University Website makeover: homepage edition

By Jim Hynes

As of Tuesday, March 13, the page that’s been greeting visitors to the McGill website for the past five and a half years will have not only a whole new look, but also a new, more efficient way of guiding people to the mass of content that lies beyond it.

The McGill website homepage, the current incarnation of which was created and launched in August 2006, and which in an average month gets well over one million views (2.2 million in January 2012), has been redesigned and reorganized to help those who visit it find what they are looking for more easily.

“We put out a couple of surveys last spring and people told us that they didn’t want to be overwhelmed with content and information that was irrelevant to them,” said Mark Ordonselli, Web Communications Manager, Communications Services (Public Affairs). “So what we wanted to do was really narrow that content down so that if you’ve identified yourself as a staff member, for example, we’re going to show you information about HR, benefits, a link to Banner – the kinds of things staff and faculty members told us they use.”

The new homepage will be organized into three distinct sections by user type, defaulting to an external page intended for the general public. Visitors can then choose to stay on that edition of the page or click on the “Students” or “Staff/Faculty” button and be taken to a homepage that looks just like the main external one, but with content that matters most to them.

“In a nutshell, you’ll be able to see the content that’s relevant to you without having to wade through all the content that isn’t,” Ordonselli said.

Survey respondents, Ordonselli said, also indicated that they had a hard time finding tools like, MyMcGill, Minerva, Banner, maps and phone directories – something that the new homepage addresses in two ways. In the top right-hand corner of the new version, visitors will find a little gear icon that when clicked will reveal a pull-down menu that shows you all of those tools.

“On the homepage, you’ll never be more than one click away from them,” Ordonselli said. “Lower down on the homepage there will also be a Popular Tools tab displaying the appropriate tools for a specific audience.”

 Collaborative effort

The project was a joint effort between McGill’s Communications Services (Public Affairs), who were responsible for its content and look and feel, and for making sure the new homepage addresses the needs of different audiences who visit it, and Content and Collaboration Solutions (CCS), a unit of IT Services that provides centrally supported tools and services for managing, publishing and sharing content at the University. On the homepage project, the CCS team was responsible for webpage design and programming.

“In our view, the most successful website design is the one that emerges from the needs and expectations of the user groups,” said Karl Jarosiewicz, Manager, Web Development and Production at CCS. “So for us, the most important first step was participating with the full project team on gathering data about what the users wanted, and then we let the design emerge out of what they prioritized. Our job was to refine the design so it looked attractive and functioned properly across platforms, browsers, and various devices including iPads and smartphones.”

 Attractive and functional

Indeed, making the new page work properly and look good on all of the different platforms that exist today was a big part of the challenge the project posed for the CCS team.

“The web is always evolving and so are the techniques used to develop quality web pages,” Jarosiewicz said. “Mobile devices are changing the way we approach design and coding, in fact, they’re changing the fundamental way web design is performed. Advanced designers are now starting designs with mobile displays in mind and building their designs to scale up to all screens. This is called ‘responsive design’ and it helps designers to build efficient web pages that stick to usability and accessibility standards. This is the approach we undertook.”

The new homepage will contain, for a while anyhow, a link taking visitors to a page that explains what’s changed and how to use the new features on it. It’s all part of a strategy to keep the people behind the homepage communicating with its users.

“There may be some people who aren’t 100 per cent sure how to use it right away,” Ordonselli said. “People who’ve been coming to the homepage for years and years might be a little bit surprised when they find how significantly things have changed on March 13. Pleasantly surprised, I think.”