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How do you design an award-winning university website?

We asked the team behind the redesign of the University of Chicago website, recipient of two 2013 Webby Awards.

Sparrow McGowan

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The University of Chicago launched their redesigned website in September 2012.

Following a recent redesign, the University of Chicago website won two prestigious Webby Awards in the School/University category earlier this year – both the Webby Award and the Webby People’s Voice Award for best website. The Webby Awards are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences to recognize excellence on the Internet.

We asked the University of Chicago’s Stacey Shintani, manager of strategic web communications, and Jeremy Manier, news director, for some insight into what it takes to create an award-winning university website.

University Affairs: Could you give us an idea of the size and scope of the project?
Stacey Shintani: This project included just what we call the main University homepage and the pages that physically live under it. In other words, www.uchicago.edu, and anything with a web address that starts with www.uchicago.edu/. The News website, the Library, and the Directory were not included. Those are all considered separate sites.

We are thinking of the redesign in phases, and the first phase culminated in the launch of the site as you see it today. That was a really major push that included stakeholders from across campus and a close partnership between IT Services and Communications. In IT Services alone, we spent more than 2,500 hours over the course of nine months for Phase One. There was a big push in the last couple of months prior to launch where we had around the equivalent of four people working on the site full time.

UA: Why did you decide to do a website redesign?
SS
: There were a variety of reasons based on analytics, anecdotal evidence and stakeholder interviews. Here's a quick chart listing some of the top reasons (and what we did to address them in the redesign):

OLD SITE

NEW SITE

Visually stale; the last major design overhaul was in 2008

Updated design

Limited platform for messaging. Not ideal for ambitious photography and storytelling

Wider open design to create an appropriate canvas for messaging

Technically dated

Modern content management, coding standards

Limited mobile/tablet experience

Responsive design will allow content to grow & shrink depending on screen size

No space to communicate to or about faculty

Dedicated faculty section

Lots of information on homepage felt crowded and made some items difficult to find

Wider open design, rich navigation to bring utility to top of the page

Analytics and/or comments re: finding Arts, Diversity, Medical Center, Academic Calendar

Cleaner design, logical filing

No space to communicate about our global centers and endeavors

Dedicated space to link to a new site in the works

UA: What were the main goals of the redesign?
SS
: Our top goal is always to understand our audiences for the site, and help them find what they're looking for quickly and easily – and to convey the unique story of UChicago while they're with us. Some more specific goals for this redesign:

  • support our development strategy
  • build on appeal to prospective students
  • improve experience for alumni and campus visitors
  • faculty recruiting
  • clarify and strengthen messaging
  • global engagement
  • leverage, connect to, and/or integrate with IT Services projects and systems as appropriate
  • facilitate findability of other UChicago sites

. . . and of course address the issues identified in the table above.

UA: As a large academic institution, you would have many stakeholders to consult for such a project. How many were involved in the process and how did you approach managing them all?
SS: We had two executive sponsors: Julie Peterson, UChicago’s vice president for communications, and Klara Jelinkova, the university’s associate vice president and chief information technology officer. They were our ultimate decision makers, and they informed the list of goals above. They approved major milestones in the project: audiences and goals, site architecture, graphic design, and the final site prior to launch. They also kept their respective leaders informed about the project.

We also had a working committee of stakeholders representing a number of areas of the university. I interviewed each of these folks during our discovery phase to suss out their goals and the goals of their constituents, and they advised on site architecture, design and content. They were also liaisons to their own areas in terms of gathering requirements and keeping leadership in the loop on progress.

We interviewed a few faculty, students, prospective students, and alumni in the early stages of the project to inform our goals and ensure the new site would meet their needs. And most folks in communications and many in IT Services would consider themselves stakeholders. We all care deeply about www.uchicago.edu!

UA: What were the biggest challenges that you faced in the redesign? How did you manage them?
SS
: Our biggest technical challenge was hosting. The new site is built in Expression Engine, and we did not have resources in-house to host the site here, as it had been in the past. Our manager of programming and our lead front-end developer learned a LOT about hosting solutions and web server administration as we selected a hosting vendor (Rackspace) and set up our environment. We consulted our colleagues in IT Services throughout this process.

UA: It looks like you have incorporated quite a bit of imagery and multimedia. What contributed to that decision and how have you found the process of managing that content over time?
SS: The volume of imagery and multimedia is only slightly higher than it was prior to the redesign, but the size of photos—for the main features particularly—is much more ambitious. During our design phase, we decided together with Julie and our working committee to go for the huge impact of the giant hero image for our storytelling space.

Jeremy Manier: As with any big step forward, the website redesign presented some big editorial challenges and opportunities. The large new space for showcase photography offered a great way to tell stories in striking and imaginative ways, but it also raised our bar for photography and gave us a big technical challenge. The homepage photo space is radically horizontal and actually changes depending on the size of a user's browser, thanks to the homepage's adaptive design. That has made our planning, selection and adaptation of homepage photos more time-consuming and even more of a creative process than in the past. I also think it means the homepage looks ten times better than before.

The horizontal shape is a big challenge, though when we get it right (which we hope is most weeks), the results are very impressive. Most photographers have little or no experience capturing images that read well in that kind of horizontal band; among other things it usually requires taking a very wide, or "loose" shot, then cropping one section of the larger image. (We often wish there were lenses specially designed for our horizontal frame!) We can do some tricks with layout of the space, but the best results often are just great photos or images that can be adapted to the space we have. We couldn't have done any of this without our photo editor/photographer, Robert Kozloff, who has worked with our talented web editors to find the sweet spot for these packages.

The redesign also gave us a new "news module" below the feature space, with three horizontal images. This is not as challenging to fill, but it does increase our need for images to accompany even ordinary news stories - probably a good thing on the whole.

Once you click through the homepage features, the multimedia capabilities for those stories are greater now as well. We have the option to change the layout of the feature so that it highlights the story text, a great video, or a photo slideshow. The result is online storytelling in which the visual story often is as important as the text.

UA: Having the perspective of managing the site for the last 10 months, is there anything you would have done differently?
SS: Overall, I'm thrilled with how the project went. In retrospect, there are two things I'd have changed:

I wish we'd started exploring hosting options earlier. We didn't know what we didn't know, if that makes sense. Many roadblocks we hit in the process of selecting a hosting provider and getting our environment set up were big surprises to us.

I also wish that I'd had a few more personal conversations with stakeholders about their concerns for the new site. I relied on our working committee for their respective areas, and an in-person chat would have been more effective in uncovering a few things that surfaced late in the project.

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