Cartoons on the Homepage

Screenshot of old site

What we used to get away with

First of series of trips down memory lane with the aim of rediscovering some of the lessons of our history.

A review of the web presence of the University has just been completed and that process of examination has made me reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our current site and the way that we are doing things. To that end, i thought it’d be useful to take a look at the way we used to do things and see where we’ve improved, how the web world has changed and what lesson our particular history tells us. It might also be an educational journey for those who don’t remember some of the things we’ve done.

My five year old could do better

As critiques of University web pages I’ll bet that not many have had that particular sentence thrown at them. It all came about when we decided that the existing style of home page that we had at that time was not really appealing to our target audience, so we resolved to produce something more in line with a younger audience. Looking back through at older versions of wired.com and my sketchy memory it seems that the web at that time was louder, bolder and brighter.

Web guru Jeffery Zeldman’s site from then was very different. The language of the time was the limited color palette, bold, often pixelated graphics and blocks of color. We were all using tables for layout back then. It’s funny looking back through the archives of pages I remember, and illuminating that the general excitement and enthusiasm of the time seems to come across. It was in that context that we decided to be bold and create some character illustrations that would be different from the stock images other places used at the time.

I’d produced some illustrations for various parts of the site and I’d love to be able to say we did some in depth user testing, allied to extensive market research but that would be a lie. In fact we spoke to the representative from marketing at the time and outlined our plans to take the site in this very bold new direction and to his/her credit they went with the idea.

So how far have we come?

What strikes me during this meander down memory lane is the lack of links – eight in total, linking to broad categories of information. The absence of a search button reveals that we were very much in the business of guessing what users might want and laying out browsable options for them. In the intervening years the web has changed very much to a searchable medium, where users expect a quick interaction will deliver the info that they require.

The intense demands for space on the modern day homepage make it feel that we need to revisit our search and really explore how it’s being used and how we can improve it. Perhaps the desire to be up front and on the homepage stems from anxiety about all the stakeholders’ information being discovered. The decision to put things in these broad categories was , i remember taken with marketing. The overall site was smaller which probably explains how it was possible to collect things in these areas.

The size of our site has grown dramatically, reflected in the 60+ links currently on our homepage. As a team we will need to really examine the function and purpose of the different parts of the site, and reassess the role of the homepage in that process. Should the home page function like a table of contents, or a brochure, or a billboard, or a directory, or a storefront. All the analogies are relevant but if we try to do all of them in one place then we will end up failing at them all.