Bates Home/Views: a one-year report

The Home/Views site — the first phase of a whole-domain renovation for Bates College — was designed to improve first impressions, draw visitors toward their interests, and help them make a deeper connection with the College.

We welcomed 260,000 absolute unique visitors to the combined www.bates.edu and home.bates.edu sites in January, 2010; annualized, that is 3,110,000. Approximately 35% of that combined traffic is to home.bates.edu.

Objectives

In our domain blueprint — built upon listening sessions convened with students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents in 2007 and 2008 — we recommended that online relationships with the College grow deeper along smooth pathways across systems and services. We envisioned a context that would support Bates people in all facets of living, studying, working, and playing here, a context that would encourage their lifelong participation in learning and engagement through Bates.

Just as the master plan for an historical village envisions how people relate to their environment as it evolves over time, so, too, can principles of an online experience help us make the kinds of sustainable decisions that will support the effortless movement of our constituents through our online ecosystem. Those principles are to:

  • Be dependable — anywhere, any time, any device
  • Be intuitive — simple publishing, searching, finding
  • Be useful — helpful information and instructions
  • Be engaging — appealing, personable, immersive
  • Be personalizable — up to date feeds on personal interests
  • Be sociable — online spaces for intellectual collaboration
  • Be meaningful — insight into what matters to you

The initial phase of Bates Next Web, the Home/Views site, covered first impressions: the global overview of a Bates College lifetime — presented through 6 themes and 30 topics — with connecting pathways to a deep collection of stories about the College. Our objectives were to:

1. Improve the online experience for first-time visitors

Develop a world-class online experience focusing on the first 30-60 seconds and the first 3 clicks (top 3 levels) of www.bates.edu. Demonstrate Bates distinctive cross-boundary approach to liberal arts and sciences education. Reinforce reasons why Bates is worth the attention of first-time visitors: prospective students and families, prospective employees, prospective donors, and regional neighbors.

2. Focus on connecting people with their interests

Connect first-time visitors with their personal interests — academic fields, professions, stories, and analysis of current events — by drawing them into clear pathways toward deeper content and toward e-mail and RSS subscription options.

3. Bring together content and services for current community members

Develop a targeted gateway section for current Bates people: students, faculty, staff, families, alumni. Organize links to deep content and enterprise services.

4. Sustain online experiences accessible to everyone

Develop Web experiences which are easy to find, navigate, and access through a variety of interfaces, all of which are sustainable by current Bates staff.

The generic target audience consisted of people who knew little about the College — prospective students, prospective employees, prospective contributors. We intended to serve current members of the Bates community through their own targeted navigation.

We worked with our strategic consultant to identify a common vision of Bates that would be meaningful to all audiences. Then, we sought to draw each visitor toward their own deeper interests, regardless of their generic audience categorization.

Innovation

Home/Views was designed to draw visitors toward their deeper interests, from powerful, general themes toward specific stories told through narrative text, photo galleries, and audio and video clips. Each page encourages exploration of social media services where user-generated content is curated and streamed. Opportunities to subscribe via RSS and e-mail appear on every page.

We used WordPress as a content management system which reduced software expenses and support requirements — due to simpler and more powerful user and administration interfaces — and improved search engine results, due to the core software architecture.

Prototyping was begun at WordPress.com, development was completed with installed WordPress on external hosting, and the production site is being hosted on campus servers.

Design, content, navigation

During the 9-month development period, Home/Views was architected to integrate Bates vision and values with specific stories of how Bates people bring them to life.

The design, content, and navigation were all intended to reinforce our primary organizing principle: that there is a common approach to cross-boundary learning at Bates which is experienced in countless ways, throughout a Bates lifetime.

We were fortunate to have been able bring together over 1,000 stories from news releases, the alumni Magazine, the Viewbook, the monthly e-mail newsletter, student and parent handbooks, and other sources all in one site.

The visual design was intended to communicate intellectual vigor and a sense of dynamic progress in the first few seconds. Consistent design patterns provided a familiar context while supporting a variety of interfaces. Maps were integrated into place-based content, including multiple 3-D interactive campus maps. Audio and video clips were embedded into textual narratives.

By supporting Web standards, these stories — via hundreds of category and tag feeds — are available for almost any interest. By way of example, see how the NetVibes page at Explore Bates surfaces content from Home/Views as well as collections curated in Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube.

Evaluation

We planned to use the following quantitative measures to evaluate the site: the percentage of visitors that leave after viewing only the homepage (bounce rate) and the click-through rate for visitors on the entire site (number of pages per visit).

We also integrated qualitative evaluation methods, including focus group sessions with constituents, unsolicited comments received via e-mail, and online forms linked from every page footer.

Results

In a year-to-year comparison (January 15 to February 15, 2009, to the same period in 2010), our primary metrics indicated significant improvements.

For the home page, our bounce rate — visitors who arrived at the home page and then left immediately — has gone down from 60% to 1%. Our exit rate — visitors who’d viewed more than one page and then left after viewing the home page — has gone down from 54% to 31%.

For the entire combined site, home.bates.edu and www.bates.edu, our bounce rate has gone down from 60% to 13%. The average page views per visit has gone up from 3.06 to 3.22.

We’ve received feedback that the site presents a more contemporary look and feel, and a more accurate sense of the diversity and dynamism of the Bates experience.

Our content developers have embraced the benefits of classification, leading to a sustained value of content and wider distribution, through RSS and e-mail, and feeds into social media.

Search results are more accurate, due in part to the improved optimization of content and coding.

Project contributors

  • Kelly Kerner: executive sponsor
  • Jay Collier: executive producer, information architect, managing editor (60% for 9 months)
  • Ethan Dahlin Magoon: interface designer, Web developer (90% for 7 months)
  • Bryan McNulty, Camille Buch, Jay Burns, Phyllis Graber Jensen, Doug Hubley: content development and multimedia production
  • Steve Moitozo: software hosting and integration services
  • Sophia Budianto, Brittney French, Nelson Harris, Julie Libin, Bradley McGraw, Razin Mustafiz, Rachel Spilecki (students): content and multimedia prototyping and production
  • 32 advisors and focus group participants
  • iSite Design: consulting on communication strategy and information architecture
  • W3Markup: interface template coding

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