Complete Institutional Web Sites: McGill University - Silver Medal

Category 10A: Web Sites – Complete Institutional Web Sites
McGill University (

Contact: Jennifer Edwards, Web content manager, Office of Communications, 1555 Peel St., Suite 921, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 3L8

Project description: The redesign of (launched August 23, 2006) was undertaken with the objective of providing users (students, teachers, staff, and the public) with a bilingual Web site (English and French) that is easier to navigate, employs a more pleasing design, allows easier access to more information and delivers stronger consistent McGill branding.

Planning and objectives: A joint effort between the Web service group and communications, our project grew out of a directive from the Office of the Associate Vice-Principal, Communications. We presented a series of mock-ups to nearly 20 McGill stakeholders in order to gauge their reactions. It was based on this feedback that we made further iterations to the design and set out the following objectives:

  • Create a home page that is visually pleasing and reflects the engaging McGill environment;
  • Allow the user to make intuitive, quick decisions regarding where to go next;
  • Maximize real estate by providing users with access to more information while minimizing clutter;
  • Reorganize news items so that they are better grouped and more accessible;
  • Create effective McGill branding across the Web site;
  • Provide faculty and department editors with administration tools allowing for easy updating and a flexibility of page design;
  • Preserve our commitment to fully accessible web pages and functionality.

Design choice: This design was chosen because it allowed us to achieve all of our primary objectives, including:

  • Provide a window on McGill: The design permits us to have a Web site that functions as the face of the McGill community. This is done through the bold and prominent display of the Image Gallery – a rotating supply of photos and captions that feature campus scenes. The features box and the top stories, research news, events and announcements box also achieves this by providing users with the latest noteworthy happenings at the university.
  • Good use of real estate: The design also allows us to disseminate a vast amount of information while allowing the user to find it quickly without becoming overwhelmed. Examples of this include the use of QuickLinks and drop-down menus. The design also permits us to force feature very important announcements. An emergency or a significant donation for example, can easily and prominently be displayed in the features box or even in the Image Gallery.
  • Continuity of branding: Another significant benefit of this design is that it boldly, but tastefully brands the Web site with the McGill name and coat of arms. The prominently displayed banner, repeated throughout the site, never lets the user forget where they are. The banner also allows for customization: A faculty web site includes the faculty name as well as an illustration in the banner. (The Faculty of Arts, for example, has an illustration featuring the columns of the Arts building.) The design also allows for a continuity of look and feel. Although Web editors have the flexibility to choose various content items and layouts, the overall scheme (colours, boxes, general headings, etc.) remain consistent.
  • Clear navigation: The design creates many logical groupings and content blocks, permitting the eye to quickly scan a page. Once users are beyond the homepage, the design also provides them with an easy way to navigate their way back home. This is done through the use of the “breadcrumb” path underneath the banner. The design also keeps the main section menu (located above the banner) consistent through all pages so that users, no matter where they are on the site, always have access to important pages like “Faculty & Schools” and “Student Information.”
  • Accessibility: Since all of our pages and our special displays are rendered using CSS, users with special needs and text-to-speech browsers can interact with the Web site in a full manner. In fact, if you turn off CSS styling, you can see that rich graphics surrounding our features, QuickLinks (accordion menus) and slideshows, etc. disappear, and are replaced by accessible text and links. This also reveals embedded accessibility-standard tools such as 'skip' links."

Audience: Part of our challenge was to be able to supply McGill’s extremely broad audience with a simple and intuitive way to access the information they were seeking. This audience includes students (current and prospective), faculty, agencies, partners, alumni, journalists and the general public.

A primary way in which the Web site meets our audience’s needs is by having a “published-daily” home page with top stories and research news (for journalists), general-interest events on campus (for the public) and announcements (for faculty, students, staff and alumni). Users can then follow these items through to internal pages for continued reading. The image gallery, although appealing to all, would have specific benefits for the general public and prospective students by giving them a window on life on campus.

Beyond the home page, one of our main goals was to address the media’s and the public’s interest and needs by creating an effective newsroom that would amalgamate all the noteworthy items from a variety of sources across campus and display them in a logical, easy-to-access Web site. Not only does this include the latest news releases, but also “McGill in the headlines,” which lists articles worldwide that feature McGill, and McGill Reporter and Headway feature stories. Media looking for an expert can also access a search tool which allows for searching by subject, keyword and last name.

Use of resources: The McGill Web redesign project was produced in-house, so most of the costs associated with it involved salaries absorbed by the internal budgets of the Web Service Group/ISR and the communications office. Other costs included graphic design for new icons ($3,500), used primarily on audience segment/section pages and faculty sites, and for photographs used for mock-ups of the new wide-aspect photo slideshow ($600).

The redesign involved a considerable amount of time over a year and a half on the part of three people: the Director of Special Projects in Communications, Susan Murley, the Manager of the WSG/ISR, Karl Jarosiewicz, and the WSG designer, Eric Smith. Once the design was approved, the work moved to the creation of new templates, cascading styles sheets (CSS), and writing specifications for new dynamic components of the Web site. This work was done by designer Eric Smith and User interface analyst Ed Bilodeau over a period of several intense weeks.

The programming team of Web System Architect Stephane Daury and programmer Konstantin Ryabitsev spent approximately two months improving back-end validation tools, rebuilding scripts and streamlining PHP code and XML. They then wrote the code that would generate valid XML for all the new tools including slideshows, feature blocks and news, events and announcements, as well as the QuickLinks on the home page.

Communications used the resources of their staff to create new content, including a brand new About McGill site and content for a revamped Public and Media section. Laurie Devine and Tara Shaughnessy contributed text as well as photos and captions. Other communications staff contributed text to update the site before the go-live.

Plan for evaluating the program: Following the launch of the web site, the Office of the Associate Vice-Principal, Communications, sent out a request across campus asking people to comment on the new look of the Web site. These comments were gathered and sent to the project team for review. There is also an open dialogue between the university relations office, faculty communication officers, Web editors, and other stakeholders to make sure that their Web site needs are being met.

Response and results: The response to the re-launch of the Web site has been very positive internally and, especially, externally. Several of the departments and schools that exist outside of McGill’s Web design framework are now interested in coming on board and adopting the unified look and feel of our Web site, as well as our publishing tools. We now have 11 out of 12 faculties inside our central system.

In terms of traffic, the one place we consciously tried to increase the number of page views was the newsroom. Since the re-launch, the newsroom has been an overwhelming success: For the six months prior to the Web site re-launch, the number of newsroom page views was 159,000. For the six months following the re-launch, the number of page views skyrocketed to 1,852,162.