By Vicki Hildner
On Aug. 9, 2011, at 8:04 a.m., members of the university web services team simultaneously published files on the university website. At that instant, the new homepage for the University of Colorado Denver and its two campuses came to life.
“We all held our breath,” says Jeremy Fulbright, Director of University Web Services, “and waited for the phone to start ringing.”
On the first day of classes, traffic on the new homepage was up nearly 38 percent over last year with more than 100,000 visits.
While publishing the new homepage took only minutes, the transformation of the entire website began back in 2008.
“You know you need a new website when the content is out-of-date, it’s hard to find things, updating the site is complex, the appearance is dated, and you have lost track of pages on the site,” says Fulbright.
Three years ago, the need to start fresh with a website overhaul became painfully apparent. “Only about 50 people from 13 schools and colleges on two campuses could add content,” remembers Catherine Worster, former director of marketing of the Office of Integrated University Communications and now director of communications and advancement of the School of Dental Medicine. “As a result, content on the site often gathered dust.”
While it is not uncommon for a large and growing site to get unruly, the university was functioning with three different domain names. “If you can imagine,” says Worster, “we had more than 160,000 pages of content on three domains. And some of those pages hadn’t been touched in ten years.”
Fulbright and Worster believed a total website overhaul would be an opportunity to give the university a new identity. “What we wanted was to make the website friendly for users at the same time it served the strategic mission and brand of the university,” says Fulbright.
As a first step, teams from University Web Services and Integrated University Communications tackled the schools’ and colleges’ websites.
“This was not a matter of guessing or assuming we knew what people wanted,” says Fulbright. “We talked to leadership across the campuses. We did surveys asking users what they needed. We studied best practices on different campuses. “
Armed with that research, the collaborative web team helped schools and colleges develop strategy for their new site and create new design and architecture to serve their respective users. All of those changes were built on the grid of a CMS, a content management system.
A CMS takes a website from the stage when one person has to be the master of all facets of the web. Under a content management system, responsibilities go to multiple people: content experts, marketing/branding professionals, usability gurus, information architects, professional graphic designers, and programmers.
“We chose Microsoft SharePoint 2010 as our content management system because it combined features and functionality like none other,” points out Fulbright.
“Given the breadth and complexity of this institution, we needed a robust system that could adequately serve our myriad constituencies,” added Worster.
For the first time, content developers at the university could participate in the web creation process without expert technical skills. With SharePoint, individuals could keep content updated and timely without worrying that the site could somehow break.
In August of 2010, three domains finally merged into one. 160,000 pages had been reduced to 51,000 useable pages.
In January, 2011 the university announced its new brand. “This gave us an identity,” says Worster. “It was an opportunity to clarify who we are to donors, taxpayers, students, faculty and staff. And the best way to do it was by designing a new homepage. After we finished streamlining the content into one domain name, assisting the schools and colleges with their redesign projects, this was the icing on the cake.”
“Again, we did extensive research,” points out Fulbright. “What did people want to see on the homepage? How could we serve them? How could we take a massive amount of data and make it usable?”
“We have so many users in this broad comprehensive university,” Worster adds. “We needed to think about our homepage in new and enterprising ways.”
Information architect, Kristin Rowley, understood the challenges of this new site. “The first problem we encountered was trying to find a way to serve the diverse audiences of the university equally,” says Rowley. “One page just wasn’t going to do it. So we created seven panels, with each panel targeting one audience.”
Matthew Jordan, Interactive Designer in University Web Services, turned his attention to the new homepage design. “I wanted to communicate the university’s brand,” says Jordan. “I wanted a look that was classic and traditional without looking dated and dusty. I wanted it to be classy and forward looking.”
What users don’t readily see is that this website is coded in a new way, using HTML 5. “If anyone looks under the hood,” says Scott DeMers, Web Production Manager, “I want them to be impressed with what they see. This cutting edge code means our website can interact with mobile devices, social media, GPS, everything the web is doing today.”
As more users visit the homepage in coming weeks, they will notice that the content will change frequently responding to events, internal communications, news and stories at the university.
“We will continue to listen to users and improve based on the feedback we get,” says Fulbright. “We want to make sure that people are finding what they need at the same time they can read the stories that make this university great.”