlin Magoon, who took on the interface design in April. After releasing several prototypes to the campus community, W3Markup did the base theme coding and Ethan expanded it to dozens of templates for the launch.

Integrating an overview of Bates with almost 1,000 categorized and tagged stories made my work developing the information architecture and writing and editing content more challenging. However, doing so was necessary to get across our primary organizing principle: that there is a common approach to learning at Bates which is experienced in countless ways, throughout a Bates lifetime. We are fortunate to have been able bring together content from news releases, the Alumni Magazine, the Viewbook, the monthly newsletter, student and parent handbooks, and other sources all in one place. I think that was a somewhat unusual opportunity.

2) What do you use for the CMS? The overlay pictures?

We have been managing the site in WordPress since the beginning, first as a proof-of-concept with student assistants at WordPress.com, then as a working prototype with WP 2.8 software on an external hosting service, and now hosted on a campus Web server. We’ve had over a dozen professional staff members and student assistants creating and editing content during that time, and now Ethan works concurrently in the system on interface updates.

We use a series of plugins to manage content and presentation. The slideshows are handled with NextGenGallery, with the overlays via Thickbox and jquery. We’re using a number of plugins to enable shortcodes for editors along with WP-Table Reloaded for organization of tabular data originating in DabbleDB. We had over 30,000 views on launch day — about double the load of an average day — all served by WP-SuperCache.

Supporting standard protocols like RSS means our stories — via hundreds of category and tag feeds — are available for almost any interest. By way of example, see how our NetVibes page at Explore Bates surfaces content from both Home 4 and collections curated in Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube. (We feature links to social services in every page footer.) I also integrated Google Maps, Zoomifyer, and Flash PanoToVR into the editorial. We also worked hard on validation and accessibility so that Home 4 will be welcoming to visitors with a variety of interface preferences. Of course, we have much more to do; we released Home 4 when the bulk of editorial work was done — but before all of the interface design and coding was complete. Version 4.1 is already underway.

3) In your presentation post, you’re hinting that you want to follow the iterative redesign philosophy for next phases. How do you plan – concretely – to do this?

Just as the master plan for a historical village envisions how people will relate and move through their environment as changes are made over a long period of time, so, too, can principles of an online experience define how we make future decisions that will support the effortless movement of our constituents through the online ecosystem.

In my domain blueprint, I recommended that online relationships with the College grow deeper along smooth pathways across systems and services, rather than leaping over walled gardens. Home 4 demonstrates both a point of entry as well as moving our constituents toward deeper engagement with the College in their areas of interest.

As to getting it done, the next phase in the blueprint is The Hub, where offices and departments share their official information about people, ideas, and events. I use the MIT discovery framework and ActivCollab to manage projects, and most of the planning documents, including user scenarios and feature requests (detail) are complete. We already collaborate with the people who manage subsites in our legacy content management system, and we know their hopes and challenges. Supporting the second-impressions they manage is the next logical step.

The future online ecosystem is not monolithic, but, more and more, will be made up of many interoperable services, on-campus and off. As long as we support basic principles of content exchange, we can integrate the online experience to support multiple pathways of deepening engagement.

9/21/09

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