Reading Between the Lines

What begins as a straightforward portal makeover for RIT ends up as a hard look at usability and branding. Follow the numbers to see why.

When the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY) launched its initiative to “spruce up” the institution’s Web portal, little did administrators know the effort would eventually evolve into a systematic review. But as the process moved forward, fundamental questions kept cropping up: Why were some site visitors frustrated when they tried to navigate through the site? Who was the primary audience? Most importantly, was the Web site communicating the special character of RIT?

Study reveals surprises. The Institute decided to commission a usability study of its existing site, recruiting actual prospective students, a parent, and others to carry out scenarios. Among other things, notes Diane Barbour, Chief Information Officer, “We found that we were using terms that were familiar to us, but that many visitors didn’t understand—like what it means to be a ‘matriculated’ student.” And administrators soon realized that the navigation system had to be both simple to use, but able to encompass a very complex university, providing visitors with a way to find what they wanted among the 100,000-150,000 pages of content.

Inconsistency rules. One of the more interesting realizations was that, contrary to more widely accepted practices, “We decided it wasn’t necessary to have a consistent look and feel through the entire depth of the site,” says David Hostetter, Director of Customer Support Services. “Each college has a unique sense of itself, and we wanted to preserve the trademark of each of those areas.”

Imagery supports strengths. Imagery turned out to be a critical ingredient, and administrators felt that the nature of RIT justified the use of high-tech Macromedia Flash animations. After all, explains Hostetter, “We are an institute of technology, and a premier photography institution in the world.”

Blazing brand. But the challenge that came to dominate the redesign effort was: How can we make the Web site “scream the brand” of RIT? Features such as “Career Center” and “Success Stories” were added to emphasize how the Institute prepares students for life-long professional careers (the special quality that RIT administrators believe sets it apart) and to echo the aspirations of the students who select the school.

Assessment and re-examination of the Web site continues; messages evolve as the needs of constituents change. RIT Information Technology Professor Evelyn Rozanski and her students will be involved in future usability engineering studies of the site, as will the Institute-wide Web Committee. “Our goal was to develop a process, not just a new design,” says Hostetter.

1 - Career Center and Success Stories.

(Rotating). How can you miss with an eye-catching visual and lead-in to a story about a prominent RIT graduate, randomly selected from an archive every time you visit the site? Research shows that students who choose RIT have definite ideas about where they want their careers to go, and they want to see examples of alumns who have made it in their fields. Career Center lets them match their career plans with the right major, and informs them about employment prospects.

2 - For/About.

With drop-down menus, a lot of navigational options are compressed into a small space, but they’re still uncluttered and easy to grasp. That’s because the Web site captures the two main ways that the information on a site can be organized: by who the visitor is (alumnus, prospective student, faculty, etc.), or by what topic the visitor is interested in (“About”). The “About” topics have drop-down menus that are activated by mouse roll-over, providing an easy way to glimpse the next level of info available. Visitors don’t have to click down and then back up to see what comes next.

3 - myRIT.
myRIT opens the door to a vast array of information available to insiders such as current students, faculty, and staff. Students can check grades and register for classes, powered by the campus information system. For fun and general information, the Rochester weather forecast and live views from the RIT Web Cam invite visitors to check out the weather for themselves, and site navigators can also view a calendar of goings-on—even a dictionary word-of-the-day. (A recent example: “Flaneur: loafer.”)

4 - Guest View.

The “Guest View” button lets non-community visitors wander through non-confidential parts of the portal system and get a taste of what the campus has to offer. (Many portal-equipped systems lack this courtesy to visitors—or keep it tucked away.) RIT provides more powerful portal accounts to prospective students and alumni.

5 - Campus Directory.

Ever been frustrated wandering around a school’s site trying to find out how to contact somebody? Directory look-up information is so basic that it ought to be found right at the top level—and it is at RIT. If your institution has a policy against publishing such information on the Web, consider telling a visitor that fact before he wastes time scouting around. Then suggest other means your visitors can use to contact people at your institution; a general number, at the very least.

6 - Flash Slide Show.

(Live rotation.) Yes, flash animations are controversial—so much so that some users install software that disables Flash on every site they visit. RIT came up with an effective compromise, however. This central illustration d'es dissolve into a running slide show while the page is viewed. But far from being just generic campus-brochure photography, each shot nails a specific personality trait of RIT, and text is matched with the image to further illustrate the point. What’s more, the Flash graphics are well-behaved; they stay within a frame and don’t scoot distractingly around the page. Most importantly, the information in the Flash slide show, while complementary to the page, is not essential for navigation. And RIT provides a button that lets visitors turn the animation off with a single click.

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