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Beta and Better: A Biz School Goes Global--and Mobile

Looking to improve access for its global student body, Northeastern University College of Business Administration was willing to undergo the hardships of being a beta partner to get the mobile-optimized site it wanted.

With the launch of its mobile-optimized website early last month, Northeastern University College of Business Administration (MA) took a step closer to fulfilling its vision of fully supporting a student body that is scattered around the world.

The new site, optimized for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry devices, gives students access to contact information, degree-program offerings, college and faculty overviews, and upcoming events.

"Mobile devices make boundaries disappear," explained Acting Dean Harry Lane, who is also a professor of international business and strategy. "For us, education is increasingly taking place where it makes sense for our students to be. We see this trend accelerating and we are positioning ourselves to be accessible to our students wherever they are, and however they want to communicate with us."

The mobile-optimized website is obviously part of the college's accessibility goals. As the college looks to extend its global reach, it needs to provide students with easy ways to interact across time zones and from a wide variety of devices. The student body is certainly far-flung: The college's online MBA--one of the largest online accredited MBA programs in the country--currently has 1,400 students from across the United States, as well as India, China, the Philippines, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Dubai.

Given the importance of global accessibility to its strategic goals, Northeastern was willing to go the extra mile to get the mobile-optimized website that it wanted. But it also had no desire to get into the business of website development. Instead, in August 2010, it agreed to participate as a beta partner for third-party developer Bit Group.

"Being a beta partner is not for the faint of heart," noted Liz Johnson, Northeastern University's senior director, strategic marketing. "There was no preset template. As a beta customer, we agreed to put a lot of sweat equity into the project. We provided feedback every step of the way."

Fortunately, Northeastern already had extensive experience working with Bit Group. Nine years earlier, the Cambridge, MA-based company had built websites for the college's Executive MBA and High Tech MBA programs; and three years ago, it won the contract to build the college's new website.

"Since we had built websites with them, we knew them well," said Johnson. "There's nothing like building a website together to get to know people. The demands in terms of time, communication, creativity, and technology are significant."

This time round, Northeastern worked with BlueTrain Mobile, a service of Bit Group. "Because of our beta partnership, we joined early in development, giving us a great deal of input into the design and function of the mobile website," noted Johnson.

As a beta partner, the college had access to BlueTrain Mobile's project manager and programmers. There were weekly--sometimes daily--meetings to report on the progress, pitfalls, and redesign of features.

"The beta relationship allowed both partners to test and push the boundaries of what was possible within this mobile site," said Johnson. "The combination of the college's marketing team with BlueTrain Mobile's technology was powerful indeed. Our mobile site was created with a concise, cogent, and accessible outcome in mind. The information is condensed and specifically designed for a mobile audience. Both partners were conscious not to overpopulate the content. We were thoughtful about anything users would need 'on the go.'"

The college's marketing team also tested BlueTrain Mobile's new content management system. While BlueTrain Mobile formatted and developed the structure of the site, the college entered content, working with style sheets, layout, and editing. The college also provided much of the user end-testing and quality control, including daily tests of functionality, as well as bug-testing and UI.

The result is a mobile-optimized website that meets the college's goals of catering to a business-savvy student body that is not only worldwide but increasingly reliant on mobile devices. "Northeastern University is, in effect, a global university, and educating is a global operation," concluded Lane. "Business professionals and students are using mobile devices to remain in touch, to conduct business, and to run their lives."

About the Author

Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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